Norman gives the third talk of the Loon Lake Sesshin 2011 on the remaining three of the Five Hindrances – Laziness, Worry, Doubt.
Five Hindrances – Laziness, Worry, Doubt
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 08, 2011
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
Let me continue today with my discussion of the hindrances. Yesterday we were talking about sense desire and ill will. Today I will discuss laziness, worry and anxiety, and doubt.
To practice at all takes a certain amount of energy. Just to show up is already a huge amount of energy. Then, once you are here, you have to pay attention, not only some of the time, but all of the time. The practice is not just in the meditation, with breaks for meals and work. The practice is all the time: during the meal, during the work, during the rest. You have to pay attention, which requires a certain amount of zest and liveliness.
In the various lists of positive qualities that need to be cultivated, energy, or enthusiasm, always appears on all those lists. This means steady, sustained, bright energy. Too much raging enthusiasm is no good, because it burns out. It usually creates havoc and then disappears, leaving you depressed and discouraged. So this is not what is meant by energy or virya. It means “Bright, steady, alert, strong, sustained” energy.
Laziness is exactly the opposite of this. The word “laziness” is maybe not a good word. It implies, in our language, a moral failing. But here it means that you are just worn out. You are drowsy, sleepy. The actual, exact translation of this hindrance is “sloth and torpor.” Very descriptive! You just can’t get going. So it is more physical than laziness. Your very bones are resisting. You just can’t keep your eyes open. You can’t be alert, and you can’t help it. It’s not like you decided to be lazy, and you could be otherwise.
We all want to practice; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here at sesshin in the first place. But, also, we don’t want to practice. We actually have a love affair going with our unhappiness and our misery and our chaos. We are quite enamored of it. As much as we want to give it up, we don’t want to give it up. Or maybe we are just in love with the idea of our self as a person, who has always had a lot of problems and just can’t overcome them.
Also, we are absolutely scared of the idea, which has a tremendous amount of truth to it, that in actuality we are buddhas. We are strong, dignified, solid, loving, compassionate people, who were born with a destiny to become awakened and to sustain others in love. This idea of our life terrifies us. I think it’s true. We are scared of running into our best self. It’s as if we were shy around that person. We would just as soon not encounter her.
This struggle between wanting to practice and not wanting to practice, between being stuck on our feeble self, and scared of our powerful, compassionate, awakened self, is really, really exhausting. So it looks like fatigue, or maybe it looks like some kind of inner turmoil. I think this is the deep, deep root of our laziness. When we are not clear about what we are doing with our lives, when we are doing one thing after another, reflexively, without much sense of a bigger purpose to our life. Or maybe we have a glimpse of a bigger purpose, but we feel that we don’t have enough courage to really engage that, and we get tired out.
I have spent my whole life thinking about truth and religion and what is this thing about being a human being. This has been the main pursuit of my lifetime, which may seem unusual, but, actually, is not at all unusual. We all have these deep, human questions. We all have to engage them. When we do engage them, energy comes up. When we engage our highest purpose and our deepest questions, we have plenty of energy, even if we are old, even if our body doesn’t work 100% right. There’s plenty of energy to live and do what we need to do in this life. When we don’t engage our deepest questions, it feels like our body is not strong, our spirit is not strong. We get worn out, and we are just plain tired. As time goes by, you can feel just bone weary with life’s demands.
The Buddha said that if we embrace impermanence, instead of resisting it, then things are always looking up, because impermanence is the one thing that is not impermanent. And permanence continues on and on and on, spiraling ever upward. The one thing that is totally and utterly reliable and always beautiful is impermanence, which means change and development and growth. Dogen calls impermanence buddha-nature. We could also call it love. When we shift our sense of identity and purpose from the preservation of that which cannot be preserved, to the ongoing process of love itself, we have a buoyant spirit, and we have energy.
So the next hindrance on the list of popular hindrances is the opposite of laziness. Energy is the wholesome opposite of laziness, and anxiety and worry is the unwholesome opposite. If laziness makes us worn out and sleepy and groggy, anxiety makes us wide awake, but now we are jumpy and anxious. Instead of the mind being dark and groggy, it is constantly flitting in and out of thoughts and feelings, with a disturbed and worried energy.
