The Meditative Path - Chapter 4



IF YOU HAVE BEEN PRACTICING THE MEDITATIONS suggested in the first few chapters, you've probably encountered some difficulties. The intention of this chapter is to help clarify the nature of the most common obstacles met by new meditators and to make some suggestions for how to deal with them. To progress on the Meditative Path, it is essential that we recognize the various hindrances that can crop up and use appropriate means to overcome them.


The most obvious obstacle to achieving a peaceful and concentrated state of mind in meditation is today's frenetic lifestyle. Too many of us live in the fast lane, rushing ever more frantically to do an increasing number of things in what seems to be a decreasing amount of time. Some of this rushing is out of necessity, but a great deal of it is by choice.

The amount of effort and time needed to procure the basic requirements for living has decreased considerably with the industrial and technological developments of the last century. Despite this, people today often work longer hours and under greater pressure than ever before, not to meet their needs, but to gratify the desire for having more of everything. It is little wonder that stress is such a common affliction in our society and that there is so much interest in stress-relieving therapies and practices such as meditation.

Thus, the first obstacle to practicing meditation is not having enough free time. Unless we can find the time to practice on a regular basis, it will be virtually impossible to make much headway. Training the mind is a difficult process requiring a considerable amount of patient effort, especially at the beginning. As we develop skill in the practice, meditation does become less difficult, eventually becoming a refuge for the mind. We can only reach this goal through regular practice. Therefore, it is crucial to simplify life just enough to have a little time for meditation each day.

An athlete who kept to a regular daily training schedule was asked how he managed to motivate himself each day. He replied, "When you get up in the morning, you don't think, 'Am I going to eat today?' It is a question of when, not if! My attitude toward training is the same as toward eating." Indeed, if we really see the value of something, we make time for it.

Having made the time for practicing meditation, we will most likely encounter a second obstacle resulting from our busy lifestyle. I like to think of this hindrance as the residual fallout from sensory overload. When we sit down to meditate, we are confronted with an internal jungle of thoughts, memories, plans, hopes, and regrets. The mind is extremely busy, which should come as no surprise considering how we are living our lives.

What is a normal day for most Americans? From the moment we wake up, the mind is busy receiving and processing a phenomenal amount of information supplied by radio, television, newspapers, and the Internet. Even before finishing breakfast, we know everything about the weather, sports, financial markets, and current events from all around the world. Then there are countless activities during the day, such as driving, working, meetings, electronic mail, telephone calls, and so on. The evenings rarely provide respite because of family activities, social engagements and, on nights when there's nothing else to do, more television. Compare your typical day with a day in the life of a farmer a hundred years ago, and you begin to appreciate both why you feel the need to learn meditation and also why it is so difficult for you to achieve the peace you thirst for in meditation practice.

Not many of us are interested in radically changing our lifestyles. Few of us would want to live like a nineteenth-century farmer, let alone become a solitary yogi living in a cave. However, we may want to consider ways we might simplify our lives just a little, particularly around meditation time, because doing so makes it easier to establish awareness and concentrate the mind. Of course, this is something for each of us to decide, but it is important to recognize that the choices we make regarding our lifestyle do affect our meditation practice.


Another group of common hindrances involve specific mental tendencies, or habits of the mind, that create obstacles to the development of concentration. Although we could make a very long list of such tendencies, it will be more practical to limit our list to five main hindrances: craving, aversion, agitation, dullness, and doubt. These hindrances act to disturb the mind. The presence of anyone of them prevents us from achieving concentration and peace.


Craving is the thirst for experience, particularly pleasurable sensory experience. It is closely related to the most basic instinctual tendencies of all living creatures, the desire for self-preservation and self-gratification. To attempt a thorough analysis of the nature of craving, or to try and answer the question of whether it is possible for us to be completely free of craving, is beyond the scope of this book. For our purposes, it will suffice to recognize that craving is something that stirs up the mind. The tendency to want this or that, or always to want something other than what we have, makes it very difficult for the mind to abide with one object for any length of time. For this reason, craving is a serious obstacle to achieving concentration and peace.

