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The Four Aspects of Right Effort
and the Five Hindrances
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"The Four Aspects of Right Effort
and the Five Hindrances"

Transcript of a talk delivered by Br. ChiSing
Awakening Heart Sangha (Community of Mindful Living)
March 8, 2007 - Dallas, Texas

Dear friends thank you for coming together once again in our wonderful sangha. Tonight is going to be on the theme of right effort or skillful effort — beneficial effort, sometimes also called diligence or discipline. Last week we touched on right livelihood with a mixture of right effort. Tonight we can just focus on right effort.

In the traditional teachings of the Awakened One, right effort is made of four aspects. The first aspect of right effort is to prevent negative states of mind from arising—doing things to help prevent them from arising. The second aspect is how to embrace the negative states of mind that have already arisen—embrace them in such a way that they are transformed and go back into their dormant state. The third aspect of right aspect is to create positive states of mind—to cultivate positive thoughts and habits and behaviors. And the fourth is when a positive state of mind does arise—how to maintain it: how to feed it, nourish it, keep it going as long as possible.

In our practice of the path, there are times when, in our efforts, we encounter certain hindrances in the traditional teachings. There are five main hindrances to our practice.

The first might be called grasping, craving, obsessive wanting. So, when we're sitting or walking or standing or living our lives in mindfulness, sometimes what arises in our mind might be wanting something obsessively, grasping, craving.

Another hindrance is the opposite. So, you might think of that as like an arrow, wanting to get somewhere. But then, the opposite is an arrow away from that object. And that's aversion, anger or hatred or extreme dislike. This is also a hindrance in our practice, just as much as the craving and grasping.

A third hindrance might be visualized as an arrow up. So you have an arrow this way, an arrow that way, and no an arrow up. This is called restlessness and worry. So, it's like the energy is very restless and you have a lot of worries. You're very much in your thinking mind.

A fourth hindrance would be the opposite, looking down in the arrow. And that's sleepiness, sloth, torpor, laziness — just no motivation. So it's like an arrow going down — low energy.

The fifth hindrance I like to visualize as a spiraling something that doesn't know where it's going in the center. That's traditionally called doubt or confusion. It could also be called delusional thinking, uncertainty — doubt about the practice, doubt about yourself, doubt about your true nature — confusion.

So, in our practice of right effort, we can look at our state of mind. What is arising? Is it craving? Is it aversion? Is it restlessness and worry? Is it sloth and non-motivation? Is it confusion and doubt? Uncertainty? And we can breathe with them.

There are specific meditations that can help with our embracing of those states of mind.

For instance, craving can simply be transformed by just breathing in and breathing out. Because as we breathe in and breathe out and do sitting meditation, we're letting go… we're letting go… we're letting go. Thoughts come and they go. Sounds come and they go. Sensations in our body, like tingling sensations if our feet fall asleep, come and go. So, if we can sit with that long enough—twenty minutes or more—it enables us the habit energy of being with something and not grasping at it… letting it be… letting it be. That's why we do this practice of letting it be. Someone's coughing? Letting it be. A little tingle in my foot? Letting it be. This exercises our mindfulness muscle of just allowing things to be as they are. This is also called equanimity. So any kind of practice that develops your equanimity helps you to transform the first hindrance of obsessive compulsive wanting, craving, grasping.

Now for the second hindrance: aversion, hatred, anger… things like that… We have a meditation called metta or maitri, also called loving kindness meditation. You just breathe in and breathe out and you can just wish yourself love and kindness, health and wholeness, happiness until you really feel that for yourself. And when you're really fully in that state, you can say, "now may," someone that's easy to love, "may you be happy." And you can visualize them in your mind, send them love and light from your heart. When you feel strong with that, you go to someone neutral. "May you be happy. May you be peaceful." Someone that's not so easy to like and do the same thing. And eventually, send it out to all beings everywhere. "May all beings be happy. May all beings transform their suffering. May all beings be at peace."

The third hindrance: restlessness and worry… I think that is a common hindrance for most of us because we have been raised in society that really focuses on keeping us on a caffeine speed drive: to think and plan and worry, to keep going so that we can keep up with everyone else. So, let us think of different things we can do in our lifestyle, in our meditations, that can help to transform that restlessness and worry. A few helpful hints that I have found in my own practice is whenever my energy is a little bit in that kind of frantic state, it's helpful for me to, before doing sitting meditation, to do some prostrations, bowing, letting the earth take all of those things and doing some exercise or yoga. Also doing walking meditation for several minutes before sitting helps with that. So that by the time you sit you don't have so much of that frantic energy. It's been released through the body through qigong, through yoga, or through walking, or through prostrations. You know, in Asia it is very common, especially in Korean Buddhism, to do many prostrations. A hundred and eight… it's good exercise. But it really does… it helps humble your heart and also releases a lot of that restlessness and worry from you because you've surrendered it to a greater energy, a greater energy and power of the Universe.