Worry is very compelling. It’s very convincing. If somebody says, Don’t worry, we say, Yeah, that’s easy for you to say. You don’t have this going on that I do. Maybe we have important decisions to make. Maybe we have serious problems brewing. We have things to worry about. These days, a lot of people are worried about finances, worried about the future, worried about the dire state of the world, worried about the environment. We can worry about our health. We can worry about our loneliness. We can worry about our aging. We can worry about our children, if we have any children. We can worry about the fate of our grandchildren, if we have any grandchildren. What I am saying is that worry does seem quite reasonable and quite compelling. Maybe we could say that worry is the content, the worried thoughts and anxiety are the energy, the jumpiness in the body and the mind.
When you think about it, it is quite obvious that worry is not helping any of these situations. Concern, yes, maybe it is good to be concerned. Caring, maybe it is good to care. But worry and anxiety don’t help. They just make things worse. They actually make things worse. When you are worried and anxious at the same time, this doesn’t promise a good result. It promises a worse result, because worry and anxiety cloud the mind, and they reduce one’s effectiveness in dealing with actual problems. Worry is something extra.
Things are so much simpler than we make them out to be. We make things a lot worse. A situation is as it is. It is not as it is not. Right? It is as it is. We like a situation. Good things happen. We enjoy them. We try to encourage more good things to happen. Also, bad things happen. We endure them with as much equanimity that we can muster. We try to act so as to prevent more bad things from happening. This is true no matter what the situation is, who we are, what the circumstances are, whether they are good times or bad times. Good things happen; bad things happen. We see them with enjoyment or some equanimity. We try to create the best situations possible.
So, what do we do when worry appears? We understand, Oh, yeah, this is worry. It’s not helping. It’s not a benefit. Good conditions come, bad conditions come. That’s life. Worry is extra. We have to have a good teacher inside of ourselves, who knows the dharma and talks to us, and says to us, Yeah, okay, that’s what is going on. This is worry. This is not helping. Or we can take a breath and say to ourselves, Worried thoughts. Worried thinking. In saying that, we can let go. Maybe in the next moment another worried thought comes. Then we do the same thing again. Maybe we have to do this many, many times. But that is what we do; otherwise, the mind is off and running, with more and more confusion.
This does not mean that one cannot plan. Planning and worrying is not the same thing. Planning turns into worrying when one starts thinking whether the plan is actually going to happen. Planning is fine, without being concerned about the future results.
My wife, Kathie, used to negotiate on behalf of her local teachers’ union. She once told me about a brilliant, negotiation technique. When the teachers negotiate, they have the professional union people come in and coach them. So she would take workshops on how to negotiate. They taught her this wonderful concept called BATNA. It means: the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. So here is the way they worked with this. The negotiators would get together before they started a negotiation, and they would think, What are we going to do if the negotiations completely fail, and we do not get an agreement at all? What will happen? What are we going to do then? Then they think about what they are going to do, and then they make their peace with that. They settle with that in their hearts. They don’t talk to the other side about it, but they do that among themselves. The reason why they do that is that then they are free to go into the negotiations without fear. They can then make whatever compromises that seem necessary, but they don’t need to be driven by fear and worry and anxiety. This means they cannot be coerced into any settlement that is not good for them. They can’t be coerced into something that they really don’t want, because they have made their peace with the best alternative to a negotiated settlement. So they are okay with that, and they are confident.
This is a great practice for dealing with worry. This is what I always do. Whatever the situation you are facing, just think, What happens if everything fails? What’s the worst possible thing? Then think about that, meditate on that, and get used to it. Have some acceptance of it. Probably it won’t happen, but just in case it did, you are ready. You accept it. Then, no matter how things turn out, it is always going to be better than that. So it’s fine. You don’t need to worry.