Unfortunately, our consumer-oriented society is very much driven by the power of craving. Every advertisement, store window, and restaurant menu we see reinforces this tendency in us. Much money, time, and human ingenuity is invested in convincing us that, in order to be happy, we need more of everything. The seductions of commercialism strengthen our basic instinct for self-gratification—even exaggerate it out of proportion. No wonder our minds find it so difficult to stop chasing after things and simply rest!

How are we to deal with this habitual chasing? If we see the futility in allowing ourselves to be manipulated, or the harm in being a slave to things and experiences, we may be motivated to try to free ourselves from the grip of craving just a little, at least during the meditation period. So let us look at craving more closely.

Craving is like a black hole, for it is never satiated. How much we have, where we go, and what we experience or achieve are of no ultimate consequence, because craving will always want more. By its very nature, craving cannot be satisfied. It never knows enough!

The second insidious characteristic of craving is that it is never faithful to its object; it always wants something else. The paradox is, as Oscar Wilde put it, "There are only two misfortunes in life: getting what we want and not getting what we want!" Either way, the mind still wants whatever it does not have.

Because the tendency toward craving is so strong in the mind, we hardly ever experience the quality of contentment discussed in the last chapter. Even the wealthy are like paupers, for they, too, feel a constant need to have more. Contrast this state of affairs with the view of a simple village man in Thailand who was a devout disciple of my teacher Ajahn Chah. He would often say, "I have no money, but I am not poor!" Through his practice of meditation, this man had realized a degree of peace and contentment that no amount of money can buy. Money may buy us pleasure, but it cannot buy us contentment. That must come from within.

So what are we to do? The task of trying to free ourselves from craving is certainly daunting. However, if we begin by trying to eliminate craving for just the period of time we spend in meditation, then the idea may not seem so overwhelming. Is it possible for us to free ourselves from craving for just twenty minutes? Surely our lives will not fall apart if we stop chasing after things for such a brief time.

If during meditation you observe the mind wandering away from the breath, being led towards something else by craving, try to say, "No, not now." Practice renunciation for just this short period, and your craving may relax a bit so that you can learn to be content with one breath at a time.

By practicing in this way, the mind gradually abandons its habit of continually wanting something else and begins to rest. Once we experience the happiness of peace and contentment, the power of craving diminishes. We then appreciate the wisdom in the saying of a great master, "There is nothing more precious than to be one who has nothing further to seek."


If we have craving for certain things, it is to be expected that we will feel aversion toward the opposite things. Craving and aversion are like the two sides of a coin; one implies the existence of the other. While craving is the tendency to chase after pleasurable and gratifying experiences, aversion is the habit of striking out at, or trying to get rid of, the things we find unpleasant, offensive, or threatening. Nothing destroys peace of mind more quickly than thoughts of aversion.

Thoughts of aversion may be directed towards other people, towards inanimate objects, or even towards ourselves. Anything that interferes with "what I want, how I want it, and when I want it" can become the object of this negative mental reaction. Of course, life rarely obliges by giving us what we want, how we want it, and when we want it, so we find ourselves experiencing these negative thoughts quite often. Being in a negative state of mind is unpleasant at any time, but if it arises during meditation, it makes practicing Mindfulness of Breathing all but impossible.

Chapter 10 is devoted to an in-depth study of the nature of aversion and explores different approaches to reducing the power of this tendency. However, at this stage, it is sufficient that we recognize the disruptive effects of aversion and make a conscious choice not to dwell on such thoughts during meditation. Our response should be like seeing a blazing fire and choosing to move away from the heat. Rather than reacting with fear and distress, we calmly find a way of making ourselves comfortable so that the mind remains balanced and composed.

Depending upon the situation, when confronted with an unpleasant or disturbing experience, we can respond in one of three ways:

· Remove the cause of the disturbing experience.
· Ignore the experience by paying attention to something else.
· Give the experience full attention and peacefully coexist with it without any negative reaction.

