Five Hindrances – Pancha Neevarana

The major obstacle to successful meditation is one or more of the Five Hindrances. The whole practice leading to Enlightenment can be well expressed as the effort to overcome the Five Hindrances. At first suppressing them temporarily and then overcoming them permanently through the full development of the Noble Eightfold Path. So, what are these Five Hindrances? They are:

  • KAAMACCHANDA    : Sensory Desire
  • VYAAPAADA             : Ill Will
  • THINA-MIDDHA        : Sloth and Torpor
  • UDDHACCA-KUKKUCCA   : Restlessness and Remorse
  • VICIKICCHAA            : Doubt / Confusion
  1.  Sensory desire refers to that particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling. In its extreme form, sensory desire is an obsession to find pleasure in such things as sexual intimacy, good food or fine music. But it also includes the desire to replace irritating or even painful five-sense experiences with pleasant ones, i.e. the desire for sensory comfort. The Lord Buddha compared sensory desire to taking out a loan. Any pleasure one experiences through these five senses must be repaid through the unpleasantness of separation. As with any loan, there is also the matter of interest and thus, as the Lord Buddha said, the pleasure is small compared to the suffering repaid. In meditation, one transcends sensory desire for the period by letting go of concern for this body and its five-sense activity. Some imagine that the five senses are there to serve and protect the body, but the truth is that the body is there to serve the five senses as they play in the world ever seeking delight. Indeed, the Lord Buddha once said, "The five senses ARE the world" and to leave the world, to enjoy the other worldly bliss of Jhana, one must give up for a time ALL concern for the body and its five senses. When sensory desire is transcended, the mind of the meditator has no interest in the promise of pleasure or even comfort with this body. The body disappears and the five senses all switch off. The mind becomes calm and free to look within.
  2.  Ill will refers to the desire to punish, hurt or destroy. It also includes ill will towards oneself, otherwise known as guilt, which denies oneself any possibility of happiness. In meditation, ill will can appear as dislike towards the meditation object itself, rejecting it so that one's attention is forced to wander elsewhere. The Lord Buddha compared ill will to being sick. Just as sickness denies one the freedom and happiness of health, so ill will denies one the freedom and happiness of peace. Ill will is overcome by applying Metta, loving kindness. Metta embraces the meditation object with care and delight. For example, just as a mother has a natural Metta towards her child, so a meditator can look on their breath, say, with the very same quality of caring attention. Then it will be just as unlikely to lose the breath through forgetfulness as it is unlikely for a mother to forget her baby in the shopping mall, and it would be just as improbable to drop the breath for some distracting thought as it is for a distracted mother to drop her baby! When ill will is overcome, it allows lasting relationships with other people, with oneself and, in meditation, a lasting, enjoyable relationship with the meditation object, one that can mature into the full embrace of absorption.
  3. Sloth and torpor refers to that heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling thick depression. The Lord Buddha compared it to being imprisoned in a cramped, dark cell, unable to move freely in the bright sunshine outside. In meditation, it causes weak and intermittent mindfulness which can even lead to falling asleep in meditation without even realising it! Sloth and torpor is overcome by rousing energy. Energy is always available, but few know how to turn on the switch, as it were. Setting a goal, a reasonable goal, is a wise and effective way to generate energy, as is deliberately developing interest in the task at hand. The mind has two main functions, 'doing' and 'knowing'. The way of meditation is to calm the 'doing' to complete tranquillity while maintaining the 'knowing'. Sloth and torpor occur when one carelessly calms both the 'doing' and the 'knowing', unable to distinguish between them.
  4. Restlessness refers to a mind which is like a monkey, always swinging on to the next branch, never able to stay long with anything. It is caused by the fault-finding state of mind which cannot be satisfied with things as they are, and so has to move on to the promise of something better, forever just beyond. The Lord Buddha compared restlessness to being a slave, continually having to jump to the orders of a tyrannical boss who always demands perfection and so never lets one stop. Restlessness is overcome by developing contentment, which is the opposite of fault-finding. One learns the simple joy of being satisfied with little, rather than always wanting more. One is grateful for this moment, rather than picking out its deficiencies. For instance, in meditation restlessness is often the impatience to move quickly on to the next stage.
  5. Doubt or confusion refers to the disturbing inner questions at a time when one should be silently moving deeper. Doubt can question one's own ability "Can I do This?” or question the method "Is this the right way?", or even question the meaning "What is this?". It should be remembered that such questions are obstacles to meditation because they are asked at the wrong time and thus become an intrusion, obscuring one's clarity. The Lord Buddha likened doubt to being lost in a desert, not recognising any landmarks. Such doubt is overcome by gathering clear instructions, having a good map, so that one can recognise the subtle landmarks in the unfamiliar territory of deep meditation and so know which way to go. Doubt in one's ability is overcome by nurturing self confidence with a good teacher. A meditation teacher is like a coach who convinces the sports team that they can succeed. there. The end of doubt, in meditation, is described by a mind which has full trust in the silence, and so doesn't interfere with any inner speech. Like having a good transport, one sits silently on the journey out of trust in the driver. Any problem which arises in meditation will be one of these Five Hindrances, or a combination. So, if one experiences any difficulty, use the scheme of the Five Hindrances as a 'check list' to identify the main problem. Then you will know the appropriate remedy, apply it carefully, and go beyond the obstacle into deeper meditation. When the Five Hindrances are fully overcome, there is no barrier between the meditator and the bliss of Jhana. Therefore, the certain test that these Five Hindrances are really overcome is the ability to access Jhana.