Anyone who has practiced meditation knows the effect of the “Monkey Mind” where one’s mind jumps around from one idea to another like a monkey jumping from one branch in a tree to another. This article from Wildmind gives some practical advice on how to train your mind to improve your practice. The second principle in this article is to learn to accurately recognize the hindrances that cause your distractions.
Faith and Discipline (week 2 of 3)
“In the following week you could take on another task for each meditation practice. This time have the general intention to recognize accurately the hindrances underlying your distraction. To call this ‘wandering off’ is not really enough. At this point it is worth mentioning that there is an important relationship between knowledge and discipline. It is helpful, for example, to be familiar with the traditional list of five hindrances — the varieties of distraction — and their antidotes. This kind of knowledge comes partly from reading and being taught by others, and partly from learning through your own experience. For instance, on the basis of knowing the symptoms of ‘restlessness and anxiety’ you can differentiate them from ’sense desire’. Taking time outside formal meditation to consider whether you’re recognizing the hindrances accurately can be useful. Correct recognition of hindrances allows you to be more effective in countering them.”
There are 5 ways that the mind wanders during meditation. These are typically called hindrances (nivarana). The 5 hindrances are “sensual desire”, “ill will”, “restlessness and anxiety”, “sloth and torpor”, and “doubt”.
Sensual desire is a desire for pleasant experiences. Your mind may wander off and think about something pleasant, like food, sleep, or sex. It may also be pleasant thoughts of planning for a event, like a holiday party. These things attract our thoughts because them seem more interesting than our breath.
Ill will is the reverse of sense desire. It is related to painful experiences, like physical pain. It may be an unpleasant encounter that you can’t let go. The true problem is preoccupation with the experience.
Restlessness and anxiety is a quick-moving or unsettled mind or body. It may happen when you have a lot on your mind. You may not be able to get comfortable. Something always aches or itches.
Sloth and torpor happens when we are tired or have eaten too much. Your body and mind just want to give in to the easy way. Be aware that it may also include a deep resistance to meditation. There may be something else going on that you are not aware of.
Doubt is when you start to question whether or not you are doing the right thing. It creates a difficulty in committing to the practice. “Is this helping me?”
When your mind wanders during meditation, it is because of one of these reasons. Your focus can improve by simply naming these hindrances. “That is sense desire. It’s OK to ignore it.” “This is restlessness. Let it go because my meditation is important.”
There are a couple of other things to try to help maintain your focus in the face of the hindrances. First, Try to remember why you are meditating. Don’t fight the hindrances. Don’t argue with yourself. Just bring your mind back where you want it.
Second, “cultivate the opposite” hindrance. Focus on the opposite to counteract an undesired hindrance. The opposite of sense desire is contentment with our situation. The opposite of ill will is enjoyment in our experience. The opposite of restlessness is calm. The opposite of sloth is activity, with the intention of getting your mind involved so you can come back and meditate. The opposite of doubt is commitment, where you can just do your meditation and clarify your doubts later.
For more about this topic, there is a good article by the Dublin Buddhist Center at
This is the second of 3 parts. Next week, I will post the rest of the article. This will give suggestions for the third week of Meditation Practice and Improvement.
© 2010 Eric Borreson