LET YOUR DISTRACTIONS BE YOUR TEACHERS

The hindrances—our distractions—have a lot to teach us. It’s understandable to think they are “bad” or are our enemies, but this attitude leads to inner tension and mental turbulence. The hindrances are not in fact “bad.” What they are is ineffective strategies for finding happiness. Each hindrance starts with some kind of dissatisfaction, and on some level we assume that the hindrances will help us deal with that dissatisfaction. If we pay attention to what’s driving the hindrances, we can often learn a lot about what our unmet needs are.
Each of the hindrances is trying to do something for us. Each is a strategy, attempting to fulfill a particular need. The principle problem with the hindrances is that they just don’t work. They don’t bring us happiness. Instead, they add to our suffering. The needs underlying our hindrances are perfectly valid and healthy.
Recognizing that each hindrance is trying to fulfill an unmet need can open up the way to finding a healthier and more effective way of fulfilling that need. To do this we need to relax with ourselves, become more aware of the need underlying the hindrance, and then let that need suggest a way of finding fulfillment. Here’s some guidance about how all that can work.

Sense desire…

Sense desire is often triggered by a lack of pleasure or happiness. In an attempt to fill this unmet need, we crave pleasant experiences, but such grasping doesn’t change our underlying sense of emptiness, and when our pleasures end we’re plunged once again into a state of dissatisfaction.
Other times sense desire is a response to fear: we have pleasure and fear losing it, and so we cling tightly to the experience in order to hold onto it. However it’s simply not possible to hold on to pleasure, since it’s in the nature of all experiences to arise and pass away. The hindrance of craving merely creates more suffering, even though its aim is to bring completion and happiness.

…and what you can learn from it

If sense desire is alerting you that your needs for pleasure and happiness are not being met, then in response to those unmet needs, rather than fantasizing, you may be able to relax into your present-moment experience and soften the body. Sense desire teaches us that we are out of touch with ourselves. You may be able to allow pleasure to arise through attending to the natural energy and rhythm of the breathing, and noticing the effect these have on various parts of the body. You may be able to relax your attitude, and allow yourself to be more light, playful, and appreciative.

Ill will…

Ill will is usually sparked off by the presence of an unpleasant feeling. If we’re imagining having an argument with someone, we probably assume that this will stop the other person from behaving in ways that we don’t like, or will make them stay away from us so that we won’t be bothered by them any more. Ill will promises to remove our difficulties from our lives, but of course it merely creates new conflicts.

…and what you can learn from it

Ill will teaches us that there is something painful in us that needs acceptance and reassurance. Ill will is usually defensive, and it may be telling us we have unmet needs for security, reassurance, or self-comfort. Can you find these through acceptance of the painful feelings underlying ill will, and by showing them compassion?

Worry…

Worrying starts with an initial experience of anxiety. Worry is an attempt to “fix” the problem that has led to our anxiety. When we worry, we keep up a stream of thoughts that attempt to anticipate and rehash every detail about the situation that’s making us anxious. But this worry, as we know, merely perpetuates and intensifies our sense of insecurity.

…and what you can learn from it

Worry teaches us that we do not trust ourselves to deal with a difficult situation. I think of it as showing us our unmet needs for confidence and trust. When we’re worrying we don’t trust our fundamental ability to deal with life’s events. So, instead of worrying, can you find confidence from within, by trusting that whatever happens, difficult situations will arise and pass away? Perhaps we can trust that in the end our problems solve themselves. As Julian of Norwich heard in a vision, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Sloth and torpor…

Sloth, or laziness, is often a response to the presence of dread—that sinking feeling we have when faced with some experience we don’t think we can cope with. Sloth is like worry combined with aversion. It’s an avoidance strategy, where we turn away from difficulties because we fear them. We assume that if we just ignore the thing we dread, it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that rarely happens!

…and what you can learn from it

Sloth may likewise show us that we have a need for courage, a need to recognize our own strength, a need for acceptance. We may have resistance to meditating, for example, and find that just by turning toward our resistance we’ll find confidence. If we reflect on how good we’ll feel once we have this unpleasant experience behind us, then we may inspire ourselves to act. As Marianne Williamson observed, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We’re always capable of far more than we think we are.
Tiredness, which is more of a physiological lack of energy, may teaching us that we need to take better care of ourselves. Perhaps we can begin doing this in the moment we become aware we’re tired, by practicing forgiveness, and by accepting our need to rest.

Doubt…

Dread or anxiety may also underlie the hindrance of doubt. If sloth is worry combined with aversion, doubt is worry combined with self-aversion.
Our doubts are thoughts that attempt to validate our desire to turn away from challenging experiences. We tell ourselves that this is something we’re not capable of confronting. We may reinforce a painful and limiting view about ourselves, such as “No one likes me,” because we hope that in being pitiful we’ll get sympathy from others. Doubt doesn’t really protect us from anything. Usually the pain it causes is far worse than the discomfort of facing a challenging situation.

…and what you can learn from it

Doubt may reveal to us that we have an unmet need for clarity. Even getting clear about that need is a start! In fact simply identifying that we’re experiencing doubt can bring enough clarity to help free us from it entirely.
Doubt may also, like sloth, reveal a need for confidence. Being able to step back from our doubt in order to name it can help connect us with our inner strength.
These are just suggestions, though. Our hindrances can point to many forms of unmet need. In order to divine these needs we have to accept the presence of the hindrance without fear or aversion, creating a “sacred pause.” Having created this space, the unexpressed need can come into consciousness directly, rather than appearing wearing the guise of a hindrance. We see the need itself, rather than its expression as a strategy. And then, having met the need face to face, as it were, we can allow it to suggest to us a more effective way that it can be fulfilled. Hindrances, observed mindfully, point us toward our needs.
Our hindrances, if we allow them, will tell us how to find happiness.

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