By Eknath Easwaran
The five obstacles that keep us from diving below the surface of the mind, as per Buddha are:
1. Sensuality: “Sensuality,” in the Buddha’s language, is not a term of moral judgment. It refers simply to our human tendency to become entangled in the impressions of our senses – to become so attached to what brings sensory pleasure or pain that we lose real freedom of choice. This is a normal biological response, but when we are trying to enter and master the world within, it keeps us oriented in just the wrong direction. To turn spiritual, we have to detach ourselves from the hold the senses have on the mind; there is no other way.
The Buddha gave us a useful rule of thumb for dealing with the senses: neither asceticism nor overindulgence. Don’t do everything your senses tell you, the Buddha would say, but don’t try to starve them into submission either. Train them to be your friends and allies.
In the act of seeing, the Buddha would say, there are three separate elements: the eyes, the object, and an act of attention. When all three come together, there is sensation. Right now, for example, I am seated at a beautiful desk given to me by friends. While I am looking at the desk, I can appreciate its beauty. But when I am reading at it, I do not really see it; my attention is completely absorbed in my book.
The application of this abstract idea is highly practical: if you can withdraw your attention, no sensation on earth can have any hold over you. That sensation simply will not be there for you; it will have no connection with your mind.
When attention is under this kind of control, all the senses are your friends. If they wander off into areas where they can get into trouble, you have only to call them back and they will obey. This is what you have been doing in meditation all along, bringing your attention back whenever it strays. Now you can apply the same skill during the day, whenever the mind feels attracted by some old sensory habit.
The next development in sensory obsession is anger. You try to go on satisfying your desires, trying to get what you want either in some relationship or some possession or experience, and things keep getting in your way. That is life. But the more this happens, the further the fermentation process goes. The desire becomes obsessive. You get frustrated, irritated, resentful, hostile, angry.
When this happens you are continuously angry, constantly hostile – if not overtly, then beneath the surface, where thoughts simmer unaware. You see things that are not there and act on situations that simply do not exist the way you perceive them. It is impossible to reason with people in this advanced condition; they are drunk with anger. And the primary cause is getting involved in sense-stimulation to the point of obsession.
2. Ill Will: The second obstacle, ill will, is perhaps the most serious impediment in meditation. According to the Buddha, ill will expresses itself in one hundred and thirty-five forms! Each of us has a regular catalog of them. That is what makes ill will so difficult to recognize at first, leave aside how difficult it is to
tackle. If only we could get a catalog of negative mental formations like the ones that come in the mail every other week from L. L. Bean! Fortunately, says the Buddha, tackling ill will does not require becoming familiar with the whole catalog. What we have to do is learn how to undo the underlying habit of mind.
What we are really doing is slowly developing a compulsive tendency to think in negative terms. In fact, we are working on that tendency very hard. The issue is not what that particular person said or did not say, meant or did not mean. The real issue is that we are developing a tendency to dwell compulsively on what anybody says to us – which means we are developing a tendency to get upset. We are making ourselves up-settable emotionally fragile under stress. After enough of this fermenting, our mind will boil at the most harmless little thing. We will be at the mercy of everyone. The Buddha’s final diagnosis: we do not generally suffer from others; we suffer from ourselves.
The cure is to go against that habit. Never accuse others or blame them; try to refrain even in your own thoughts. After all, there is always going to be a certain amount of unwitting unkindness in life. It is up to us not to become unkind in turn. Those who like to be separate, Buddha says, make a practice of disliking people, because the more they dislike, the more separate they become. The opposite, fortunately, is just as true: the more you practice liking people, the more deeply you will feel one with them – and, miraculously, the deeper you will find yourself going in meditation too.
3. Laziness: This third obstacle is easy enough to understand. Just as laziness is our enemy in making money or in gaining prestige or power, it is our enemy in spiritual growth. Hard work is absolutely necessary for excellence in any field, and nothing requires more intense effort than meditation.
We have to learn to be detached from the results of our work. Detachment brings confidence and clarity of vision. When obstacles arise, if you are detached you won’t lose your nerve; you know you can turn obstacles into opportunities. And when opposition comes, you can face it squarely and learn from it without stress or agitation. Detachment means withdrawing your personal energy from secondary activities; discrimination is seeing where to focus that energy, so that all your choices take you closer to your goal.
4. Restlessness: Restlessness can mean different things. Often it signals the rise of energy that is crying out to be harnessed, which is a very promising sign. The person who can’t find a challenge big enough, who roams the globe seeking new places or thrills and can’t manage to settle down to a humdrum job, may be just ripe for meditation: looking for something that can’t be found in the external world, ready to turn inward. Once you start meditating, restlessness is the same signal, but now it
means the time has come to go deeper. When we hit a pocket of resistance in consciousness, the mind has two common ploys: either it gets restless and turns to all kinds of irrelevant distractions in the outside world, or it gets lazy and falls asleep. In either case, the strategy during the day is the same: hard, selfless work is an essential part of spiritual living.
5. Fear: The last obstacle is fear. Actually, the word the Buddha uses is a general term that includes all kinds of apprehensive possibilities: not just being outright fearful that something might happen to you or your family, but also feeling uneasy inside, uncomfortable about the future, vaguely worried, more than a little afraid.
One particularly common form this obstacle takes is anxiety – that vague sense of feeling apprehensive, you know not of what; the nebulous, lurking fear that you are unequal to life, unable to cope, sinking under some unseen pressure.
Anxiety, the Buddha would say, stems essentially from not being able to be what we want to be – which, in turn, comes from not knowing who we really are. These misapprehensions can go deep into consciousness; so please do not be impatient with yourself and expect anxiety to vanish overnight. Yet nothing dispels anxiety more effectively than meditation, because it goes straight to the heart of the problem: not on the surface, but deep within the mind.
When you are meditating sincerely and systematically, every day brings you little closer to your real Self, a little more at home in a world you can deal with. Even if there is a big gap between who you are and what you want to become, you have the tools in your hands and know how to use them. Meditation and its allied disciplines – training our senses and passions, training attention, putting the welfare of others first – are the learning tools.