If you’ve ever tried to meditate, in all likeliness you’ve experienced some sort of difficulty. Whether it was falling asleep, a busy mind, or something else, it will fall into one of the 5 major categories of problems that meditators frequently encounter. We call these the 5 hindrances. Luckily since these are well known, their antidotes are also well known.
The 5 Hindrances and their Antidotes
Desire is defined as the desire for positive sensual states. Breaking this down, it essentially means that you may find yourself wishing, or daydreaming, that you were doing something more interesting. Maybe eating a pizza, having a beer, or kissing and cuddling your partner. Whatever the fantasy is, it’s rooted in your mind’s attraction to the dopamine generated by engaging in these activities. When you’re not distracted on Facebook, or by food, or some other form of entertainment, the dopamine levels begin to drop and the brain starts to project ideas into consciousness as to how you might go about getting more of that. If this seems somewhat confusing to you, please read my articles on the mind model, and attention & awareness to gain a better understanding of consciousness.
Antidote for Desire
Basically, as the mind becomes more concentrated, desire will naturally abate. The good news is that you don’t really have to DO anything other than maintain a stable, regular practice. The bad news is that you will have to endure many, many fantasies about what ‘you’ would rather be doing other than meditation. My recommendation is to take it all in stride, and treat it like a movie. It’s not ‘real’. So don’t buy into it. Some practiced amusement goes a long way here, being able to laugh at yourself a bit. Oh, look at that, I’m wanting to go eat pizza again, isn’t that funny! Don’t take your thoughts and desires so seriously! Sometimes I like to think of my brain as this nervous drug addict who is constantly trying to trick me into giving them that next hit. Using tools like this helps us find a little bit of distance from our thoughts and feelings. Realizing that ‘you’ had decided to meditate, and now ‘you’ were trying to undermine that decision, should be a very good indication to You, that You’re not really in control of these things, and thus, they are not really ‘You’.
Aversion is defined as aversion towards negative sensual states. This means that you don’t want to feel something that you’re feeling. For example, maybe you have a kink in your neck, or your back hurts. Now you are trying to meditate, and all you can do is think about how uncomfortable you are. Naturally, this breaks your concentration, and gets you back into the Desire trap – now you are both wishing for the negative state to be gone, and for a positive state to replace it. Double whammy. Generally, aversion to pain is a positive force for us, it drives us to improve our life circumstances, and reduces our willingness to make the same mistake twice. In meditation, however, it becomes a hindrance. And at certain stages, your mind in fact starts fabricating pain in order to try and get you to do something else. It’s tricky that way. Another form of aversion that may pop up is aversion towards the amount of time you need to spend in meditation, or about not making progress, or other such ‘negative’ thoughts about meditation in general.
Antidote to Aversion
The best thing one can do to fight against aversion, is to cultivate kindness. There are many, many loving kindness meditations out there, but at their core, they involve thinking about friends, family, acquaintances, strangers, the world, and wishing them love and kindness during meditation. I have created a great heart opening meditation based on loving kindness, which you can listen to for free on my Podcast. Cultivating kindness towards others works to create a general state of kindness inside of you, which you can then turn towards yourself. Because Aversion is a negative feeling towards ‘part of yourself’, cultivating kindness helps to override that negative feeling towards yourself, and replace it with love & compassion.
Further to that, just don’t buy into the story your mind is weaving for you. Try to imagine it’s a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to school, and is trying to convince you they’re sick (when they are clearly not). This can take some practice, as it IS important not to continue sitting if you are having legitimate pain, such as in the knees, which could indicate that you are damaging yourself. Experiment, and find out when your mind starts to lie to you.
Restlessness is one of the hardest hindrances for beginner mediators. It manifests as moving around, scratching, looking around, and even getting up and leaving. Again, restlessness is the result of evolutionary forces, where our Amygdala is programmed to constantly scan our environment for threats or challenges. When we meditate, we are consciously trying to override that scanning, and create artificial focus on a single object, to the exclusion of all others. Naturally, the processes in our subconscious that truly govern ‘how we are’, fight back against that. They are slow to change. Read more on this in my article on the one mistake nearly everyone makes during meditation.
