This week Tesshin Roshi continued our exploration of the Five Hinderances. Before beginning, Roshi reminded us again that the hinderances are never about external things, rather they are all about what is going on in our own mind. Studying the hinderances is all about training our mind with the overarching goal of alleviating our suffering and the suffering of others.
Last week, we went over the first hinderance which was sensory desire. This week Roshi moved on to the second hinderance which is commonly translated as “Ill Will.” The first thing to realize when thinking about Ill Will is that it is not simple anger. If we stop and think about it, anger is part of our human nature and part of nature in general. Anger is generated when our sense of safety or security is challenged. In many ways, it is a survival instinct. We see this in the natural world all the time. Animals will compete over limited resources such as food or mates. Animals will fight if they feel that their security is at risk. Anger is a natural emotion which primes the body for “flight or fight” responses.
So how does ill will differ from anger? Well, if we go back to nature and imagine two rams locking horns over a mate. One male will eventually dominate the other male and “win” the competition. After the clash, there is no scheming or planning for revenge. This emotion of resentment and revenge is very much a human feature. Think to your own life. How much time have you plotted revenge against someone who has done your wrong? It could be a boss at work or a friend who has insulted you. Here is where the hinderance occurs. We humans spend so much energy in resentment, antipathy, and hate! It causes wars between countries, destroys relationships, and creates so much suffering.
Roshi stopped here to emphasize the point. Anger can be a healthy and natural reaction. It is a natural reaction when our being is threatened and action is needed. Ill will, however, is a hinderance as it is so corrosive to our own mind. Many religious traditions have recognized this fact. This is why in Christianity it is said to love your enemy. This does not mean do not protect yourself. It does mean, however, not to blow up a conflict into a raging hate far out of proportion to the threat. Our natural mode should be love and compassion – even to people we do not agree with. We do this to first lesson our suffering and then the suffering of others.
We then moved onto the third hinderance which is Sloth and Torpor. Generally, this is understood to be a condition of low energy and depression. To make this clearer, Roshi described what typically happens during a week-long meditation intensive retreat. At first, students come in all excited that this retreat will give them the breakthrough experience. They will meditate intensively on the first day for 12-14 hours. They will end the day exhausted with no progress. On the second day, the mind starts with all kinds of unhealthy thoughts … “Why am I here? I am making no progress … This is not for me!” Suddenly in the middle of the retreat, all the enthusiasm drains along with all the energy and fire to practice. This is the “torpor” which the hinderance points to. Notice, nothing changed in the body or in the external conditions. It is all in the mind. Roshi mentioned that the “secret magic” of the retreat is that the student has nowhere to go and nothing to do but keep powering on. After everything has broken down, the student must simply sit with no expectations. If the student can transcend the torpor and despair, by the end of the retreat they can begin to feel light and potentially have a great breakthrough.
Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that all of these hinderances are only about us and what happens in our mind. Combating these hinderances is not easy, which is why we train and why we practice.