This is my second of several posts I am writing about five basic hindrances to meditation Buddha talked about—difficult energies that arise in the mind and in life as a part of meditation practice.
In my last blog I gave a general introduction to these and talked about desire. Now I want to touch on the second hindrance, aversion or dislike. After folks have established a meditation practice, often they are impatient for their minds to settle down and their life to be transformed. Someone with a daily meditation practice that she had stayed with for more than 4 years said to me recently, “I shouldn’t be confused after all this sitting. I wish it would go away. Can you help me with this? I replied, “Every time you hear that voice saying you’re not doing it right or you should do more, or whatever, count the judgments for awhile just to see them.” She tried that and she was still fighting with them. I said, “Alright, continue counting them but give thanks with each count whether you feel thankful or not.” The next time I met with her she seemed much more accepting of her confusion and as a result, not plagued by it.
I am writing this on the way home from visiting my grandsons. In the airport there was a family with four young kids who were really misbehaving. The woman next to me and I started chatting, talking about our kids and grandkids. As these kids were bopping and jiving around us, the woman asked me, “Do you remember the time when you really just wanted to pick your kids up and throw them out the window, and you didn’t care?” And I do! (But luckily I didn’t follow through on it.)
Whenever we have a strong negative feeling, can we acknowledge that it has arisen and notice the strength of its energy? Can we be aware of the feeling and touch it with our hearts? Can we connect with it from a place of tenderness or caring, making friendswith it? If we can’t let things into our heart, we don’t really let ourselves grow. Trying to get over our aversions or get rid of them simply doesn’t work.
Underlying aversion, fear is often lurking. Years ago, when the nested eating bowls call oryoki were introduced at San Francisco Zen Center I was not a happy camper, since they were designed for right handed people and I was left handed. For more than three years we had used knifes and forks during our meals. And we were told that there was only one way to use the bowls. As a “lefty,” I had aversion to using them because I was afraid of being thought poorly of. This was accentuated by the fact that my young wife was one of the oryoki teachers. Finally, they let us lefties do it in a modified manner, but I had negative feelings about these meals for years. The specific movements seemed orchestrated for right-handed people and I was sure everyone was noticing what a klutz I was.
I’ve talked over the years about different way we can deal with negative stuff both during meditation and in our daily lives. We can narrow the focus, broaden the focus, or changing our focus in some other way. During group meditation, let’s say the breathing of the person next to us is bothering us. We might narrow our focus by concentrating on our own breath while repeating some calming or centering word to ourselves. Or we might broaden it by incorporating the sound of the person’s breathing into our own meditation. I remember being continually distracted for some time by cars zooming by on the street outside our meditation space in San Francisco. Then I read a book about the musician John Cage in which he talked about welcoming dissonant sounds as music. I began incorporating the traffic noise into my meditation focus and it worked! My mind settled down every time I welcomed the noise.
Outside of meditation we can also effectively change focus. When I first was asked to give talks at our Zen center, I was petrified, because I was sure I would make a fool of myself… and the first couple of times I did. But I experimented with changing my focus to what the audience needed to know instead of my desire for the talk to be successful and it worked. Before I began my talks I broadened my focus to look at everyone in the room with awareness that I had something to share that could support them and my nervousness vanished!
In certain situations, narrowing our focus can be equally effective in daily life. If you are hiking on a scary path, you can focus on “one step, one breath” instead of the drop 1,000 feet down.
In other situations we find aversive, we might ask ourselves what we might learn from this. If we are being harsh with ourselves or someone else, send good vibes to ourselves or them. We just finished a practice period at Zen center that featured loving kindness practices. Feedback was so positive that in our next retreat I am featuring loving kindness practice.
I’d like to close with a reminder that the fearthat underlies aversion is always about something that hasn’t yet happened. In periods of short or longer meditation we have the luxury of time to just be with fear as it comes up. As we learn more and more about it without judging or evaluating it, its power naturally dissipates and even vanishes, especially if we keep the tips I have just given in mind.
In my next posts I will discuss five basic hindrances to meditation that Buddha talked about. These hindrances are difficult energies, which arise in the mind and in life as a part of meditation practice.
In Egypt in the second century, Christian Desert Father Evagrius talked about being assailed by demons while meditating which were similar to Buddha’s five:
1. Desire: Like wanting to give up meditating to experience something comfortable like a soft bed
2. Aversion: Because it was too hot or too cold to meditate;
3. Sloth and torpor: Once you get rid of desire and aversion in your sitting, the demon of sleepiness arrives
4. Restlessness: You could be home relaxing instead of sitting staring at a wall or into space
5. Doubt: The demon of doubting the entire meditative process
When Buddha talked about these hindrances, he used the metaphor of a poisoned tree. He suggested that we have three options:
First, we can chop it down and try to get rid of it.