Antidote to Restlessness
Simply relax. Let go of all expectations of becoming a master meditator, achieving a certain state of calm, or even being able to sit for a certain length of time. The thing about restlessness, and all the hindrances, is that they pull you out of the present moment. They get you thinking about something other than what you had initially intended. And truthfully, that’s part of the point of meditation.
“One of the main points of mediation is for you to realize that you’re not really in control of your own mind” – Cian
Once you realize how little control you do have over your own mind, it can be rather freeing. Instead of feeling anxious, ashamed, or dismayed at this fact…celebrate! Hooray, I’m not the mental patient after all, it’s just this stupid brain that I’m dealing with that has these problems. Now I can sit back and watch the show with a bit of amusement, and know that as long as I just keep trying, naturally, over time, it will calm down.
This is probably the second most common complaint I hear from students. Drowsiness, sleepiness. Lethargy. You will experience this either straight away, or, sometimes after your mind gives up on the previous 3 hindrances. This will come about almost seductively, your mind getting kind of fuzzy, then head drooping, and now you’re nodding off, and jerking awake in cycles. It’s pretty obvious to watch, and see which students are shaking and jerking with these telltale signs. And don’t feel bad, everyone goes through this.
Antidote to Drowsiness
One of my teachers simply said to me: get more sleep. And in many cases this is the thing to do. If you’re nodding off during meditation, and you KNOW you are tired. Just get some sleep. However, drowsiness CAN manifest even when you are not tired. Why? Again, this is just a tool your mind uses, which has evolved to help you manage the amount of energy you expend. In times when nothing is happening (like meditation), it is optimal for us as animals, to sleep, and conserve energy. Unfortunately distancing yourself from your mind won’t likely help in this case. We need other strategies.
The best one I’ve had work is simply to meditate first thing in the morning. Even before your shower. The next best, which is even better when combined, is to do 10 minutes of light cardio just before the meditation. Or push-ups. This gets your heart going, and wakes up your metabolism, which should be enough to carry you through.
If you’re already IN the meditation, and starting to get sleepy, there are a couple of strategies you can use. First, try moving your spine and hips around very slightly. Very often, we get sleepy if our spines slouch and curve, this blocks the free movement of energy, which drains your mental clarity. If that does not work enough, deepen your breath for 10 – 20 breaths. Imagine you’re charging your brain up with oxygen, and this should very quickly wake you up. If that also fails, the last method to employ is simply to stand up, and meditate in the standing position (yes, this IS an official meditation position!). If you are still tried standing on your feet…man just go to bed!
Doubt is usually one of the later hindrances to manifest. It comes up as doubt about our ability to meditate – “meditation just isn’t for me, my mind is too busy, there must be something wrong with me”. It also comes up as doubt as to the teacher’s effectiveness, the method of meditation, or if we are progressing at some rate. Doubt is a VERY common hindrance in the journey to attain most skills in life, so this one shouldn’t be unfamiliar to you. Just like with other skills, overtime doubt will just evaporate.
Antidote to Doubt
The best advice I have for you is to just accept that thinking will not solve this problem, just practice. This hindrance gives us another great opportunity to distance ourselves from the fabrications of our own minds. Notice the doubt arise, watch it, but don’t buy into it. Remind yourself why you started meditating in the first place. Remember all the positive changes you’ve seen on this path so far. Let go of expectations of enlightenment, or bliss, and just stick to the practice as a thing that you do with an intrinsic value.
That’s it for the 5 hindrances! I hope you enjoyed reading, and stay tuned for my next articles!
Meet the Author
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals…” - Henry David Thoreau
Cian is a teacher of Yoga and Zen, and a sought after business coach for start-ups and boardroom executives alike. Known for his unique perspective on productivity, this serial entrepreneur and investor is a wealth of fresh ideas, constantly seeking new ways to 'do business better'.
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