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WEEK THREE: Emotions & Hindrances
Until now, you have been experiencing emotions and hindrances during your meditation periods, but the instructions have been to focus on the breath and the body. This week you will devote more attention to these emotions and hindrances and become more skillful in dealing with them. In order to do this, we investigate the nature of these experiences as they happen. This week, as your daily time commitment increases to two thirty-minute meditation sessions and two walking periods, you will continue to work with the breath and the body while putting particular attention on emotions like anger and hindrances like restlessness. The following guided meditations provide instructions for working with the hindrances and emotions.
Guided Meditation: Handling Hindrances
One of the keys to a skillful relationship with the five hindrances is being able to name them or to make a mental note of them. The five classical hindrances to meditation practice are desire, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt. We practice noting very softly, giving about 95 percent of our attention to actually being with the experience, to sensing it completely. Only 5 percent of our energy goes into the soft, gentle naming of it.
We use mental noting with the hindrances to bring us into a direct relationship with them, as opposed to elaborating or judging or creating a story about what’s going on. If aversion, or anger, arises, for example, we would note it as “anger, anger.” This brings us close to the exploration of anger itself. What is anger? What does it feel like? What is its nature?
Mental noting takes us in a very different direction from getting lost in a story: “Oh, this anger is so miserable; I am such a terrible person because I’m always angry; this is just how I will always be,” and so on. Instead, we simply say to ourselves, “anger, anger”—and cut through all of that elaboration, the story, the judgment, the interpretation.
As you note the particular hindrance, you can also be conscious of what happens to it. How does it behave? Does it intensify? Does it fade away? Pay particular attention to whether or not it manifests in the body. If so, how does it feel? What parts of the body are affected by the arising of this force in the mind? The chest, the stomach, the head, the eyes, the breath—where are you feeling it?
What does it feel like in the mind, in the heart, as a mood, as a coloration, as an experience? Do you feel open, or do you feel contracted when this hindrance is present? Do you feel closed off and separate, or do you feel connected? Whatever it is, explore and discover without judgment. Simply pay attention. Watch and see the nature of this hindrance in the moment and observe how it changes. Is it growing stronger? Is it growing weaker? Is it changing into something else?
Listen to the voices that come along with the hindrances. What are they saying to you? What are they saying about you and what you’re capable of? Very often with the hindrances, and especially with the forces of desire or anger, we get so lost in the object that we forget to pay any attention to the feeling itself. We fixate so much on what we want, or what we want to keep, or what we hate and want to push away, that we don’t spend much time feeling the nature of desire or of anger itself. So ask yourself now: what do they feel like? See if you can let go of that fixation on the object of the feeling. Relax. Abide in the feeling. It’s an act of discovery. It’s as though somebody were to say to you, “What is desire? What is anger?” Not “Why are you feeling it?” or “Is it right or is it wrong?” Just “What is it?”
The hindrances are going to arise. We don’t have to be upset or afraid about that. We don’t have to feel disappointed because of it. We can come to understand a great deal about our experience—about our own suffering and our release from suffering—just from coming to understand these hindrances better.
Guided Meditation: How Does It Feel?
We’ve talked about working with the mind states of the hindrances as they arise in meditation and in our lives. We also want to become aware of the entire range of emotional life. The various emotions that arise in sitting practice and in walking—we want to bring this awareness to all of these, and then beyond that to the emotions we experience in the world every day. As you sit, feeling the breath, feeling sensations, noticing the hindrances as they arise, be aware of different emotions as they appear in your experience. There might be the feeling of happiness or sadness; there might be the feeling of joy or depression. You might feel quite light or buoyant. You might feel heavy or despairing.
Each one of these states can be opened to, noticed, and noted. The practice is to be aware of them without identifying with them; not taking them to be “I” or “self ” or “mine,” but seeing them as a constellation or experience arising out of conditions. We see them lasting for some time, changing, disappearing, in the form of sensations in the body; particular thoughts or images associated with the emotion; or as a certain texture or coloration of the mind. Each emotion has its own particular flavor. We want to investigate all of these aspects.
The first step in working with an emotion is to recognize what it is. It’s very helpful to use mental noting to bring forth clear recognition: “This is happiness, this is sadness, this is loneliness, this is excitement, this is interest, this is boredom.” Clear recognition can be very helpful. If other thoughts rush in to associate with the naming, practice returning, again and again, to the simple naming.
When an emotion is arising strongly in your experience, it’s useful to notice the different aspects or constituents of the emotion. Feel the specific sensations in the body. Is there heat? Is the body contracted? Is it open? Is it soft? Notice whether there are particular images or thoughts associated with the emotion, and notice the mind flavor of the particular feeling. Each emotion has its own flavor, the flavor of sadness or happiness or joy or love or anger. Open to the subtleties in the mind and body as each of these feelings arises.
Sometimes you may not be able to recognize exactly what the emotion is. There’s no need to spend a long time trying to analyze it; you can simply open to the feeling with the general note of “feeling” or “emotion” until what it is becomes clearer to you.
So the first step is recognition. The second step is acceptance. There’s often a tendency to resist or deny certain emotions, particularly if they’re unpleasant. There are certain emotions that we don’t like to feel. These can be different for each of us. For some people, there is a resistance to feeling anger or sadness or unworthiness. In our meditation practice, we want to recognize what’s arising and be accepting of whatever it is. Acceptance is the key to the third step, which is nonidentification with the emotion. The understanding is that this constellation of experience is arising out of conditions and then passing away. It is nonpersonal. There’s no one behind them to whom they are happening.
This may take some practice to understand. It’s a very subtle and difficult point, because often what we most personalize, what we most identify with, are the emotions. They’re what we’re most likely to take ourselves to be.
Monday–Friday: Practice seated meditation for thirty minutes in the morning and in the evening. Include two periods of walking meditation, of any length, in the course of the day. Pay particular attention to emotions and hindrances, working with them according to the instructions above.
Weekend Challenge: Devote four hours this weekend to silent meditation in sessions of at least thirty minutes. Practice being mindful of emotions and hindrances as they arise this weekend, both during and outside of your formal meditation periods.