Five Obstacles to Mindfulness and How to Overcome Them
With Sharon Salzberg
The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine
The five obstacles to mindfulness are known as Grasping which is greed and attachment, Aversion which is anger and fear, Sleepiness, Restlessness and Doubt.
Grasping comes up because so much of our lives can revolve around what we don’t have, often to the point where we ignore what we do have. Or it might be that something lovely is happening and we just grab onto it and we strategize right away, “How can I keep this? How can I keep it from ever changing?” which of course will never work.
So you might be sitting there minding your own business, feeling your breath, and this big wave of grasping comes up. It is very, very common.
And the same is true for aversion (or anger and fear).
People get pretty sensitive – just like in a psychotherapeutic process. We notice things that have been driving us unconsciously. They are almost intensified in our awareness and so we tend to see a lot. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to have large amounts of anger and fear come up in the course of practice.
When things are even, not big ups and downs, not very pleasant or very unpleasant, we tend to get bored and go to sleep. Sometimes it is only when people stop to meditate that they realize how incredibly fatigued they are because they’ve been going and going and going.
Sleepiness can also be a habit pattern or mechanism. When something difficult is coming up we think, “Oh, I’ll just take a nap!”
Sometimes as we meditate and get calmer, more tranquil and peaceful, there is not enough sheer energy in our system to try and balance it out.
Restlessness is the opposite problem. There is too much energy for the amount of calm or peace that is in our system. Sometimes restlessness is very physical. We feel all this energy moving through our body, like we want to jump out of our skin. Sometimes it’s psychological. We find ourselves planning and planning . . . often planning the same thing. We may fixate on a time of regret in our lives and go over and over it.
The last hindrance, as they are called, is the state of doubt. Doubt is very tricky because if it is the right kind of doubt, it is a very important and even precious quality. We really need to investigate. We need to find out for ourselves. We don’t want to be gullible. We don’t want to take anyone else’s word for what is the truth of our experience. We always need to be questioning.
But there is a kind of doubt that is more like defeatism – “I can’t do it. Everyone else can do it,” “Should I do this or should I do that,” or “Well, I was wondering that last week too!”
Each of these five obstacles can come up very frequently. The key mechanism for working with them is mindfulness. It is Recognizing, Accepting, Investigating and Non-identifying with these states themselves.
There are ways to address each state. For example, if sleepiness or restlessness are born from a kind of energetic imbalance, we work to address that. If we are very sleepy, we might need more energy. It might mean walking meditation instead of sitting meditation. It might mean sitting with your eyes open.
There is a very famous list from the Buddha that I have always liked, about dealing with sleepiness. It starts with opening your eyes, maybe standing up, or watching the quality of your aim. For example, if you are trying to be with this breath in the next 50 breaths, you will likely go to sleep. But if you have this feeling or even saying in your mind, “Just this one breath. Just this one,” it will pick up your energy and really clarify the experience. Then I noticed that the very last thing on the list is “take a nap” which I always appreciated. I took note of the fact that while it was on the list, it wasn’t the very first thing on the list.
Repetition and Add-ons
Ancient pedagogy is full of repetition. I think about the 70,000 times I heard about the hindrances and how they were normal.They were very normalized in that environment – “Yes, you are going to experience this. This is natural. Everybody experiences this. There are ways of dealing with it. Don’t forget about it.” I think that kind of knowledge, and bringing it up again and again is very helpful.
The trick is to experience it as it really is to try to distinguish the feeling or the moment from the story we tell about it. For example, “This is going to last for ever. This is who I really am.” Sometimes in meditation practice we say, “Look for the add-ons. What am I adding on to this experience? What is happening right now and what am I adding on?” And then we see if we can relinquish some of the add-ons. We are sometimes left with a very uncomfortable experience, but it is a very direct and awakened awareness.