Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances

Revised August 2, 2016; November 25, 2018; September 9, 2019; February 23, 2021; August 25, 2021; re-written July 10, 2022

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 worldwide, confirmed what the Buddha said 2500 years ago; see, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind-Science-Killingsworth-2010.”

Mundane ways to Calm a Mind

1. The easiest way to calm a mind is to focus it on a neutral object. There is only one thought arising at a time. So if one can keep the mind focused on something neutral, those unwanted thoughts cannot come back. Several techniques are available. Let us discuss a few below.

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

2. A popular meditation technique to calm the mind is “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 the 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 move to some other thought. Initially, it may be hard, but with practice, it becomes easy. That is a crude form of Samatha meditation.

  • However, those are just “tricks” to get a temporary solution. Just like a restless child is bound to throw a tantrum again, any relief from “breath meditation” is only fleeting.
Buddhist Way to Calm a Mind

3. Even Samatha meditation becomes easier if one lives a moral life. One must at least obey 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 “Punna Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā.“

  • One must be aware of those precepts 24 hours a day. They are not rituals to be obeyed. One follows them to purify one’s mind. Don’t worry if a precept gets 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 “gunk” that we have in our minds (they go by various names like kilēsa, anusaya, “bad gati”, or mental impurities). All this “gunk” is there 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. That lake could become an undesirable eyesore if one or more of the following happens. (i) A dark-colored dye is in the water, (ii) The lake has boiling water, (iii) Water is covered with moss, (iv) the Lake is perturbed by wind, and (v) Water is turbid and muddy.

Pañca Nīvaraṇa – Root Causes for an Agitated Mind

6. Similarly, a peaceful mind will become polluted due to five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇa). They are called “nīvaraṇa” because they cover the mind from seeing right from wrong. They are kāmaccandha, vyāpāda, thina middha, uddhacca kukkucca, and vicikicchā.

  • One cannot see the bottom of a lake if any of the above five factors are present. Similarly, the mind loses its capacity to “see things clearly” if those hindrances are there.
Kāmaccandha – Main Culprit

7. Craving sensory pleasures (kāmaccandha) is like a dark dye. Kāmaccandha (“kāma”+“icca”+ “anda” means blinded by sense desires).

  • Note that there is an adopted convention to write Pāli with the English alphabet. Thus, “c” represents the “ch” sound and “icca” is pronounced, as “ichcha.” See, “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1
  • Here “kāma” means indulging in conscious thoughts about the five sense faculties that belong to the kāma lōka: eye, ear, nose, tongue, and the body; “ichcha” is desire, and “andha” is for blind.
  • The attraction for something becomes so strong that one’s complete attention is on that object. The mind can lose control over what is sensible and what is not rational (or immoral).
Vyāpāda – Worse Than Kāmaccandha

8. Extreme hate (vayāpāda or vyāpāda) is like boiling water. We all have seen people who are so enraged that they are out of control.

  • One could become “animal-like,” and one who develops such character (“gati”) could end up in hell (apāyā).
  • Vayāpāda (“vayā”+”pāda”) means traveling downward (in the 31 realms): “vaya” is destruction and “pāda” means “(walking) towards.”
  • But vyāpāda arises because of kāmaccandha.
Thina Middha – Disinterest in Buddha Dhamma Due to Incomprehension of Basic Concepts

9. Thina middha (“frozen mind”) is like moss covering the water. Sleepiness is just a symptom of it. It is a 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.
  • This is why I started a new series of posts: “Basic Framework of Buddha Dhamma.”
Uddhacca kukkucca – Worse Than Either Uddhacca or Kukkucca

10. Uddhacca kukkucca (customarily translated as restlessness and brooding) arises because of high-mindedness (uddhacca) and low-mindedness (kukkucca); in most cases, because of the high-mindedness, one tends to DO lowly things.

  • Uddhacca” is “high-mindedness” (high regard for oneself) which can be at various levels and completely removed only at the Arahant stage. “Kukkucca” is the tendency to do lowly things such as mistreating others. It goes away probably at the Sotapanna stage. Those are two separate cetasika: “Cetasika (Mental Factors)
  • Note that both words have “acca” (pronounced “achcha”) which means “to overboard/to excess.” One with uddhacca goes overboard with “high regard for oneself” and one with kukkucca tends to go to extremes in engaging in “lowly deeds” (“ku.“)
  • When they arise together, “uddhacca kukkucca” is one of the five nīvaraṇa that “covers a mind” and prevents “seeing the true nature of the world.” Here, one tends to do “lowly things” based on high-mindedness, power, etc.  After the Sōtapanna stage, only uddhacca remains as a cetasika. It fades with higher magga phala and goes away only at the Arahant stage.
Vicikicchā – No Faith Because of Incomprehension of Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana

11. With vicikicchā, one tends to do stupid things because of ignorance of the true nature of this world. It comes from “vi” is twisted, “ca” (pronounced “cha”) is thoughts, and “icchā” or cravings.

  • For example, the tendency to do immoral actions to get one’s wants comes from vicikicchā. One does not know or does not care about the adverse consequences of such activities. Thus vicikicchā is compared to muddy water.
  • One must get rid of both the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi and comprehend Tilakkhana to some extent. That means having a good idea about the real nature (anicca, dukkha, anatta) of this world. That helps REMOVE the vicikicchā nīvaraṇa.
A Simile (Analogy)

12. In another simile, the Buddha compared the five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇa) to the darkness that keeps one from seeing true nature. For example, a furious person cannot see the damage to the other person and oneself. At least at that moment, hate and anger blind that person.

  • 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 the presence of even a bit of dirt.
  • Thus when the mind is free of the five hindrances, one can easily see if any evil thoughts come to the mind. Then it is easy to contemplate the possible adverse consequences of such ideas and remove them. That will keep the mind from becoming perturbed. A mind free of the five hindrances is calm and peaceful.
  • That is why one should listen to discourses or read Dhamma posts, preferably when the mind is calm. Then one can absorb more.
  • More on pañca nīvaraṇa in “Pañca Nīvaraṇa and Sensual Pleasures (Kāma Rāga).”
Mundane Meditations – Good Start

13. It is good to practice mundane Samatha meditation for short times. That allows one to have a peaceful state of mind during that time. But it does not remove any defilements (i.e., the underlying root causes). Ariya meditation leads to the gradual removal of evils; see, “Bhavana (Meditation).“

  • These hindrances are the results of bad habits (“gati“) we have developed over many lives. They have become deep-seated cravings (“āsāvās“), which remain with us as mental impurities (kilesa). When one starts on Ariya meditation, such bad habits, desires, and mental impurities will decrease. In the simile we talked about initially, the water in that lake will become pure by removing the dye, boiling water, moss, wind, and mud. Similarly, the lake becomes calm and serene again in the absence of those ROOT CAUSES.
  • The hindrances of thina middha and vicikicchā go away at the Sōtapanna stage. Those of kāmaccandha, vyāpāda, and uddhacca-kukkucca reduce to kāma rāga, paṭigha, and uddhacca.  At this stage, the remaining three are no longer nīvaraṇa. Kāma rāga and paṭigha lessen at the Sakadāgāmi stage and disappear at the Anāgāmi stage. Uddhacca goes away only at the Arahant stage.
  • Progressive lessening of the five hindrances can bring the mind to a stable, peaceful state over time. That happens even before the Sōtapanna stage. Then one could feel the increase of the nirāmisa 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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