Meditation is the practice of being present in this moment, becoming more skillful in how we relate to our experience and becoming more compassionate with ourselves and others. With practice we develop mindfulness throughout the day. With mindfulness we are able to notice the nature of the thoughts that pass through our field of awareness. I have begun to notice how sometimes these thoughts have a gravitational pull, drawn to a certain future event, like the treat I've promised myself later in the day or a concern I have about whether the layover on an upcoming trip is long enough for us to catch our next plane. Or the pull might be toward something that happened in the past, something I'm still feeling emotional ripples from experiencing, or something I'm figuring out how I might have handled differently with better results.That sense of gravitational pull makes these small future or past events feel like the center of my mental universe. They are where my mind is drawn if I’m not busy with something else.
Have you noticed any gravitational thoughts -- events in the past or future that hold your attention? Maybe it’s the dread of some chore, the daydream of some future situation, anticipating or longing for pleasure, questioning whether you are up to the task you set out to do, or maybe your thoughts are more muddled and you just want to sleep. Each of these kinds of thoughts can be categorized in what the Buddha called the Hindrances: Sense Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt. [Read more about the Five Hindrances.]
Being able to identify the nature of our thoughts in these categories hones mindfulness skills. It reminds us that our thoughts are not ‘ours’ but natural byproducts of the universal nature of thinking mind. This depersonalizes our investigation, making it feel safer. Many people avoid this kind of inner exploration because they fear discovering something awful that will make them feel even worse about themselves. These five hindrances are not labels to brand ourselves. To have a slothful thought does not make me a lazy person. To have a lustful thought does not make me a slut. If we understand that the thoughts are not personal and do not define us, then it makes the idea of mindfulness and inner investigation much less scary.
‘The Five Hindrances’ is one of the Buddha’s useful lists found in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This one identifies mental obstacles to awakening to the present moment. Noticing the nature of our thought patterns brings them into the light, creates spaciousness with which we can take wise action in regard to the thought.
For example, since I found that I kept worrying about that short layover, I was able to determine that the wise action was to call the airlines and discuss whether I needed to change one of the flights. Having made the change, that worry has dissolved and therefore has no gravitational pull. I am able to be present in this moment with whatever is happening here and now. Yay! If I didn't pay attention and had not identified the thought that was causing my discomfort, I would have carried it with me for days.
Sound familiar? Stop, close your eyes, anchor your awareness in physical sensation for a moment, and then notice your thoughts as they pass through your field of awareness. Is there a recurring thought that comes up for you? Maybe it is so powerful it is draws you in and you find yourself caught up in a tangle of story.
Once you have identified the thought that has you in its gravitational pull, ask yourself:
- Does this thought pull you into the past or the future?
- If it’s in the past, would you say it is mostly regret or nostalgia? Is there a strong emotional content? Is there anger? Is there shame?
- If it’s in the future, would you say it’s mostly worry, dread, excitement, restlessness?
- Notice how the thought feels in your body. Is there tension? Is there an ache in the chest? Does all the energy drain from your body?
- Notice what associated emotions, memories and images arise. Bring that past experience into your spacious compassionate field of awareness where you can see it clearly. Keep breathing, stay present, be kind. If judgments arise, notice them too. Replenish the field with as much spaciousness and compassion as you can muster. Release all expectations. (If what you come upon is so extremely painful that you don’t feel you can continue on your own, find a skilled therapist who knows how to walk you through the process of this kind of self-investigation.)
- If you are worried about something, what is a skillful action you can do to address or alleviate your concerns? For example, if you are dreading some overwhelming chore, you might break it down into incremental bits and allot an hour a day to it.
- Is there a wall you come up against, some lack of information or a sense of self-doubt, for example? Noticing what is needed opens the door to being able to get the information or alleviate the doubt, either by developing the skills necessary, finding someone else who has those skills to help with the task at hand, or confirming that you indeed can do this.
- If there is nothing in your power to do about it, or it is not your problem to solve but you're still concerned, you can always send metta, infinite loving-kindness, to the person or situation. Sometimes this is the best we can do, and it is actually quite a lot to do!
To see the nature of thoughts and emotions is the gift of the practice of meditation. More and more we are able to live mindfully. Seeing how these thought patterns fall into the categories the Buddha delineated 2600 years ago certainly depersonalizes them. When we understand this is a universal experience of being human, it is much less intimidating to face our fears, to see them for what they are, and to use this understanding to further bring mindfulness to our current struggles so that we can alleviate suffering. But remember that to strive to get beyond hindrances is just another hindrance (aversion). Striving is not the way. We do this practice with wise balanced effort. All that is necessary is to have the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others when we discover that we (or they) haven’t been present at all.
And why aren’t we present? Because some thought or emotion is holding us in its gravitational orbit, pulling us in like a black hole. Wake up!