Stage 2: Hindrances and Mind Wandering


Now, you have started closing the gap between the monkey  (scattered attention) and the elephant (mind). This means your attention is starting to get closer to the mind, instead of outside things. But, this also means you have to learn to handle the mind properly. Until now, you had been on autopilot mode so the body took care of the mind. But now you need to learn how to use conscious effort to control mental states. If you are at Stage 2, that means you have already made meditation a routine and have started working on reinforcing the mind to remain focused on the breath. As you do this, you will encounter resistance from your inner hindrances. When our mind practices mindfulness on the breath, it tends to be free of worries, but this gives a chance for imagination to come in. When all is well, the mind creates unnecessary situations and presents them in front of our consciousness. This is the distraction that leads to forgetting, mind wandering, and worrying. Buddhists call this mind the Monkey Mind. The mind tends to jump from one image to another, trying to find something to hold on to. Even when the mind wants to stop, it can't because that leads to more worrying. The mind has experienced the world where if we aren't thinking or worrying, we are either dead or asleep. But the practice of meditation retrains our mind to learn that it is okay to take a break and just sit there with no preoccupation. Thus, this stage is mainly about overcoming the inner hindrances and starting to work on mind wandering. Stage 3 will focus more on overcoming forgetting, which comes before mind wandering and is more subtle. 

5 Hindrances

All of our problems during meditation as well as in our regular lives can be attributed to 5 hindrances that occur in our very own minds. We often think that our problems can be solved if the world treated us better, or if we had something that we already don't possess. But in reality, all solutions to problems are in your mind, not out there in the world. So theoretically, any person anywhere in the world can be happy if they study their hindrances and start to learn the cognitive map of their mind. The more we learn about what makes us angry, sad, happy, and bored, the more prepared we are to face our inner demons when they do come about in our life. 

1. World Desire: In technical terms, this refers to wanting more material things, pursuing pleasurable activities, and clinging to sensual pleasure. Note that we aren't avoiding anything, we are simply redirecting our mind to things that do not make us cling. Clinging to material things trains the mind to gratify and enjoy the pursuit of those same things. Thus, again and again, we buy new things and get bored of them, and this cycle continues until we die. Gratification, pursuit, and then boredom- they occur again and again. There is no satisfaction, simply a thirst for more. Instead, if we train our minds to reduce our material desires, and live simple lives, we start to become happy easily even by the little things. So, we stop clinging to things and start to be content with what is given. If we want something badly, we have to wait for the right time to get it, because if we don't wait now, we set ourselves up for future problems.  

2. Aversion: The opposite of desire, aversion refers to a negative desire. Anger and aggression are symptoms of aversion that may be present in our daily life. When the mind is presented with something unfamiliar, unpleasant, or something even stressful, it tends to avoid it together. The fight or flight response suggests that either we get stressed (physiologically) and fight the problem, or we flea and try to save ourselves. But these evolutionary systems are not required in our daily civilized societies. We do not need to activate our sympathetic nervous system unnecessarily in response to a heated argument or insulting words. But since we haven't learned to distinguish the events, our brain exhibits the same response. If we don't want something, we cannot just flee from it, we have to face it to become acquainted with it so that it doesn't startle us the next time. 

3. Lethargy: Desire and aversions relate to wanting or not wanting things in the world. Lethargy refers to not having energy- or mental sluggishness. This is when the mind is unwilling to initiate any new activity or continue a previous task. Lethargy is often seen in depression where people aren't able to motivate themselves to get out of their beds to do their daily tasks. Of course, there are neurobiological markers of depression, but the root problem here is that the mind perceives effort as worthless, so it doesn't even try to do them. An example is running in the morning; a person thinks they don't have the effort to wake in the morning, so they give up the resolution right away. The mind gives excuses when it is convenient, and counters them when it isn't.

4. Worrying: The underlying problem in all hindrances is worrying or anxiety. It is this tendency to be scared of the future, which is uncertain and impermanent. But this type of worrying refers to restlessness. The restlessness of the mind is the hallmark of the monkey mind. This is often the hardest hindrance to deal with because it is so deep-rooted conditioned in us. Our brains love to secrete epinephrine and other hormones that induce a sense of overwhelming power. Since our ancestors were always active, they enjoyed this epinephrine rush, but today's society only suffers from its excess use. Since our physical needs are met, the excessive energy goes into mental thinking- thinking about something rather than nothing. Thinking has become some sort of grand activity that happens naturally just because there is enough time and energy for it. You can relate to this if you have had days where you have so much work that you have no time to think. Paradoxically, you aren't as stressed as you would be if you had some time in between to think about all the work. In other words, energy put in physical activity provides relief, but the energy put in mental activity, oftentimes, not always, gives unnecessary worrying. 

5. Doubt: All psychopathology comes down to one principle: self-esteem and self-efficacy. If a human thinks of himself as a useless part of society, they are bound to developmental disorders. Doubt takes away the inner confidence of a man and inserts limits. In our case, when we doubt our capabilities, we take away half of the energy we need to strive in our journey. That half of energy taken away goes into self-denial and negative loops of thought. So the energy must go somewhere, either in trying something new and failing, or inhibiting our effort and thinking about our inadequacies. There can be doubt on whether you are succeeding in the path of meditation, but it is always useful to insert a dominant perspective of trying your best regardless of how unlikely the positive result is. Because trying is always better than not trying, regardless of what consequences you get. Even if you failed in the end, the process of trying matured your abilities and set you up for future success. 