Second, we can put up a sign near the tree that says, “This is a poisoned tree. Don’t eat the berries, don’t eat the leaves,” and instead of killing it, take shade in it rather than freaking out.
Finally, we can say, “Oh, a poisoned tree, just what I’ve been looking for. These berries make the best medicine for curing a number of illnesses, including the illness of desire, aversion, restlessness, sloth, and doubt. I’ll take the very energies that are difficult and work with them, distill them in my own body and heart until I have converted them into medicine to support my life.”
All of us have desires. All of us hate certain things. All of us get exhausted and want to veg out now and then. And at times we all have doubts about our meditation practice and ourselves.
I’ll spend the rest of this piece talking about the first hindrance, desire.
We experience both physical desires (e.g., food, comfort, and sex) and emotional desires (e.g., feeling connected to others and the world beyond ourselves). Often we are driven as much or more by these emotional desires than the physical ones, reaching out time and time again to our lover, our friend, our teacher. We have a fundamental insecurity about our identity or place in the world.
In my early days of Zen practice, I watched my friends imitate my teacher; shaving their heads, wearing black (this was before any of us had been ordained), and even making some of the same grammatical mistakes he did because they so much wanted to be like him to relieve their own insecurity.
When we are thrown off balance by a particular desire, how can we work with the energy emanating from that desire rather than repressing it? Zen teacher Dogen suggested we study it. Each desire has a beginning, middle, and end.
For example, I love chocolate. And if I want to practice around my almost insatiable desire for chocolate, instead of just grabbing for a piece, I can feel the desire in my body, notice my anticipatory salivation, imagine the satisfaction of putting a piece in my mouth. I can feel the tension and pain in my craving for it. I can notice how quickly the tension and pain dissipates as the chocolate touches my tongue and melts in my mouth. What great happiness I feel! And how much of this is relief that the desire has ended.
And we can study the negative emotions that emanate from desire in the same way. We can discover what triggers that anger, that confusion, that hatred, that sadness, and how it intensifies, what thoughts come up, and even what physiological changes occur and how, at a certain moment, these end. How much healthier this is than just saying, “I’ll get rid of this.”
By studying our emotions we learn how we actually relate to our family, to the people nearest to us, our Sangha, both when we get what we want and when our desires are thwarted.
As a first child, the former CEO of a large non-profit agency, and guiding teacher at Zen Center for the last 16 years, I am used to people following my direction, which used to work pretty well. One of my desires is to be right. I love to be right. It feels good to be right and have everyone follow me along. But my wife has needed to remind me from time to time that, “You’re not my CEO!” And now for the first time I am sharing leadership at Zen Center with Ted O’Toole. What do I do when he disagrees with me?
Can I listen to Ted’s voice, notice my immediate resistance, my felt sense, the tension in my body, what it does in that moment to my relationship with Ted, and notice what the sense of self is that is built around that story that I’m right.
Can we relate to each of our desires in a friendly, compassionate, wise way, focusing not on the object of desire, but the feeling including the pain or fear that evokes it? It takes courage to do this, and it takes a regular meditation practice to slow down enough so we can really pay attention. But we can also do it with lightheartedness.
The Dalai Lama, speaking at Gethsemane monastery, said that he had just been given a piece of cheese and he really wanted cake and he guffawed. If we experience the feeling that lies behind our desire, it loses it power over us and we can just guffaw!
This is not to say that desire is all bad. To be human is to experience desire.
If we desire something that might be appropriate, but we are clinging to that desire, we can focus on its impermanent nature.
If we desire something that is harmful to us, we can focus on the consequences of getting what we want. Sometimes I need to remind myself that the sugar in chocolate is likely to activate my Lyme’s Disease symptoms.
Buddha spoke to his son Rahula about desire. He pointed out that if Rahula saw that his desires would lead to harm for himself or others, he shouldn’t act on them. If, on the other hand, he saw no harmful consequences from his actions, he should take joy in his progress on the path, and use that joy to nourish his continued practice.
Finally we can ask ourselves when a desire comes up, “Is this something I really want,” or “what really matters to me? If I only had another month or another six months to live, what would I do?”
Since I am already 76, I do this frequently. I realize how fortunate I am to have two healthy desires to return to whenever I get swept away by negative ones: to support folks at Zen Center in unburdening their minds of weighty thought and emotion, and to spend time with my grandchildren. I hope you can tap into desires that bring joy to your life as well.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher