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An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight

Section 1: Hindrances to Concentration

Dealing with the Five Hindrances in Meditation
The five hindrances are another way of categorizing and examining unwholesome aspects of mind which are direct obstacles to the development of higher states of consciousness or jhana. The hindrances are sensuous desire, ill will, sloth and lethargy, restlessness and worry, and skeptical doubt.

In the ancient commentaries four methods are given to overcome unwholesome thought formations. The four methods deal with the hindrances to meditation in a very direct and real way. The first is to reflect upon their disadvantages. The second is to not pay attention to them, or we could say to just ignore them. The third is to remove the source of those thought formations. In the fourth method, when seated in meditation with clenched teeth and tongue pressed against the palate, we restrain, subdue, and beat down the evil mind with the good mind.

I have presented some of the hindrances in a general way in ‘The Seven Illnesses and their Antidotes’ as one might encounter them in daily life; now I will present them as obstacles in meditation. The five hindrances must be overcome in order to discern what is truly beneficial for one's self and others. Only in this way can we recognize what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. Without at least a temporary abandoning of these hindrances we cannot enter into even the preliminary stages of absorption. For example, the first hindrance, sensuous desire, must be abandoned in the sense that we recognize it as a block or obstruction to the goal of absorption. Once it arises in consciousness we must abstain from allowing it to run its course. If we practice in this way, then we begin to train our mind to be aware of the volitional activity, taking place underneath or hidden from an untrained consciousness. To the average individual these volitional impulses are almost totally unconscious and automatic. When we contact this level of mind we begin to see how we are propelled by these impulses. We train our mind by restraining these impulses until eventually we come to the wisdom of non-transgression. This means that when we have restrained our mind from being subject to the hidden volitional impulses, the natural state of non-transgression is present.

Sensuous Desire
In the case of sensuous desire, the mind is colored by this hindrance so that we cannot rest in the natural state. When we have sensuous desire we look to the outer realm to fulfill the inner desire. Because we are projecting our desires onto the outer world we do not see things as they are but see them only in terms of whether they will fulfill our sensuous craving. If we do not recognize this as a major hindrance, this failure will drive us from our meditative life into a life of acquiring the objects of our fantasies.
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Ill Will
In the case of ill will, the mind has aversion to the object. This impulse in consciousness can range anywhere from a slight dislike or annoyance to full-blown hatred. When ill will is present towards another individual, this malevolence is a direct hindrance to the development of higher states of consciousness. If we do not deal with this state in the meditative process and perceive it as a hindrance, the failure drives us from our meditative life into a life of acquiring power over others.
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When dealing with sloth and lethargy, we must learn to recognize them instantly. If, for example, we linger in bed and do not rise quickly to begin our practice, then we have the beginning of a destructive tendency that quickly grows and dominates our being, eventually sapping us of the will to fulfill our higher potential. Lethargy should be understood as a bodily state that feels like moving through a thick substance or wading through sludge. Because this is a somatic state, we should recognize it and deal with it through enlivening and invigorating exercise. Also we should remember that meditation on light helps alleviate this heaviness. If this state is not recognized and dealt with as a hindrance, the failure drives us from the meditative life into one of indolent indulgence.
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Restlessness and Worry
In the case of restlessness and worry, we must recognize the disquieting effect of this state quickly. Because of this agitation, the mind veers away from any effort to focus it. Worry, it should be reasoned, will not improve our circumstances but merely produce restlessness. This becomes a distraction and defeats our effort to develop concentration. This state does not allow our minds to rest in a natural repose. There are no tricks to be free of this state - the only solution is to face it head on and focus on an object until the restlessness subsides. The key here is to recognize the hindrance when it arises. We must learn to be objective about our own mind. If we allow restlessness and worry to defeat us in meditation, we are driven from the meditative life into a life of anxiety and stress without relief.
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Skeptical Doubt
In the case of dealing with skeptical doubt as a hindrance, we must recognize that doubt can only be eliminated through a direct experience. However, in skeptical doubt, the mind is caught in skepticism or suspicion. This defeats us if we do not recognize it as a hindrance, because it does not allow us to focus the mind so that we can be free of the doubt. When it is understood and dealt with as a hindrance, we can then focus the mind on the object, attain direct experience through absorption, and eliminate our doubts. If we are driven from our meditation by skeptical doubt, we arrogantly believe that there are no higher states of consciousness to be attained; we cynically refuse to commit ourselves because we disbelieve the teaching or the teacher.

So it is through abstaining from these hindrances that we are able to enter upon the first jhana. It is through our effort to abandon these states of mind that we can experience the first jhana. It is with determined patience that we recognize the hindrances as obstacles to the cultivation of the higher states of consciousness. In this way, we cultivate the antidotes that bring about success. Mindfulness is used in all of our activities so that the hindrances are not likely to take hold. Because the volitional mind sees the hindrance, there is training through restraint. Wisdom is present when we fully understand these hindrances as obstacles to the state desired. Even the smallest transgression can lead to our defeat, so we must be very firm in our resolve to cultivate the wholesome.
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