The Five Hindrances Part II
This is the second of a series of posts on the Five Hindrances to meditation.
First, the bad news. Ill-will is more blamable than sense-desire. The good news: ill-will is easier to remove. (The Buddha stated this, though I can’t, for the moment, find its source.) So, for those of us who tend to suffer more from this particular concentration corrupter, we have some good news.
Ill-will is the second of the five hindrances to concentration. It comes in various guises such as anger, aversion, irritation and plain dislike. It covers all those states ranging from the slightest resistance to something, to full blown hatred for everyone and everything. Sometimes in our practice we go through periods where this hindrance dominates our meditation. We may at times feel utter contempt for the breath, or for whatever our object of meditation is. But don’t worry, because this is just the hindrance of ill-will and it’s trying to divert you from the path.
We will look at a number of techniques that will help us to deal with this most heinous of hindrances. Firstly, let’s deal with it before we even begin to focus on our prime object of concentration.
Back to our Vegetable Adventure
Prepare the Ground
(The following analogy of the crusty soil is an elaboration of one I found years ago in a book called A Gradual Awakening, by S. Levine. It was very helpful, thanks.)
Let’s say you’ve got your area of soil to plant your vegetables in, but unfortunately it’s as sun baked as an old mud track in the desert. No matter how you attempt to penetrate the surface the soil will just not respond. You try every tool in your shed. Spade – it bounces off; hoe – don’t be silly; pick-axe – it just flies into the next door neighbour’s garden and you end up in the pond. No matter what you try the soil crosses its arms, sticks out its chin, and remains determined that you’re not going to break it. In the end you wipe the sweat from your brow, exhausted, and go and have a cup of tea.
Some people come to meditate and have similar problems. The mind is hard, it’s stiff, it’s grumpy. It crosses its arms and refuses to concentrate. You try to meditate this way and that. You try the breath, then Buddho, then meditation beads, then just simply sitting quietly. You just want to meditate but your mind defies all attempts; it is as a solid and as pliant as the old track in the desert. And so you give up, exhausted, and go and have a cup of tea.
The meditator’s problem here is that he or she has a mind of ill-will. Don’t think that ill-will refers exclusively to a blatantly angry mind. There are many shades of ill-will. The ill-will can be an almost undetectable shadow lying just below the surface of the mind. It isn’t until you come to meditate that you notice it’s there.
There is a particular, but unfortunately very common, strand of ill-will that causes a person’s mind to arrive at such a state of stiffness. That ailment is a lack of loving-kindness towards oneself. Someone who lacks patience, understanding, forgiveness, and friendliness for themselves will tend to have a mind similar to the hard and crusty soil.
You may not think that you suffer from this, but you might be surprised.
Let us go back to the gardener, who just happens to be wise (he’s a Buddhist). Seeing that his little area of soil is on the hard side, he realises that it won’t do much good if he simply throws his tools at it all day. So he thinks laterally: “This soil is clearly not ready for digging, so how can I make it ready?” Realising the answer he grabs his watering can, heads for the tap, and a few minutes later he’s standing over the tough old ground giving it a jolly good soak. The droplets of beautiful clear water land on the soil, rest for a while, and then gradually soak in. Our friend puts down his watering can and sits back and waits. Then, when the time is right, he takes hold of his gardening fork, places the prongs on the soil, pushes it in with his boot, and turns. Hey presto. In no time at all he has a wonderful patch of crumbly moist soil, desperate to have things growing in it.
Which brings us to the meditator who has that stiff and inflexible mind of ill-will towards himself. He asks: “This mind is clearly not ready to concentrate, so how how can I make it ready?” The answer is that it needs a good old soak of loving-kindness. He then liberally sprinkles his mind with metta (loving-kindness).
There are many ways to practise metta. I like to recite the following words in my mind slowly and deliberately: “Patience patience; understanding, understanding; forgiveness, forgiveness; friendliness, friendliness.” I then recite them in backward order, and then in forward order, and so on. As you say these words – which all describe features of loving-kindness – they gently fall onto the hard soil of your mind and gradually sink in, making it soft and pliant and ripe for concentration.
