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The Five Hindrances: Working with Desire

The Five Hindrances: Working with Desire

If we wish to achieve some meditative stability, or some peace in our lives in general, the Buddha’s teaching on the five hindrances is worth considering. The first of these is desire. If you have a western religious background of any kind, you may think that the Buddha is saying desire is a hindrance because it is bad. This, however, is not the point. Desire naturally arises in the mind, sometimes something as minor as “I want a drink of water,” sometimes an overwhelming passion.

Yet any kind of desire is a disturbance in the mind. That is, it takes you away from a state of contentment. If you observe the mind carefully, you may notice times when the mind is at ease, not wanting this or that, but simply content in the moment. Our culture conspires against having many such moments, but you can find them if you look. But once you have a thought of wanting something—even a neutral one such as “my left arm itches and I want to scratch it”, the contented, calm clarity of mind is already gone. It’s as though your looking at a lake high in the mountains on a windless summer day. The water is mirror-like, reflecting what is above it with photographic clarity, when suddenly a gentle wind arises and creates a small ripple in the water. Even if that wind is just about having an itch, the mind is different, and slightly less at ease. In the case of other desires, the energy generated may be immense, and our still pond is no longer mirror-like, but is agitated and distorted.

So when the Buddha says desire is a hindrance, the point is to observe the effect of desire on the mind, and to contrast that with a state of cool contentment.

Beyond that we can say also that some desires are unwholesome. This is not a synonym for wrong or bad. You are not a bad person or a bad meditator for having an unwholesome desire arise, since they arise unbidden out of our conditioning. It simply means that this particular desire does not leady toward well-being, at least not in the longer run. However, in such an instance, it is helpful to note, softly and without judgment, that such a desire has come up.

So to engage in this practice, simply note the contrast between a desiring mind and one that is resting contentedly in the moment. Note the effect on your consciousness of having such a thought and emotion arise. You can also then ask, is this desire leading in the direction of my peace and freedom. Just note it softly, gently. In most cases this will be enough to keep you on course.

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