To illustrate these three responses, suppose that while meditating, you are bothered by noise coming through an open door. The first option is simply to close the door, thereby removing the cause of the disturbance. If that option is not available, then you can try ignoring the noise by remaining attentive to the breathing. Of course, that is easier said than done, and you may find it very difficult to pay attention to the breath when there is a lot of noise. However, for the more experienced practitioner, it is usually possible.

The third option is to stop trying to concentrate on the breathing and turn your full attention to the "world of sounds," silently listening and peacefully coexisting with the noise without reacting to it. What you are doing if you choose this approach is changing the primary object of attention from the breath and focusing your meditation on sounds. This valid and useful meditation practice is explained more fully in Chapter 8.

Using anyone of these approaches to deal with the cause of aversion will help you remain composed. It is important to recognize that the worst thing you can do is to continue to sit as though meditating, while your mind is dwelling on negative thoughts of aversion, resentment, or anger. Doing so is like walking into the raging fire and expecting to find coolness there. Your mind wilI only experience turmoil.


When the mind is overly stimulated, it often enters a state of agitation and restlessness, jumping from one thing to another very quickly. In its more extreme forms, agitation makes it difficult to sit physically still, let alone achieve any degree of mental composure in meditation.

It has already been noted that a busy lifestyle can lead to an overactive mind. Stimulants such as coffee, tea, cola drinks, and chocolate can exacerbate problems with restlessness. If you are sensitive to such stimulants and tend to have a busy mind, it may be wise to avoid these substances prior to meditation.

Trying to meditate when the mind is overactive and restless can be a very unpleasant and frustrating experience. It requires a great deal of patience as well as the application of appropriate skillful means to quiet down a restless mind sufficiently for meditation. My teacher Ajahn Chah told me that when he started practicing as a young monk, he would often experience restlessness during meditation. Determined to overcome the hindrance and not being timid by nature, he decided to fight fire with fire.

Northeastern Thailand where we lived is hot and humid for most of the year. Forest monks usually dwell in simple, single-room huts with galvanized iron roofs. During the midday heat, these huts can feel like ovens, and so, most monks seek out cooler places for meditation. However, whenever he had trouble with restlessness, my teacher told me, he would lock himself in his hut, close all the windows, put on his heavy robes, and sit cross-legged on the floor meditating until the restlessness subsided. Though his body was soaked in sweat, this patient endurance trained his mind to overcome the hindrance of restlessness.

My teacher's approach may seem rather extreme, and I am not suggesting that you emulate his method. I relate this story only to illustrate that even the most accomplished meditators have had to work to overcome the mundane hindrances that plague the rest of us. So, if you feel restless during meditation, try not to give in too easily. Be patient and experiment with the following remedies.

If the restlessness is accompanied by feelings of tension, encourage yourself to calm down and let go of everything. Direct your attention to the various parts of the body, as you learned in Chapter 1, gently relaxing the muscles and releasing all tension. As the body relaxes and the mind slows down, the restless energy will gradually dissipate. Even if this release of tension is all that you can achieve during the meditation period, it will have been a valuable experience.

However, if the mind is simply overactive and flighty, I usually recommend counting the breath in a way that requires more careful attention. Rather than just counting from "one . . . one" to "ten . . . ten" on each in breath and out breath as described in Chapter 2, you count the breath in cycles of different lengths. Thus, you begin by counting from "one . . . one" to "five . . . five" on the first round. On the next round, you count from "one . . . one" to "six . . . six," and then, on subsequent rounds, from "one . . . one" to "seven . . . seven" and so on until you reach "one . . . one" to "ten . . . ten." Counting in this way requires a great deal of attention and helps to ground a flighty mind.

