Many factors interfere with progress toward feeling less stressed and pursuing greater peace, ease, and clarity in each moment of our lives. Of course, external challenges and conditions are always at play as long as we are in our bodies and living this life. And, in most cases, although wishing to feel less stressed and more at ease, there is little we can do to control others or the larger events and conditions of the world around us. We do what we can, of course, but so many other factors are present in others’ decisions and the events of the world that our ability to change them all is limited.
Where we do have some influence, and considerable power, is changing our reactions and choices regarding outer events and the experiences flowing through our inner life. This is the heart of the work of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. By cultivating mindfulness in each moment, our reactions to any expression of life’s unfolding experience– in the form of thoughts, mental states, moods, and bodily sensations–become vividly apparent and more available for understanding and transformation.
In the midst of this changing flow of inner life conditions, there is a particular set of distorting energies that arise–whether you are practicing meditation or not– that is so common, that so impact our relationships with others and the world around us, and interfere so greatly with growing mindful insight and awareness that they are worthy of specific consideration and careful attention. Teachers and students of mindfulness have long referred to these energies as “the five hindrances.“
It can be helpful to think of each of the five as a kind of filter capable of distorting perceptions, driving reactions, activating certain thoughts, memories, moods, and even bodily sensations, and thereby clouding awareness, taking your attention away from the present moment, and literally blocking or hindering your capacity to be aware and responsive. This hijacking by the five hindrances can occur in moments of meditation or at any time in daily life activities.
In meditation, it can happen as you are mindfully watchful of the changing breath sensations, and suddenly your attention leaves the breath. Your mind fills with irritated thoughts about how bored you feel or lustful romantic fantasies. In the busy activity of daily living, as you have probably noticed, any of the five hindrances can also quickly arise and interfere– as when you lose the thread of another person’s comments because your attention has suddenly descended into sleepiness and dullness.
In either case, recognizing the presence of a hindrance and knowing how to work mindfully and wisely with it is critical if you wish to live with less stress and more happiness.
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