by Peter Carlson
My intention in writing these notes is to help clarify my experiences and readings about the five hindrances to cultivating a stable and peaceful mind, preparatory to practicing vipassana. One of the seeming paradoxes of Buddhist practice is the importance of setting aside the mental preoccupations that are called hindrances in order to settle the mind preparatory to practicing noting the arising and passing away of mental phenomena.
The Pali word translated as “hindrance” is nivarana, “an obstacle, hindrance, only as it applies to obstacles in an ethical sense” (Pali Text Society Dictionary). One of the innovations that the Buddha developed was emphasizing the importance of ethics for salvation. In the already existing Vedic tradition he grew up in, the ethical constraints were in honor of the Gods of the Vedic pantheon. In this sense, salvation depends more on the will of the gods than an individual’s own morality. The Buddha made a clear distinction: salvation is organized around personal integrity. Integrity means how well the personality is organized, given a primary value of ahimsa, non-violence, and the cultivation of metta, benevolent intention. The hindrances disrupt mental integrity in distinctive ways, as manifestations of what are called the “three poisons”: lobha (desire), dosa (aversion) and moha (ignorance).
One of the best ways I can relate to this paradox is an image brought to us by the revered Thai master Achaan Chah. He said that calming the mind through mindfulness of breathing practice is like sitting quietly beside a still forest pool (in fact, that’s the title of a book about his teachings that I read many years ago). When the mind is still, “then many strange creatures will come and drink there…” The many “strange creatures” are the various mind states, wholesome or unwholesome, that arise. The paradox is the value of first “setting aside” the hindrances before examining their capacity to disturb the integrity of the mind.
Progress on the path toward awakening is also compared to weeding a garden: the setting aside of the hindrances is like cutting the weeds—the roots remain and regrow. Vipassana practice is like discovering the roots and extracting them so the weeds don’t grow any more. The still forest pool is a great image: perfectly still, and perfectly reflecting. This is what concentration and tranquility provide. The vipassana practice drops the discipline of keeping the mind still; instead, the focus is on the ripples that are created by (mental) objects as they strike the smooth surface. The quieter the mind is, the more distinct any disturbances are.
Another important point to remember is that practicing overcoming the hindrances isn’t just to nurture a quiet, peaceful mind for meditation. The practice enables non-attachment and renunciation–the noting and setting aside of the hindrances away from the meditation. As this occurs, several benefits are realized:
- First, I can practice noting and letting go in the controlled setting of the meditation, which nurtures the ability to do so during the other times of day.
- Second, as the mind is less and less burdened by the hindrances, there’s more energy freed up for investigating the true nature of the mind during the meditation, that is, the relentless arising and passing away of mind moments. Of course, this also becomes possible during the other times of day as well.
The true purpose of Buddhist practice is not meditative peacefulness; it is to nurture a more peaceful way of being in the world.
Another point of clarification: In Buddhism, there are six “sense doors”—the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, internal body sensations, and the mind that processes input from the other five. It is suggested in Buddhist practice to “guard the sense doors” against unwholesome mind states. Whatever arises through the first five sense doors is perceived and conditioned through the mind door, which makes the mind door the guardian. Stated differently, whatever is sensed through the eyes, ears, and so on can only be consciously known through conditions that arise in the mind, either wholesome or unwholesome in their functioning.
The Pali word for sense desire is kamacchanda. The dictionary I consult gives this definition: kama refers to ”enjoyment, pleasure on occasion of sense”. Chanda is translated: “A psychological faculty that motivates action. Depending on its object, chanda can be good, bad, or neutral”. In this context, it means a passionate attachment to pleasurable experience.
It’s not the pleasurable nature of the sensual stimulus that is a hindrance, but rather the conditioned way that the mind perceives the stimulus, misperceiving the experience as “my pleasure”, when the pleasure is only the result of the sensory stimulus. The mind becomes enchanted by the pleasure, wants more and is disturbed when the pleasure goes away. This hindrance can literally be understood as seductive. The subjective experience draws attention in to the mental object through the action of tanha, craving, and the operation of moha, ignorance of the essential nature of the stimulus as impermanent and not self.