Dullness and Sleepiness

While restlessness is associated with too much mental energy, it is also possible to have the opposite experience, that of having too little energy. When the mind is lethargic, we may sink into a dull state during meditation, or even drift into sleep. In this state, the attention is rather fuzzy; the head begins to droop toward the chest and the back to slump. Though we may find this state of relaxation quite pleasant and restful, it is definitely an obstacle to achieving the clarity and concentration for which we are striving. In order to make progress, we must recognize when dullness and sleepiness are upon us and take steps to overcome these obstacles.

Why does the mind sink into dullness? Quite often, it is because we are worn out from the activity associated with our fast-paced lives. After being on overdrive for so long, the mind runs out of steam and simply collapses into dullness whenever we stop moving for a few minutes. In fact, many people only know these two extremes—agitation and sleepiness—and simply alternate between the two. Either the mind is in overdrive, or it sinks into dullness, in neither case achieving that wakeful state of rest that is the goal of meditation.

Even when we are not really tired, the mind may sink into dullness during meditation simply because we are not accustomed to remaining awake and alert while withdrawing into a state of rest. What is happening in this case is that the mind is unable to generate energy from within itself without stimulation from some sensory or intellectual activity. In meditation, the intention is to empower the mind so it can remain vibrantly awake while being quiet, still, and peaceful.

The process of meditation is, in some ways, similar to the general path the mind follows when falling asleep. We begin by closing our eyes, calming down, relaxing, and letting go of all the business that usually preoccupies the mind. However, we reach a junction during this process at which there are two possible paths for the mind to follow. If awareness is weak, the mind takes the path that inclines towards dullness and sleep. It reacts in this way out of habit, if for no other reason. In this state, the mind has little or no awareness, and we have no opportunity to cultivate concentration or understanding. However, if we make a concerted effort to remain awake, alert, and mindful, the mind can take the path leading to a clear meditative state of heightened awareness. We are then able to achieve deep concentration and develop wisdom.

In order to guide the mind towards this state of restful clarity, we must be wary and cultivate awareness of any tendency to sink into dullness during meditation. Dullness or sleepiness can often overtake us when we least expect it. If the meditation period seems to pass very quickly, and you cannot recall much of what you experienced, it is quite possible that the mind drifted into dullness without your knowledge. It is important that you not allow this pattern to become a habit in your meditation practice. An easy and effective way to test your mind's clarity during meditation is to count the breath. If you repeatedly drift into a dreamlike state before successfully reaching the count of ten, you may be experiencing dullness.

What can you do when confronted with this hindrance? If you are practicing meditation for only twenty minutes a day, you do not want to spend those precious minutes fighting sleepiness. Therefore, it is best to choose a time for meditation when you are not too tired. The following techniques can also help you address this hindrance:

· Meditate in a place with some light and fresh air.
· Avoid making yourself overly comfortable or warm.
· Try to establish a good posture, keeping the back erect and the head up.
· If practicing Mindfulness of Breathing, try to sharpen the precision of your counting so that you can reach the count of ten.
· If the mind continually drifts into dullness while practicing Mindfulness of Breathing, stop trying to concentrate on the breath and direct your full attention to the posture. Try to arouse energy in the body so that the posture remains erect, balanced, and still. Because the body is a more tangible object of attention than the breath, the mind will find it easier to focus on it. Furthermore, any tendency of the mind to sink into dullness will be readily apparent, because the posture will not remain erect if the mind is not alert. It is possible that, after practicing in this way for some time, the feeling of dullness will pass, and you can return to Mindfulness of Breathing.
· If you experience dullness in meditation quite often, try meditating with your eyes partly open.


The last of the five hindrances that prevents us from making progress in meditation is obsessive doubt. Doubt manifests as nagging questions such as: "Is this the best method for me to use? Am I meditating the right way? How do I proceed from here? What does this mean? Should I just give up?" When the mind is stirred up by such questions, we cannot apply ourselves effectively to the task of meditation. In fact, too much doubt prevents us from applying ourselves fully to any undertaking, including work and study.

The doubting mind is closely associated with other negative tendencies such as greed, fear, and laziness. A desire to have the best of everything inevitably casts the shadow of doubt over anything we seek, because we can't be sure that what we obtain will be the best. Fear of failure or of making a mistake also stirs up doubt and hesitation and prevents us from applying ourselves with confidence. Of course, the lazy mind always wants to be certain of getting the maximum return on the minimum investment of time and energy. This type of mind can rarely make a commitment because it is constantly on the lookout for a better deal.

Such doubting tendencies can lead us around and around in endless circles, toward no meaningful end. My teacher emphasized the dangers of doubt with the following story:

A farmer needed water for his crops. He asked a neighbor where he got his water. The neighbor explained that he had dug a well that supplied his needs year round. On hearing this, the farmer decided to dig a well himself. After choosing a likely spot and digging down four or five feet, the farmer started to think that he had not chosen the right place to dig. Abandoning that hole, he started to dig in a new place. He dug down five or six feet without striking water and decided that this, too, was an unsuitable spot and so started again. After many such attempts, the farmer gave up, convinced that there was no water to be found. In fact, the water was right there under his feet, but the farmer had not dug deep enough in anyone spot to reach it. In this way, doubt can frustrate all our efforts.

Of course, it is good to have an inquiring mind that is open and receptive to new knowledge and information. When approaching something new, such as meditation, we naturally have many questions that need to be answered. I hope that the information in this book addresses many of these, though the student who wishes to practice a lot of meditation will find the guidance of an experienced meditation teacher very helpful.

However, asking questions or acquiring more information from external sources cannot resolve all doubts. There comes a point when you must be willing to start practicing and be prepared to learn from experience.


It should be noted that these five hindrances do not only arise during meditation but are active, everyday states of mind. If we observe carefully, we notice that one or more of these hindrances frequently afflict the mind. Thus, these mental tendencies are not only obstacles to progress in meditation but also the cause of a great deal of inner turmoil and outer conflict in our normal lives. However, here we are primarily concerned with recognizing and dealing with these tendencies when they arise in meditation.

It is important that we do not practice meditation in a mechanical way, just repeating the mental exercise without bothering to learn from the experience. We must reflect carefully on what we experience before, during, and after each session of meditation.

Before starting the meditation period, take a few moments to consider how you are feeling and the state of your mind. What is your energy level? Are you tired or agitated? Reflecting in this way will give you some idea of which hindrance you may need to be wary of in the meditation.

During the meditation remain watchful, being aware of how the mind is behaving. This does not mean that you should make a "running commentary" on what is happening nor allow yourself to be caught up in analyzing the experience. Your intention should be simply to notice if any particular hindrance is becoming a problem so that you can deal with it accordingly.

After the meditation, it is worthwhile to contemplate what the experience was like. If you consider what you tried to do and how it worked, you will learn a good deal from each meditation period.

By practicing in this way, you can acquire the knowledge and skill to guide the mind to a state of perfect balance and poise, undisturbed by the hindrances. Of course, that goal may not be immediately achievable, but you can make gradual progress toward achieving it.


The teachers in ancient India often used the analogy of a pool of water to illustrate the effects of hindrances on the mind. In an unpolluted and undisturbed pool of water in the forest, the water is so clear and still that an observer can see all the way to the bottom of the pool.

However, if the water were contaminated by colored dyes, one would not be able to see anything in the water. Similarly, if the pool were heated by an underground source so that the water was bubbling and boiling, one would not be able to see the bottom of the pool clearly. One's view would also be obstructed if the surface of the water were being blown by strong winds that caused waves on the pool, or if algae or water plants covered the pool. Lastly, if the pool were stirred up so that sediment made the water murky and black, it would be impossible to see anything other than sediment floating around.

The still, clear forest pool is like the peaceful mind resting in a state of concentration. It is clear and radiant. The colored dyes represent the hindrance of craving; the heat causing the water to boil resembles aversion; the strong wind blowing the water can be compared to agitation; the algae covering the water is like dullness; and the stirred up sediment is like doubt.

Practice diligently to overcome the hindrances, and your mind can be as clear and radiant as a still forest pool.



