Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances

Revised August 2, 2016; November 25, 2018; September 9, 2019

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

2. 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, then those unwanted thoughts cannot come back. Several techniques are available. 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 unwanted thoughts to 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.

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 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 Samatha meditation, and some people can even get to meditative jhānic 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, any relief from “breath meditation” is only fleeting.

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 are called kilēsa or keles 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 undesirable, an eyesore, if one or more of the following happens. (i) A dark-colored dye is in water, (ii) The lake has boiling water, (iii) Water is covered with moss, (iv) Lake is perturbed by wind, (v) Water is turbid and muddy.

6. Similarly, a peaceful mind will become polluted due to five hindrances (panca nīvarana). They are called “nīvarana” because they cover the mind from seeing the right from wrong. They are kāmaccandha, vyāpāda, tina middha, uddacca kukkucca, and vicikiccā.

  • One cannot see the bottom of a lake if any of the above five factors are present. In the same way, the mind loses its capacity to “see things clearly” if those hindrances are there.

7. Extreme sense desire (kāmaccandha) is like a dark dye. Kāmaccandha (“kāma”+“ichcha”+ “anda” means blinded by sense desires).

  • 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 “anda” is for blind.
  • The attraction for something becomes so strong that one’s complete attention is on that object. The mind can lose any control over what is sensible and what is not rational (or immoral).

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 the hells (apāyā).
  • Vayāpāda (“vayā”+”pāda”) means traveling downward (in the 31 realms): “vaya” is destruction and “pāda” means “(walking) towards.”

9. Tina 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.

10. Uddacca-kukkucca (customarily 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. When one has kukkucca, one is willing to do “lowly things” suitable even for an animal. These are TWO mental factors (cetasika).
  • Both these characteristics lead to a scattered mind that is incapable of seeing right from wrong; as a nīvarana, they arise together. After the Sōtapanna stage, only uddacca remains as a cetasika. It goes away only at the Arahant stage.

11. Vicikiccā is the tendency to do stupid things because of the ignorance of the true nature of this world. It comes from “vi” is twisted, “ca” (pronounced “cha”) is thoughts, and “kiccā” is an action done with “iccā” or cravings.

  • For example, the tendency to do immoral actions to get one wants comes from vicikiccā. One does not know or does not care about the adverse consequences of such activities. Thus vicikiccā 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 of this world. That helps REMOVE the vicikiccā nīvarana. But suppressing that is enough to attain jhānā.

12. In another simile, the Buddha compared the five hindrances (panca nīvarana) to the darkness that keeps one from seeing the true nature. For example, one who is extremely angry cannot see the damage done to the other person and for 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 to 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 at a time when the mind is calm. Then one can absorb more.

13. It is good to practice 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).“

  • The reason for these hindrances to be present is the 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 as bad habits, desires, and mental impurities will decrease. In the simile we talked about in the beginning, the water in that lake will become pure by removing the dye, boiling water, moss, wind, and the mud. In the same way, the lake becomes calm and serene again in the absence of those ROOT CAUSES.
  • The hindrances of tina middha and vicikiccā go away at the Sōtapanna stage. Those of kāmaccandha, vyāpāda, and uddacca-kukkucca reduce to kāma rāga, paṭigha, and uddacca.  At this stage, the remaining three are no longer nīvarana. Kāma rāga and paṭigha lessen at the Sakadāgāmi stage and disappear at the Anāgāmi stage. Uddacca 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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