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