Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances


Revised August 2, 2016

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind! The conclusion of an article in the prestigious journal “Science” which, using real time input from 5000 people all over the world, confirmed what the Buddha said 2500 years ago; see, A wandering mind is an unhappy mind-Science-Killingsworth-2010.

1. Let us think about a few practical examples that we all have experienced.

  • When a child is crying due to any number of reasons, a mother uses a variety of “tricks” to soothe the child. If the child has a fever or headache, simply hugging the child and stroking child’s head makes the child fall asleep. If the child is throwing a tantrum just because he is unhappy with something, just by giving his favorite toy could calm him down.

2. Therefore, the easiest way to calm the mind is to deviate the attention to  focus the mind on a different object. This is based on the fact that there is only one thought arising at a time; if one keeps the thoughts focused on something neutral, then other bad thoughts do not have an opportunity to arise. This can be done in many ways. Let us discuss a few below.

  • Especially when one gets angry, just by stopping and counting to ten at least slows down the javana (or the impulse) from running wildly. Do not let the bad thoughts to take over. They multiply very quickly, and then things get out-of-control; for a deeper discussion, see, “Javana of a Citta – Root of Mental Power“.
  • Taking few deep breaths helps too. Or, in an angry situation, visualizing a Buddha statue and thinking about its serenity helps too.

3. A popular meditation technique to calm the mind is the “breath meditation”: Go to a quiet place (less bright and less noisy place), sit in a chair comfortably and concentrate on the in-and-out breath. Most people can feel the breath at the tip of nose or on the lips. If not, one can be aware of the falling of the chest or abdomen. Just fix the mind on any of these and do not let it get away. Initially it may be hard, but with practice it becomes easy. This is called samatha meditation and people can even get to meditative jhanic states with a lot of practice.

  • However, just like with the child’s examples mentioned above, these are just “tricks” to get a temporary solution. Just like the child is bound to throw a tantrum again, the relief from “breath meditation” is temporary.

3. Even samatha meditation becomes easier if one at least obeys the conventional five precepts of not killing other beings, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual misconduct, or using excessive amounts of alcohol. If one can further abstain from harsh speech slandering, and vain talk, that makes it even better; see, “Ten Immoral Actions – Dasa Akusala“, and “Ten Moral Actions – Dasa Kusala“.

  • These precepts are to be followed 24 hours a day; these are not rituals to be obeyed. One follows them to purify one’s mind. Don’t worry if a precept is broken once-in-a while. Such occurrences will become less and less with time.

4. The reason that the mind becomes agitated easily is because of the “bad stuff” that we have in our minds (they are called kilesa or keles or mental impurities): all these “bad stuff” arise due to greed, hate, and ignorance. If a mind is free from greed, hate, and ignorance (that is easily said than done), then the mind will be very calm and nothing in the outside world can perturb that mind; see “The Basics in Meditation” and “The Second Level” for details.

5. In a simile, the Buddha compared a calm mind to a clear, calm, lake that made the surroundings serene. This lake could become undesirable, an eyesore, if one or more of the following takes place: (i) add a dark-colored dye, (ii) if the lake has boiling water, (iii) if the water is covered with moss, (iv) if the water is perturbed by wind, (v) if the water is turbid and muddy.

6. Similarly, a peaceful mind will become polluted due to five hindrances (nivarana). They are called “nivarana” because they cover the mind from seeing the right from wrong. Just like one cannot see the bottom of a lake if any of the above five factors are present, the mind loses its capacity for clear vision by these hindrances.

  • Extreme sense desire (kamachanda) is compared to the dark dye. Kamachanda (“käma”+“ichcha”+ “anda” means blinded by sense desires). Here “kama” means the five sense faculties that belong to the kamaloka: eye, ear,nose, tongue, and the body; “ichcha” is desire, and “anda” is for blind. The attraction for something becomes so strong that one’s complete attention is given to that object. The mind can lose any control over what is sensible and what is not sensible (or immoral).
  • Extreme hate (vayapada) is compared to boiling water. You probably have seen someone so enraged that he/she is totally out-of-control. One could become “animal-like”, and actually one who develops such character (“gathi”) could end up in the hells (apayas). Vayapada (“vayä”+”päda”) means travelling downward (in the 31 realms).
  • Thina middha (“frozen mind”) is compared to moss covering the water. Sleepiness is just a symptom of it; it is the dull mind that has not been exposed to Dhamma. When one learns Dhamma, one’s mind gets energized. Those meditators who fall asleep during meditation can get rid of that problem by learning pure Dhamma.
  • Uddacca-kukkucca (normally translated as restlessness and brooding), arise because of high-mindedness (uddacca) and low-mindedness (kukkucca); in most cases, because of the high-mindedness, one tends to DO lowly things. When one has uddacca, one is “drunk” with power, money, etc and when one has kukkucca one is willing to do “lowly things” suitable even for an animal. Both these characteristics lead to a scattered mind that is incapable of seeing right from wrong; as a nivarana, they arise together. After the Sotapanna stage is attained, only uddacca remains as a cetasika and is removed only at the Arahant stage.
  • Vicikicca (“vi” is twisted, “ci” is thoughts, and “kicca” is action) is the tendency to do unwise things because of the ignorance of the true nature of this world. For example, tendency to do any kind of immoral act to get one wants comes from vicikicca; one does not know, or does not care, about the bad consequences of such actions. Thus vicikicca is compared to muddy water.

7. In another simile, the Buddha compared the five hindrances to darkness that keeps one from seeing the true nature. For example, one who is extremely angry is not aware of the damage that is being done to the other person and for oneself; he/she is blinded by hate, at least for that moment.

  • A mind “blinded’ by the five hindrances can keep on adding “more bad stuff” even without realizing it. If you take a glass of muddy water, and add more mud to it, you cannot see much difference. On the other hand, if you take a glass of clean water, you can see even if only a drop of muddy water is added.
  • Thus when the mind is free of the five hindrances, one can easily see if any bad thoughts comes to the mind. Then it is easy to contemplate the possible bad consequences of such thoughts and to remove them. That will keep the mind from becoming perturbed. A mind free of the five hindrances is calm and peaceful.
  • This is why one should listen to discourses or read Dhamma posts preferably at a time when the mind is calm. Then one is able to absorb more.

8. It is important to note that while samatha meditation is good to be practiced on a temporary basis and allows one to have a peaceful state of mind, it does not remove any defilements. Gradual removal of defilements is done with Ariya meditation; see, “Bhavana (Meditation)“.

  • The reason for these hindrances to be present is the bad habits (“gathi“) we have developed over many lives and have become deep-seated cravings (“asavas“), which remain with us as mental impurities (kilesa). When one starts on Ariya meditation, such habits, cravings, and mental impurities are gradually removed; this is like removing the dye, boiling water, moss, wind, and the mud from the lake in the simile we talked about in the beginning. When those ROOT CAUSES ARE REMOVED, the lake becomes calm and serene again.
  • The hindrances of thina middha and vicikicca are completely removed at the Sotapanna stage, and those of kamachanda, vyapada, and uddacca-kukkucca are reduced to kama raga, patigha, and uddacca.  At this stage, the remaining three are not called nivarana. Kama raga and patigha are lessened at the Sakadagami stage and removed at the Anagami stage; uddacca is removed only at the Arahant stage. 
  • Lessening of five hindrances gradually can bring the mind to a stable peaceful state over time — even before the Sotapanna stage — and one could feel the increase of the niramisa sukha that it brings; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.

Next, “Solution to a Wandering Mind – Abandon Everything?“, ……..


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