The 5 hindrances appear to come when we are vulnerable. For example, the moment your mind perceives it is in danger (real or fake), it tries to produce one of the hindrances to seek a way out of that danger. For example, if you have a bad day, substance use (desire) helps you feel better, or anger on your wife (aversion) helps you relieve the inner stress. The situations are endless, and the mind is smart enough to seek the easy way when it can. The hindrances themselves aren't bad they are trying to help you out. They are trying to solve your problems, but they just aren't good at them. They overshoot sometimes and end up hurting us instead of helping. The best way to deal with the hindrances is to use their counter tool. 

So when the desire arises, we can apply a little bit of aversion by reminding ourselves that the material world is impermanent and the object of desire is the source of only short-term gratification. This is how we can balance the hindrances, so all of them are in check. It works well if our mind is equal with positive, and negative energy, with desire and aversion, but doubt is rarely a good sign. Skepticism is useful in the pursuit of knowledge, but it is important to balance it with faith. Faith, that is nor too blind, nor too weak, just the right amount. 

The more and more we practice balancing these hindrances, the better we train our minds to remain steady when they arise. Soon the hindrances stop coming because the mind has learned a new way to fix its problems. That new way is to focus on the breath and continue balancing the opposing forces. 

One practical way to practice our breath meditation is by following the breath. The hindrances will go naturally, as you switch your attention from the content of the problem to the feeling of the breath. Long breaths are natural indicators of the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and relax state. So this is the best way to redirect your mind to remain balanced when there is too much or too little energy. But being too relaxed isn't good either, because that may lead to drowsiness and sleeping. So we often pair the attention of the breath with the attention of the surrounding. So our sensory organs are still transducing signals that we are aware of, but we are balancing that with our awareness of the breath. 

The cycle of distraction starts with some distraction- a hindrance in mind or an outside object. This leads to us forgetting to pay attention to our breath. Just as we had started being aware of the breath, we forget about it because something else is more interesting. Once we forget our role of being aware of the breath, the mind wanders like a monkey from one idea to the next. This is where we have to drag it back to the breath before it gets too caught up in its imagination. This is known as the 'Waking Up' stage. Here we realize that we had forgotten to pay attention to our breath and feel happy to be able to recognize our forgetting. In other words, we have an 'aha' moment where we catch the mind before it keeps jumping to the new branch. This serves as a positive reinforcement for the mind because each time we catch ourselves getting distracted, we reward the mind with happiness and confidence. The aha moment serves as a short and simple confidence marker that helps us learn to be more concentrated. The more you catch your mind before it drifts to new ideas, the better you will be at overcoming mind wandering. The same applies to hindrances. The better you are at noticing them and having the aha moment, the easier it will be to control them. At the end of the aha moment, you remind yourself to remain in the present moment. If this is hard to do, then you can use the counting method where you count your breaths backward from ten to one intending to be aware of each breath. Another trick is to pay close attention to the feeling of the breath, its temperature, its pressure, and all other characteristics that define the inhalation and exhalation periods. The goal is to catch yourself before the mind wanders, and feel good about this recognition so that it becomes second nature soon. 

Unification of the Mind

As you continue to practice recognizing when the mind wanders and using the aha moment to reinforce the act of catching yourself from getting distracted, you will start to unify the mental contents. Up until now, we have referred to the term 'mind' as a singular entity. But when you think about it, the mind is not a single entity, instead, it is a collection of different ideas and memories that create congruent and incongruent perceptions of the world. Each mental process serves as a 'hat' for the thing that we call 'I.' This notion that I am the mind is incorrect because the mind is not singular, therefore the I cannot be singular either. In other words, I am nothing but a collection of different processes that interact with each other and with the environment. As I focus more on the breath, different mental processes start to appear and disappear, which gives me an experience of their content. A thought about cake comes up, then about a party, then about several friends, about the time, you played basketball with them. These individual thoughts do not hold any value until they form a story, and that is exactly what the 'I' does. The I takes various mental processes and makes a story. So when we are meditating and mind wandering, it is nothing but different mental processes working one after the other. But since there is enough attention given to them, I interpret them as a story. 

But what happens when we unify all these processes? What happens when my thoughts are well aligned and all of them are geared towards the meditation object? Soon enough, the mind starts to relax because there is no conflict. When mental processes are different, there seems to be conflict and subtle pain, but when mental processes are alike, the mind starts to ease into a peaceful state. Unification of mind is not accomplished until Stage 7, but it is started here in Stage 2 because it serves as a good indication of where you are at. If you can unify your thoughts in the first 10 minutes of meditation, you are quite advanced. But if it takes you longer, that is okay, you are still working your way up the stages. Regardless of where you are, unifying the mind has beautiful consequences that cannot be described by words. You must experience it for yourself in meditation. The only way to unify your mind during meditation is to enjoy it and make it a satisfying experience. When the mind is joyful, it tends to avoid conflicts and this helps with awareness of the breath. 

This stage ends when you can sit through the various hindrances that may come up. You are also able to follow the breath and observe when your awareness shifts from the sensation of the breath to various ideas in the mind. Finally, your periods of mind wandering should reduce as you progress through this stage. You may still forget your meditation object at times, but you are good at recognizing when this happens and can catch yourself before you loop into more thoughts. Next up is working on forgetting and having a strong foundation of continuous attention.