But take note: Some people have patches of soil that have been sitting in the sun for decades without even a drop of rain! So too, some people have minds that have not had a drop of metta for yonks! A mind that is in this state, as with the very dry soil that requires copious and persistent watering, will require buckets of metta, and will need a good deal of time for it to sink in. But if you keep at it, it will eventually become soft. You may doubt this, but you’ll be surprised. (We once had to dig some holes for concrete foundations and the soil – actually clay – was rock solid. I thought we’d be digging forever. But my knowledgeable companion knew better. He emptied a bucket of water on the spot to be dug and half-an-hour later the clay had the consistency of warm butter. I was surprised; it didn’t seem possible.)
So we’ve looked at the ill-will that can lie almost undetected under the surface of our minds, just like a shadow. And this ill-will is very often directed towards ourselves. It isn’t until we come to meditate that we recognise this very serious problem – this lack of friendship towards ourselves.
It takes time to develop a good relationship with yourself if you have struggled with it in the past. It takes time and patience. But it also takes gentle persistence, so that we do not fall back into our old ways of relating to ourselves. So often the obstacle that stops us progressing in our meditation is this lack of metta for ourselves. We may think, and I’ve done it myself (still do sometimes!): “I don’t deserve good meditation!” Why the hell not?!!! There are probably a billion reasons why we think this way, though I think it’s largely down to the competitive nature that is bred into us here in the West. But that’s another story…
So, a little sprinkling of metta, on yourself and others, every day keeps your mind soft and fertile. Then when you come to your main object of meditation, you can focus without too much interference from this second hindrance.
We now look at dealing with ill-will in a more general manner, i.e. not just in terms of preparing the mind before we sit.
Offering metta to others
When your thoughts of ill-will are sinking its fangs into somebody else, you must consider that person in the warm glow of metta too. Take that person, lower the bad points from view and elevate the good ones. All people have their qualities, even if they appear to be very few in some. Think of a good deed that that person has done and dwell on that, for instance an act of generosity. This will help the ill-will to subside.
Sometimes our attempts to counter ill-will with metta seem futile. It’s just too much to ask. It’s almost like asking a pigeon to grab hold of a jumbo jet and stop it taking off. And so what do we do? Well, there are many techniques that we can employ to help diffuse and hopefully see off the ill-will.
Reflect on death
This is a powerful way to diffuse ill-will. Contemplate death. What’s the point in getting angry with someone when you’re going to both be corpses sooner or later? And reflect that the destructive energy of ill-will does not die with the body. It continues. Have you noticed how there are people that you incline towards disliking more easily than others, and that there are those who incline towards disliking you, for no apparent reason? Buddhist teaching might say that this is due to relationships formed in previous lives, and the ill-will that was developed then is simply continuing its reckless run. Isn’t it time to stop?
Is it hot, or is it just me? – Consider the danger in those thoughts
The Buddha once famously said that to get angry at someone else is like picking up a red-hot ember and throwing it at them; you get burnt first. How do you feel when you have a mind of ill-will? Is it comfortable? Are you suffering? Does it do anyone any good? Anger is highly blamable. It easily consumes us, rapidly gathers momentum and starts to feed on itself. We must reflect on the Law of Kamma – that every action of mind has a consequence. Look at what you are doing and thinking now and you will have an idea of what you will experience in the future. We are continually sowing the seeds that will produce our future mode of being. Which state reflects the mind of ill-will? Think carefully.