One Theravadan Buddhist monk and teacher said that if you don't do something like that—like walking before sitting—you're not going to be able to go very deep in your sitting. So I really appreciate my teacher, our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, for his teachings on mindful movements, mindful walking, mindful living, as well as mindful sitting. We do these mindfulness things so that when we do our sitting, it can be much more concentrated, much more deep, and much more transformative.

For the fourth hindrance of sloth and torpor, laziness, and non-motivation, one thing that's helpful for me when I'm very sleepy during meditation, is to do things that raise my energy. So, there are certain kinds of qigong visualizations you can do to raise your energy. You can also breathe through your nostrils so that your focus is not here in your abdomen, which is a good place. But, if you need to raise your energy, focus up at the nostrils. Raise it up… where it's up. Also, you can have your eyes open rather than closed. That helps too.

And by the way, with the restlessness and worry, when you're actually sitting, if your energy, your thoughts are going everywhere, focus more on the abdomen. Keep your eyes down to the floor—they can be half opened or closed—just bringing that energy down to the earth.

And then the fifth hindrance: doubt, confusion, delusion, uncertainty… This can be transformed by our practice of wisdom. What's really true? We can do deep inquiry, "What's really true? Is that so? Oh really? Can I know that that is true? Is it really true?" You can use a mantra from our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh which is, "Are you sure?"

So, when we're having these doubts and uncertainties in our thinking we can cut through by looking at what is true, focusing on what is true. I find this most helpful, especially recently as I'm observing my own states of mind, I'm able to capture those thoughts faster, before they start spiraling in to stories.

For instance, I'll just give one example:

Today I was feeling extremely tired because I was substitute teaching in the special education program with the kids who have some learning disabilities. Two of the children were very wild and one of them was very heavy, so trying to catch him every time he was running around was difficult. And then I came to the office and just took a nap and I was feeling kind of grumpy when I woke up and then I had three emails from different sangha members who, it wasn't negative but it wasn't necessarily the most positive either, it was like things that wished could change or something.

So, I was like… I was feeling some negative states of mind arising. And, I had this thought, that, "Oh I think that I'm not going to be very helpful at sangha tonight and I don't think that sangha's going to go very well tonight because I don't think that I'm going to be able to come into that state of peacefulness and help others come into that. So I think it's going to be terrible and I don't want to go." But then I caught myself and I asked myself, "Is that really true? Do you know for sure that's what's going to happen at sangha tonight? No I don't know for sure." So, I began to think, "OK, what can I do? What right effort can I do right now that will help me transform this thought and feeling?"

So I decided to do a thirty minute sitting meditation in my office, close the door, turn off the lights and sit before coming here. I thought about coming here to do the sitting but then I realized people are going to be coming in, preparing their things, and I need something a little bit more quiet. I really needed little bit more solitude and quiet in my sitting. So I sat for thirty minutes, breathing, letting go, letting go, and getting in touch and remembering that it's not me, it's the Buddha in all of us that creates sangha.

So, I was able to remember that, let it go, and when I finished my meditation I was very refreshed. When I called Cornell, he noticed a very big difference in my tone of voice on the phone and I said, "Yeah, I just meditated," and I remembered who I really am. And I remembered that I don't need to believe all the thoughts that come into my mind. In fact, my observation in my practice is seventy-five percent of my thoughts are usually not correct. So, we don't need to believe them.

Suzuki Roshi, a famous Japanese Zen master, his main mantra was, "Not always so." So when we look at our craving and our anger and our restlessness and our laziness and our doubt and confusion… not always so. These thoughts… not always so.

What is the truth? That is our right effort. What is the truth? And are we putting the kind of effort we need to in our practice? Are we practicing our meditation regularly? Are we practicing with sangha regularly? Are we stopping at red lights and taking three deep breaths? When we hear the phone ring can we just stop, breath in, before picking up the phone?

There are thousands of channels in our consciousness. It is up to us to choose the channel.

Thank you.

Transcribed by Cornell Kinderknecht

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