The Five Hindrances are negative mental states that impede our practice and lead us toward unwholesome action. All of us have no doubt experienced how sensual desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, and doubt can overtake our minds—not to mention our meditation practice. These negative mind states have enormous potency, and it is difficult to pry ourselves loose from their grasp. In fact, sometimes we take perverse pleasure in indulging them, which of course makes them doubly difficult to overcome. We nurture desire for an inappropriate person; we brood over an argument with a friend; we content ourselves with an outmoded routine or relationship; we obsessively second-guess even the smallest of decisions; we allow ourselves to be consumed with doubts rather than resolving them.

One of the goals of meditation practice is to realize how we support the hindrances and, through this insight, to dismantle them. In this special practice section, five teachers answer questions about some of the most common ways the Five Hindrances manifest in our everyday lives. Through honest examination, skillful action, and compassion we can transform these hindrances into newfound equanimity. 

The First Hindrance: Sensual Desire: Q & A with Geri Larkin

Artwork is from The Dharma Cards Game, a divination system based on Tibetan Buddhist symbols, created by © Jacqueline Pitman.
Artwork is from The Dharma Cards Game, a divination system based on Tibetan Buddhist symbols, created by © Jacqueline Pitman.

I always desire what I don’t have: friends, food, lovers, material possessions. It seems like I never have what I want at any moment, that I’m always thinking, “What if…?” How can I learn to satisfy this desire with what I do have?

My experience has always been that it’s an enormous relief just to admit to myself that I’m obsessed by a desire for something. First, I can stop trying so hard to pretend that I don’t want something that, in fact, I do want. Second, most of the time something I think of as an overriding desire is often more a moment of “wishful thinking.” Often seeing our desire simply as what it is – a desire – allows it to drop away, or at least loosens our hold on it.

The few times when that hasn’t worked, though, gratitude or metta practice has made me sane again. Instead of getting caught up in the desire, I literally start to list all of the things I’m grateful for, starting with the fact that every time I breathe out, my body breathes back in. I suddenly notice all the different colors in my teacup, the sound of the chickens outside. I call a friend, pull out an old journal to remember a former boyfriend. Then I sometimes try a lovingkindness meditation, or chanting, for everyone else caught in the bittersweet cycles of desire.

I am in a committed romantic relationship, but I still feel desire for other people. How should I handle these feelings?

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