When You‘re Stuck in the Mud
Advice for overcoming the five obstacles of practice
The Buddha described Five Hindrances that impede our practice. They are a distillation of all the different kinds of thoughts and feelings that cloud our judgment and make it difficult to concentrate. The Buddha talks about the Hindrances in the context of a meditation practice. But, they are just as relevant to everyday life, particularly when it comes to decision-making and interpersonal relationships. The Hindrances can be very ingrained, or they can appear when we least expect them. They touch the heart of why we practice and what holds us back from claiming the life we deserve.
The hindrances are sensory desire, ill will, dullness, restlessness, and doubt. You probably recognize them. You may be navigating one or more of them right now.
I want you to know that these obstacles are not personal failings nor should they be used as proof that you’re not good at meditating. In fact, when we look deeply at these very common aspects of our humanness, we see that our unskillful responses to the hindrances are what give them their power. We overcome these obstacles not by trying to push them away, but instead by shining the light of awareness directly on them.
Thich Nhat Hanh famously says, “no mud, no lotus.” The beautiful and elegant lotus flower requires a very murky and stagnant environment to thrive. Our struggles and setbacks are like the mud, and sometimes we get stuck in it. But, when we look deeply at our suffering and uncover their source, we pull ourselves out of the gunk and start planting the seeds of compassion.
We can remind ourselves, “I struggle with all these overwhelming challenges. How can I hold others to such an impossible standard that I can’t live up to?” We aren’t just putting ourselves in others’ shoes; we are all sharing the same shoes! It’s just hard to see this.
Before I was married and became a parent, I worked in a very demanding office environment. I never understood why some people could never stay late to meet deadlines, and I often felt like they weren’t pulling their weight. To be honest, this annoyed me, and I was convinced these coworkers weren’t fully invested.
I didn’t know the challenges they were facing because I had no idea what it is like to juggle work and family life.
Of course, that all changed when my daughter was born. Now I get it, and I’m very passionate about the issues facing families, particularly with work-life balance. The challenges I come up against as a parent are the soil in which my compassion for other parents grows.
I didn’t know about the Hindrances back then. If I had, it would have spared me a lot of animosity towards some of my coworkers and saved me a lot of wasted energy that only caused me to suffer. The source of my ill will was a lack of understanding. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
These days when I notice myself becoming aggravated by someone else’s actions, often things that have nothing to do with me, I ask myself, “what don’t I know about her life and circumstances that could be causing her to act like that? And can I help?”
Some years later I found myself standing in line to return a defective cable box. Dealing with the cable company requires an enormous amount of patience, something I don’t always have.
When it was my turn at the window, I discovered the customer service rep was in a rotten mood, and she was a bit testy with me. As she was typing my info into the computer, she mentioned to her coworker that she had had this terrible headache all day.
Aha! She wasn’t trying to irritate me. She felt bad, and I could help. I offered her some ibuprofen that I had in my bag, and her whole demeanor changed. I could tell she was both amazed and grateful that one of her customers would be nice to her. I felt good too. Acts of kindness are as beneficial for the giver as they are for the receiver.
The practice of looking directly at Hindrances and uncovering their roots saves us a lot of trouble and wasted effort and they can bring us closer to others. Overcoming these obstacles frees up our energy for the things that bring us genuine happiness.
But sometimes we have to hang out in the mud before we can rise to our potential. Can you see that the obstacles we face in our practice and life are also the fuel that propels us along the path to freedom?
I know I make it sound easy when it isn’t. Hindrances are hard to recognize, especially when we’re in the throws of it. This is one of the many reasons why a formalized meditation practice can be so beneficial — we train ourselves to be aware when Hindrances are present, and then we practice working through them.
Thankfully the Buddha also gave us methods for overcoming the Hindrances:
- When we are entrenched in sensory desire, or craving and chasing after pleasure, we are advised to contemplate the impermanence of the happiness we derive from those pleasures. Example: This enormous piece of cake might taste incredible now, but am I going to shame myself later when my jeans feel tight?
- When it comes to ill will, we practice loving-kindness and compassion to transform our attitude. Don’t forget to go easy on yourself too. So many things in life feed our anger, that it’s nearly impossible to avoid. It’s not just you.
- Dullness, a kind of hazy fog, is sometimes confused with relaxation, so we want to be very mindful not to let ourselves fall into torpor. During a meditation practice, switching position can be very helpful. Try standing or walking meditation, or even mindful yoga. In daily life, make sure to rouse your energy with vigorous and constructive activities. TV is not your friend if you are prone to dullness.
- Restlessness is the inability to calm the mind and body — the opposite of dullness. We recognize restlessness when we can’t sit still or when the mind jumps around from thought to thought. Or, sometimes the mind obsesses over one thing to the point anxiety. A sitting meditation practice can be an impossible task when restlessness is present. If you are trying to meditate and you notice this obstacle, choose a technique that helps to concentrate the mind like counting breaths. In daily life, it’s helpful to examine your schedule and make sure you are getting enough physical exercise and using up kinetic energy in a constructive way.
- Doubt is unique because it’s not always a problem. Doubt underpins critical thinking and discernment. Discernment is even one of the Seven Qualities of Enlightenment. But we want to be careful that doubt doesn’t transform into a lack of conviction or a loss of trust because hopelessness can quickly take root. When it comes to questioning your practice, the advice is to reflect on the qualities of enlightened beings like the Buddha himself. We should also study the Dharma and seek answers to our questions by discussing our concerns with wise friends and Dharma teachers. We want to be confident in our personal understanding of the practice. One of the things I appreciate the most about Buddhism is that the Buddha always said not to take his word for it, that the truth of his teachings lies in the individual’s experience of them.
I want to acknowledge that it can take a while to work through a Hindrance, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. Along the way, remember that loving-kindness and compassion are necessary virtues to direct towards yourself. When things are rough, give yourself a break. Keep in mind that obstacles, like everything in the universe, are impermanent. They arise, they mature, and they eventually dissolve.
Just keep up your practice. Try a new technique or switch up your routine. And when all else fails, go to your teacher.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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