If course, the ultimate BATNA, the BATNA to end all BATNAs. I will get sick and die and lose everything. Right? That’s pretty much the ultimate BATNA. So if you want to worry about something, why don’t you worry about that? [Laughter] But, of course, it will do you no good to worry about that. That is going to happen. For sure! So if you meditate on this, which, of course, you are doing every time you breathe in and you breathe out, and tolerate that situation, you are meditating on that, right? You can see the beauty in it. Instead of a terrifying outcome, there is something beautiful about that. In fact, there is no inhale, unless there is an exhale. It’s beautiful. Did you ever think of that? It is so perfect: the inhale and the exhale perfectly match one another. There is a beauty to it. There is a kind of rhythm of living that has to do with dying.
When you have meditated on this ultimate BATNA, then all other worries and anxieties appear superficial. They may come, but they also go, and you have no need to be entangled in them. They will not be so compelling anymore. Maybe you won’t even worry so much anymore. Maybe you won’t worry at all.
The last hindrance is called doubt, usually referred to as “corrosive doubt,” or “skeptical doubt.” Doubt itself, ordinary doubt, having a healthy skepticism, is necessary for practice. Especially in Zen, it is very much encouraged not to entirely believe the teachings. This does not mean that you should dismiss them out of hand and say, That’s stupid. I quit. No, it means believe them just enough to spend some time investigating for yourself. Then, when you understand for yourself, in your own way, you will have faith in the teachings, but not until then. You shouldn’t have faith, until you see for yourself, until you know for yourself, through your own simple, ordinary, and concrete experience. It’s a pragmatic truth that works in your actual living. It gives you hope and energy and a very distinct path forward in life. It doesn’t really matter what words you use to describe it. There is no doubt about it. You know what you know. Your life is what it is.
Corrosive doubt is something other than this necessary doubt. Corrosive doubt is, maybe we could say, two things. First of all, a lack of basic self confidence. Second, a kind of despair about life in general. This is actually itself a kind of faith or belief, a faith that nothing is possible, a faith that nothing will work, that nothing will stand up to scrutiny. Also, this corrosive doubt is a strong sense of oneself as being unable to practice and to find strength. I see that it can be done. I admire other people who do it. I wish I was like them, but I can never do it, it’s too hard for me. It’s really painful to feel that way, about oneself and about life. Sometimes we have that despair, when nothing seems possible, especially when nothing seems possible for oneself.
This kind of doubt does come along from time to time. As a practitioner, sometimes we know that there is nothing we can do about it. We just keep going on with our practice. The practice itself, and our dharma friends, will eventually help us find a way out of that hole. If we can manage to stay with our practice in those dark times, the process itself, and the warmth of others, eventually helps us through. Usually that is the time when we don’t want to show up. So the challenge is, can we show up? Will our friends call us on the phone and say, Hey where are you? And you say, Oh, man, I just can’t do it. They say, Okay, maybe I will call you next week.
The Buddha taught that all beings, without exception, are capable of the wisdom and peace that he promised. In Zen practice we say that all beings are Buddha. That is their nature. This is not something personal about you or me. It is about life itself. Life has this liberating quality built into it.
Sometimes when somebody complains to me that they feel that they can’t do the practice because they are too ill, or because their past is too painful and tragic, or because they can’t shake some basic feeling of unworthiness, I say to them, All beings are Buddha. However there is one exception to this universal rule: you! I guess you are a special person. I feel honored to be sitting across from you. [Laughter]
No matter what the circumstances, no matter who the person, there is always a way to practice. Everyone can practice, and in reality, there are no exceptions to this.
So, these are the five hindrances, which are a good lens through which to view our moment to moment experience. Sense desire, ill will, laziness, worry, and doubt – we all have them. They are just the other side of the positive qualities that we need to cultivate in our lives: loving-kindness, energy, wisdom, faith. Each one of us will have them in some combination. We will all have our personal favorite.
All of our lives, we have been taught to see the world through the lens of self. We have been taught by everyone around us, and there is a good reason for this. It is built into our biology. Everything revolves around, What’s in it for me? What’s good for me? What’s bad for me? Even our ideals and values end up being all about ourselves. But this is too small a scope for our living. That confinement, in the end, proves to be too painful to be sustainable. To practice is to open the field of our vision. It is giving ourselves over in full engagement to our life.