The Buddha considered attachment to sensual pleasure as indebtedness. The object of desire “owns” my attention and devotion. Another image used in Buddhism is that of a container filled with water. When the water is clear and still, I can see clearly whatever object is in the water. When sense desire has trapped my attention, it’s like the water is colored with attractive dye—I notice the color, but can’t see the true nature of the object.
We live in a culture that literally profits from sense desire. As well-trained consumers, we are bombarded with tempting sights, sounds, odors, flavors and physical pleasures. Even if we haven’t maxed out our credit cards (indebtedness) to buy or rent the access to pleasant stimuli, we still can be trapped by easily affordable items and experiences. Our culture is overwhelmed with addiction—not just to substances, but also what is called “process addiction”, such as television, the internet, gambling, sports, reading, spending, eating and so on, and is in such denial about it that it hardly seems it could be true. Ann Wilson Schaeff wrote “When Society Is An Addict,” which makes a strong case for this dilemma.
The Buddhist teachings say that the proximal cause of sense desire is ayoniso manasikara, “unwise attention”. How is the attention unwise? It is attention that is afflicted, confused because of the influence of desire. Desire is an unrelenting hunger. Even if satisfied, desire will either re-attach to the same pleasurable object or find something else to obsess about. Our brains are hard-wired around desire—for food, for sex, for pleasant sounds, sights, and so on. In fact, one of the ways that desire is motivated is as a distraction away from stress; this is one of the causative factors regarding addictive behaviors.
There are neurological pathways in the brain associated with attention to and acting on desire. There’s been a lot of research on craving that associates desire with the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of neuron in the brain. It seems that desire is activated there, like opening a desire valve. If the nucleus accumbens is routinely activated, it gets “stuck in the on position”, meaning that it is highly sensitive to any input.
A researcher discovered that if a rat had an electrode implanted in the nucleus accumbens and could stimulate it by pushing a lever, it would continue to push the lever until it no longer had the strength to continue! It activates outside of our awareness, so that sense desire subjectively seems to have no negative consequences.
What could be wrong about pleasant feelings? Putting the issue of addiction aside, the Buddhist position on sense desire is that pleasurable gratification is inherently unstable. We are subtly tormented with a preoccupation with an anticipated pleasant self-state if we get the pleasure producing object. When the pleasure begins, the wanting continues, particularly when we live in a culture that places such a high value of sense gratification. Of course, when the senses are gratified, there’s a mistaken belief that the pleasure should be unending, which is impossible, so there’s a preoccupation with protecting the pleasing object so the pleasure won’t go away.
“Now, what is lack of food for the arising of unarisen sensual desire, or for the growth & increase of sensual desire once it has arisen? There is the theme of unattractiveness. To foster appropriate attention to it: This is lack of food for the arising of unarisen sensual desire, or for the growth & increase of sensual desire once it has arisen.” Starving the Hindrances, Ahara Sutta SN 46.51
The neurotransmitter that activates the nucleus accumbens is dopamine. For the sake of this exploration, I want to suggest dopamine represents craving. When we are deprived of food, we experience hunger. Dopamine activates the body/mind to seek gratification—food. As food is taken in, another neurotransmitter, serotonin, is activated to balance the dopamine. The serotonin inhibits the activity of the dopamine. We can call this dynamic interaction “satisfaction”, that is, the body has enough food to keep going until the next meal. Hunger is stress—stress of any kind is hunger, but the food might be distraction, substitution, numbing, and so on. Because of our culture’s relentless drive toward sense gratification, the serotonin supply diminishes, so that no matter how long or strongly the dopamine system is activated, there’s no real sense of satisfaction. This is the net effect of sense desire—satisfaction is never achieved and we live in a zone of perpetual wanting. This is the delicious and dangerous seduction of sense desire.
There are several recommended antidotes for sense desire:
- Concentrating the mind by focusing on a neutral object, such as the breath.
- Contemplating the undesirable aspects of the pleasurable object.
- Carefully noting and interrupting any preoccupation with potentially desirable objects (guarding the sense doors)
- Getting support from trusted friends