Continue practicing Mindfulness of Breathing as described in the previous chapters, but now try to introduce the element of reflection as explained above. It is common for every meditator to encounter the five hindrances at one time or another, but you may observe that one or two of these obstacles occur more frequently in your practice. Once you've identified the problem, apply some of the suggestions given in this chapter for dealing with the particular hindrances.

It is important to remember that no two meditation periods will be identical. Try to retain a "beginner's mind" that is open and ready to learn from your experiences.



If I try to remove craving and aversion from the mind, isn't there a danger that I will be suppressing my true feelings?
It is not so much a matter of suppression but simply of claiming our right to choose which thoughts we will dwell on and what states of mind we will encourage. Of course, before we can achieve that freedom, we need to develop sufficient mastery of the mind to be able to direct our thoughts and attention as we choose.
We do not consider it detrimental to have control over our legs so that we can walk and run.
Having some control and mastery of our mental activities is similar. However, mental control is of much greater value in our quest for peace and happiness. It is quite possible for someone who is physically handicapped to live a full and happy life, but it is almost impossible for a person to achieve happiness if the mind is unable to turn away from negative thoughts and feelings.
When I read about these hindrances, I can relate to all of them. I seem to have the full complement! Is there any point in my trying to meditate?
The hindrances are mental tendencies that are common to most people. However, it is important to recognize that they are not always actively disturbing the mind. This means that the hindrances are transient states that arise in the mind for a time and then pass away. They are like visitors that come and go. It is possible for us to discourage them from visiting frequently, and when they do come, to encourage them to leave quickly. Furthermore, the hindrances generally do not overwhelm us by coming all at once. They usually visit individually, making it easier for us to deal with them.
Do not be discouraged by thinking about the length or difficulty of the journey. Just continue practicing with patient effort, taking one step at a time.
Is it true that some meditators practice for years and are still not able to attain deep levels of concentration?
Yes, it is true. But this does not mean that they derive no benefits from their practice. They inevitably acquire much understanding of the mind and develop more awareness and clarity from their years of practice. This is reflected in the way they conduct their lives, relate to other people, and deal with the problems they encounter.
The benefits of meditation are real and immediate at every level of practice, and they usually accrue gradually. One teacher compared the process to walking in the fog. As you keep walking, your clothes gradually become damp without your even noticing. In the same way, the benefits of meditation may not be "earth-shattering," but they are nevertheless of great practical significance to the meditator.
During meditation, I often find myself replaying scenes from the past and thinking about how I should have done things differently. Such thoughts makes me feel quite depressed, and I usually give up trying to meditate. How can I overcome this obstacle?
Feelings of regret and remorse are common experiences when we start on the path of introspection. As we rush through life, we keep the mind very busy, and we have little opportunity for reflecting on what we are doing or how we feel about our various experiences. When we stop rushing around and sit quietly in meditation, however, the mind is no longer swamped with new information and experiences. This respite opens some "space" in the mind that allows unresolved matters to surface.
Whatever has happened in the past, whether good or bad, wise or foolish, cannot be changed. If we dwell on the past with longing or remorse, we are not in any way altering what has already happened. We are only making ourselves miserable in the present. A far better option is to acknowledge the past for what it was and use it as a learning experience so that we can make the future better.
Thus, at the start of your meditation, remind yourself that the past is gone and cannot be changed. Resolve to abide in the present by encouraging the mind to abandon concern for both the past and the future. If during meditation your mind starts dwelling with remorse on some past event, ask yourself, "Is there anything I can do to make things better? If the answer is "yes," then determine to do it later and put the matter aside for the remainder of the meditation. If there is nothing to be done, let the matter go. Remind yourself that the present moment offers a wonderful opportunity to cultivate greater awareness and concentration that will empower you to make better choices in the future.

Copyright © 2001 by John Cianciosi All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission except for quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For additional information write to: Permissions Editor The Theosophical Publishing House P.O. Box 270 Wheaton, Illinois 60189-0270 E-mail:

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