Last night’s class focused on dissecting the Eightfold Path. Just for reference, here’s an image taken from a blog called “In Our Shoes“:
I’m sure I’ll go into more about the pieces of that in another post, but for now, I wanted to talk about something I’ve found to arise a lot in the initial stages of this class that relates to that last section– Concentration. In mindfulness training, you often hear about the five hindrances. (Yes, I know, there seem to be a lot of those “12 Holy Containers” type things. Bear with me.)
The Five Hindrances
Firstly, what are they hindering, exactly? I think of the hindrances as obstacles to my practice. These are the roadblocks that I encounter in making progress towards a clearer understanding of myself… or Things As They Are, if you will.
Desire and Aversion
The first two, desire and aversion, are in a way the key to the larger game. They are, along with a neutral numbness, the states that we’re trying to see clearly in our practice.
If you think about it, we generally suffer– whether it’s because “the remote’s over there, and I’m over here” or because our house just burned down– not because of the thing itself but because we’re so pissed that it’s not how we want it to be. It’s not fair. It’s inconvenient. It’s painful. Whatever. We’re upset that we have to do something we don’t want to do, be with someone we don’t want to be with, or feel something we don’t want to feel. That’s aversion.
On the flip side, desire is that miserable feeling that you should have something, someone, or an experience that you don’t have. Chocolate, sex, silence, more money, a BMW… It doesn’t matter. Even if we get it, we’ll just move on to the next thing on the list. At another level, it’s a deep misunderstanding of the whole idea of “having” anything, but more on that later.
Sloth and Restlessness
Sloth and restlessness are actually kind of easy to understand. If your body or mind are sleepy, your awareness is dulled by factors difficult to control. You can’t meditate, if you fall asleep. On the other hand, if you’re so amped up that you have a hard time sitting still, your mind is probably like the dreaded monkey locked in a house– running around looking out all the windows, one after another. Neither is impossible to control, but they’re definitely stumbling blocks.
My current favorite hindrance, though, is doubt. Doubt is that creeping sense that this is bullshit. Or that your teacher is a flake. Or that you’ll turn into a zombie if you stop wanting things. Doubt creeps up, like a demon, and suggests that you look pretty stupid sitting on that cushion with your eyes closed.
I’ve primarily studied Buddhism by myself because of doubt. I feared that I’d be exposed to people or situations that would distract me from the meaningful content. There’d be Birkenstock-wearing, puffy sweatered, huggers saying crap like “I see the loving vibrations coming from your chakras tonight.” Or, I’d make some horrible faux pas like sitting on my cushion wrong. I didn’t want anyone to spoil something that had become very important to me.
Recently, though, especially after listening to podcasts like Audio Dharma, I started seeing that I’d been limiting myself to only what was comfortable. Learning is not about hearing what you want to hear in a way that you want to hear it. It’s about putting yourself in front of the truth and dealing with it. The uncomfortable truth for me, in this case, was that not everyone talks, dresses, or thinks like I do, and yet, we’re all the same at a very basic level. I needed to face those triggers and learn to let them go if I wanted to make progress.
In fact, when I considered signing up for this class, I spent some time on-line researching it and the community where it was being taught. I watched part of a talk that Robert gave and immediately latched on to his habit of playing a hand-drum when he reads poetry in his talks.
Whoa, there, Major Tom… how groovy are you? Don’t try to feel my aura, space traveler! I decided, then and there, that this class wasn’t for me!
But, for whatever reason, I decided to sit and listen to the rest of his talk the next day. The topic: doubt. His talk was a pitch-perfect addressing of the doubt that I’d used as an excuse to get myself out of acting on my intention. I was using one meaningless thing that didn’t resonate with me personally to make a blanket judgment about the value of everything else he might be able to give me. He plays a drum when he reads poetry. So what?
A crack in my cone of judgment had opened, and it became pretty inescapable that I do it a lot. People say, do, or wear something, and I toss them into a category. They lose their individual humanity and become a “new-age weirdo”, “conservative jerk”, or “hipster douchebag”. After that, everything they say is processed through that lens. It’s all rough with no diamonds.
Now, I’m very aware of it happening. In class, he talked about the idea of Right Livelihood– basically doing a job that doesn’t cause harm– and listed some that the Buddha apparently singled out as unwise. They included soldiers and fishermen. Wait a minute. Soldier? You mean the people who defeated the nazis? The ones who show up to deliver humanitarian aid in disasters? Fisherman? What the what? I was off and running. If that’s a basic piece of the Eightfold Path, maybe the rest of it is a load of crap.
And then it hit me. Doubt. What if these careers are being taken out of context of time and culture? Even if they’re not, does the fact that I disagree with one relatively insignificant part of this demonstrably (to me) true philosophical system mean I have to throw out the whole thing? That’s… kinda crazy, isn’t it? Why not just make a note to think about it and move on?
The rest of our session was great. I still have some intuitive confusion about how some of the pieces fit together (e.g., what’s the real difference between a “mental state” and the “mind”, how do right concentration and right mindfulness differ?), but last night moved me just a little closer to really getting it. Had I allowed myself to get caught up in that attack of doubt, I’d have thrown out the baby, the bathwater, and the tub, all because I saw some lint in the water.
The lesson learned was that, with all the hindrances, the key is recognizing them. Awareness is more than half the battle. Once you realize that you’re wishing you were somewhere else, it’s easier to identify where your sense of irritation is coming from. If you are aware of sleepiness, you can choose to push through it or to just take a nap. Once you see your discursive, jabbering mind using doubt as an excuse to go back to “how things were”, you can call bullshit on it and get back to working on a better understanding.