The Buddha gave this teaching: Suppose there was a young man or a woman who was fond of jewelry, and he or she were to have the carcass of a dead snake or dog hung around his or her neck. He or she would be horrified and disgusted and would not hesitate to remove it. So too, somebody who is practising the Dhamma should be devoted to wholesome states, and should be horrified and disgusted if thoughts of ill-will arise, and should not hesitate in trying to remove them. (MN. 20)
The rule of thumb, whenever anything arises in the mind, is to be mindful. The first step in being mindful is to practise restraint. Restraint is the first step in the development of the mind. It is that first link after which all the wonderful states that Buddhism promotes arise. When you are mindful you restrain yourself. You do not feed those thoughts and feelings. Maybe you can’t stop them, but you can ensure that you don’t add fuel to the fire.
The thing is with anger though, it is addictive to the mind that is lost in it. It’s like someone who takes heroin – they lose their bearings and rapidly find themselves taking more and more. Though when they are sober they know that to take heroin is a stupid thing to do. Anger’s the same. We know it’s foolish and damaging and stupid when we are not angry. But as soon as it arises in our minds we get hooked on it. The mind that is infatuated with anger loves to get even more angry! Before you know it you’re charging around like a lion who’s just discovered that Zibby the Zebra shaved off his mane while he was asleep. WHOAAH!!! – you have to say. Stop! Halt! Danger! Don’t drag yourself to hell.
Once we practice restraint then we change our relationship to our mental states. This is the first step in being mindful. We change that relationship from being one of slavery to one of mastery. In time this restraint turns into an ability to be able to watch the mental states in a detached way. This is mindfulness. We begin to see them as they are: anicca, dukkha, and anatta – impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. We are mindful of them; we know them as they are, without getting involved, and they simply pass away when they are ready to.
The Grand Master of Dhamma Practice
Sometimes you try to counter the ill-will with metta, but the jumbo takes off and the pigeon hangs on by a feather; sometimes we reflect on the danger, but the inferno of mind rages like never before; sometimes we try to be mindful, but the ill-will just devours us. It is here that we call upon the Grand Master of Dhamma Practice – patient-endurance. Yes, we are unenlightened; yes, our mindfulness is not strong enough. And so we simply have to hang on and make sure we don’t kill anyone. So, you’re in this rather unfortunate state. Just sit and see it through. It will pass. Sit and tell yourself: “I’m going to sit here until this passes.” If you like you can lie on your back. Feel the hard flat floor support every part of your being and just patiently wait for the storm to pass. Remember that all these mental states are impermanent; they all pass: whatever is of the nature to arise is of the nature to pass. As Ajahn Chah said: you must put your defilements in a cage made out of mindfulness, energy, patience, and endurance.
To Sum Up
Note that these do not represent the order in which we should necessarily approach this hindrance.
We use the practice of metta to soften the mind of ill-will, especially when we could be on better terms with ourself.
We try to remove ill-will during our meditation by again calling on metta. If there is a particular person that is the unfortunate target of our rage, then we endeavour to elevate to our awareness the positive attributes and actions of that person.
We reflect on the danger of those thoughts.
We are mindful of those thoughts. We don’t interfere with them, we simply see them as they actually are: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. They then fizzle out and die.
Failing all of those skilful means we simply restrain ourselves, sit it out, and wait for the storm to pass. ‘The most excellent practice is patient-endurance.’ (Dhp. 183)
Anger’s strangling your mind
And no kindness can you find,
So you’d better think of ways to set it free.
If you’re skilled there’s nothing better
Than to flick the switch of metta,
Turning to friend what was once an enemy.
But in cases where you’re beaten
And your metta’s all been eaten
And the furnace of ill-will is all that’s left,
Then it’s prudent to consider,
Holding up the wisdom-mirror,
That every thought that’s thought has an effect.
But for one who is a master
Then this problem won’t go faster
Than if you leave it well alone and just step back.
For with mindfulness established
Then this enemy is vanquished,
Unable to take hold upon attack.
Now these words are very wise
But you can bet your pair of eyes
There’ll be times you simply can’t produce the class.
So for cases such as this,
There’s the last one on the list:
Just patiently endure and watch it pass.
The next teaching will be on:
The New Moon Day, Saturday the 30th of August,
all being well….