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Five Hindrances To A Successful Meditation

Posted Jun 27 2008 4:09pm

five hindrances to meditation
(Photo Credit: Premasagar on Flickr; Photo Taken in Bangalore, Karnataka)
After reading some of the comments to my previous post, I realise that some of you may also be experiencing some of the same hindrances I had or occasionally still face, while meditating. Many of these obstacles were pointed out during the Happiness Retreat that I attended more than a week ago. In fact, if you do not already know this, Buddha described five hindrances to a successful meditation in one of his teachings. I shall attempt to explain them simply in my article today. Hopefully, an understanding of the likely obstacles faced can help you deal with them and to get more out of your sittings.


In Pali language, obstacles to deep meditation are called nivarana. The word simply means stopping you from entering into deep absorption states or jhanas. In Buddhist teachings, these prevent you from being enlightened. The Buddha named the five hindrances as follows: sensory desire (kama-cchanda), ill will (vyapada), sloth and torpor (thina-middha), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca) and doubt (vicikiccha).

“Basically these five hindrances stand between you and enlightenment. When you know them, you have a good chance of overcoming them. If you have not achieved the jhanas yet, it means that you have not understood these five hindrances. If you have gotten into such deep states, then you have overcome these hindrances. It’s as simple as that.”
— Ajahn Brahm in Happiness Through Meditation

Here are some explanations of the five hindrances to a successful meditation:

1) Sensory Desire (kama-cchanda)

Sensory desires occur because you are attached to your five senses. You crave for the pleasure to your senses. Having lustful thoughts is an example. When you are disturbed by a noise in your environment or when you cannot detach yourself from the pain in your legs, while you are meditating, kama-cchanda is also at work.

To abandon your five senses, you choose to focus your mindfulness on a small part of your five senses: the breath. As you focus on the breath, you will find that your five senses gradually disappearing. When this happens, your body disappears too. You start to experience a freedom and joy with the letting go of your attachments.

“The breath becomes the stepping stone from the world of the five senses over to the realm of the mind.”
— Ajahn Brahm in Happiness Through Meditation

2) Ill Will (vyapada)

Most of us experience malice or anger towards others. But ill will can also be towards yourself or to the meditation object.

When you have ill will to yourself, you are basically saying that you do not feel entitled to experience peace or success in meditation. I can most certainly relate to this. This was what happened to me when I was first introduced to meditation by my mother-in-law, who was a Buddhist nun and who had passed on some years back. For my introduction, we traveled to Chang Mai in Thailand to learn under her friend, Phra Charles. Sadly, after coming home from a one week stay, I still did not have enough conviction that I was more deserving of an unhappy state of mind. Being so deeply entrenched in stress then, I had no idea what peace was like.

Ill will often arises out of guilt. You harbor a guilt complex. It can also be that you prefer to sit through pain rather than enjoy peace or happiness. Contrary to what many of us would have been inclined to believe, meditation does not require you to sit with no back support for hours. Even the Buddha sometimes meditated while sitting on a chair.

Ill will towards meditation object is when you hold thoughts such as “it is going to be difficult to meditate on the breath”, “I don’t really want to do this” or “I am supposed to meditate because all the personal development gurus recommend it”. Rather than being happy and at peace where you are, you wish you are somewhere else instead. You see meditation as a chore, as something that you HAVE to do. I used to have the same thoughts too. Pardon my language but my exact thoughts about sitting down quietly were really “What a bloody waste of time”!

3) Sloth, Torpor and Boredom (thina-middha)

Thina-middha means that you undertake meditation half heartedly with little or no concentration. It refers to your avoidance of spiritual work. Hence, when you sit in meditation, you are unable to go into deeper states. Your mind feels dull.

Dullness in mediation is often the result of a tired mind, usually if you have been overworking. Fighting that dullness makes you even more exhausted. So if you have not been sleeping well due to spending too much time at work, then it is important that you catch up on your rest first before you even begin to meditate. Resting allows the energy to return. This was the advice given by Ajahn Brahm during the Happiness Retreat. He proposed that since most of us are not advanced meditators, to not make sittings a difficult and painful process. It would be difficult to reach deeper states of jhanas if we are battling exhaustion rather than stilling the mind.

Sloth, torpor and boredom can also arise due to ill will. You are not in the present moment as you do not like where you are. You do not see how beneficial meditation can be. To overcome thina-middha, you need to recognise that there can be much value in cultivating awareness through meditation. Stop fighting your mind and learn to make peace with the present moment.

3) Restlessness and Remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)

Restlessness. Restlessness occurs when you are not contended. You do not appreciate the sheer pleasure of doing nothing. Your restless mind causes uddhacca-kukkucca to arise. Thinking is an indication of the lack of contentment. Due to your restlessness, you are seized with constant thoughts of worry, fear, disappointment and anxiety. You are unable to let go. On the contrary, if you are contented, you will be quiet and still.

To overcome restlessness, Ajahn Brahm suggested using this simile: imagine that you are in a hot air balloon and in this balloon, you have got all your burdens with you. As you rise up into the air, you will need to look into your basket and throw away your burdens one by one. The last that you should throw is the basket. Then, you can fly high: happy and free.

Discontent also happens when you do not receiving what you expect out of your meditation. At one stage, I had heard so much about what meditation could do for me and had approached each sitting with much anticipation and expectation. I was in a state of wanting. I wanted to experience spaces between thoughts, see bright lights (often reported by meditators), or hear voices offering me wisdom (something often experienced by a close friend of mine). Needless to say, I never quite got a lot out from these sessions.

So be aware about wanting. The very attitude of wanting stops you from gaining from meditation. Do not expect peace, enlightenment and health, etc. Instead, learn to develop contentment with what you have. Be at peace with the present moment, the silence and the breath.

Remorse. Remorse occurs during the state of meditation. It comes as a result of some bad or hurtful conduct of yours. When it does arise from your sitting, instead of focusing on it, learn to forgive yourself. When you can practice loving kindness and compassion to yourself, you would be able to overcome remorse.

5) Doubt (vicikiccha)

Doubt is when you have little confidence in meditation, your teacher or about yourself. Self doubt occurs when you have no confidence that you can achieve deeper states of jhanas. You wonder: if so many people have reported great experiences with meditation, why haven’t you?

Doubt can also take place during the meditation itself when you come into a state of bliss. You ask yourself “what is this? Is this jhana?” The act of asking introduces thought, which is a hindrance.

Oh yes…I have asked myself all these questions in the midst of my sittings. Now, instead of questioning myself, I just accept What-Is. It is important to just let go and enjoy the peace. Have faith that some beautiful results come from practicing meditation. Only review the states that you were in, after the meditation session and not during.

A Review of My Meditative Experiences

I’ve practically experience one or more of the hindrances at some stage. So much so, I gave up meditating after each round of attempt. I’ve encountered the inability to let go of my fears and worry, the lack of control over my “monkey mind” (a mind that chatters incessantly), doubt whether or not I can meditate, disappointment over my lack of progress, the unwillingness to forgive myself, and unconsciously choosing to put myself in pain over all forms of happiness.

I’ve yet to taste and savor all there is to a successful meditation. I know I’ve got a long way more to go, after hearing about some of the wondrous states that advanced meditators experience. My mother-in-law was an advanced meditator, who had shared much about the benefits to her practice. I also have a few family friends who are able to get into deep states of jhanas. They are the ones whom I turn to now, whenever I need some explanations or whenever I get stuck.

Secrets to Greater Success With My Meditative Practice

For a long time, I could not sit and be still. I was carrying too much of a burden in thoughts. Then, some time last year, I started making some headway with my sittings.

I was getting tired of how negative I felt towards everything. I felt no sense of purpose nor had felt much of an inner joy. I could not appreciate the fact that I was already abundant and chose instead to focus on my various grouses. In the end, I just could not take it any longer. At the strong urgings of my husband, I made a commitment for inner healing process.

I did intensive EFT, clearing negative emotions, balancing of chakras and regression therapy. I was pretty much in pain, having to look at my various sufferings and not avoiding them anymore. In the process, I had to learn to give up control, detach myself emotionally, not take myself too seriously, forgive myself and build greater trust in my own spiritual abilities. I became more in touch with my Higher Self. It was at this time that I picked up meditation again, thinking that this will help enhance the process of inner healing.

Now, as I take a step back to review the five hindrances that I’ve encountered, I realise that the process of inner healing was partly responsible for my greater success with meditation. Without doing EFT for some of my fears and worries, I would not have been able to let go of some of my mental defilements that easily. Without doing some form of regression therapy, I would still be holding on to past hurts. Without the act of forgiveness, I would be still haboring ill will or vyapada towards myself. Without building more faith and trust in others and myself, I would still be hanging on tightly to my insecurities.

Inner healing allowed me to deal with my negative emotions, layer-by-layer, that were stacked up high. These negative emotions form the hindrances or nivarana, as detailed in my article here. When I was able to clear them to some extent, I finally found that I could sit from less than three minutes to more than an hour, in complete peace and harmony.

Hence, what I suggest is that if you have been experiencing great difficulties with meditating, you may want to check out doing some inner healing work first. It is probable that your lack of success is indicative of hindrances or negative mental states that you need to deal with. You can use EFT, the Sedona Method, chakra balancing, karmic cleansing, Pranic healing, regression therapy, kundalini yoga, whatever. The objective remains the same: Strip the Hindrances and Free Your Mind!

If my experience is anything to go by, you may just find it much easier to cultivate present moment awareness towards the stillness of your mind. Now as I recall, my mother-in-law had also said that she obtained quicker results by using some of the techniques for clearing negative mental states and was able to get into deeper meditative states after that.

As Ajahn Brahm correctly pointed out: “Meditation is an investment in the clarity of your mind”. Meditation is far from being an unproductive use of time. It is the doorway to developing clarity. With clarity, wisdom arises. And only then, can you undertake appropriate action to deal with the problems you face at hand. When you are able to transcend your daily tribulations and everyday dramas, you can find yourself one step closer to being enlightened.

Further Readings on Meditation:

1) Five Hindrances by Ajahn Brahmavamso in Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Newsletter April 1999

2) How to Start Meditating: Ten Important Tips

3) 4 Reasons Why You Should Meditate and How to Get Started

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