Confronting our inner demons is the core of a contemplative life. Whether called “hindrances” by Buddhists or “temptations” by Christians, these habits of mind are buried deep in the bedrock of our being. No matter how confident we are that we have rooted them out, still others push their way up, blossoming into unskillful thoughts and actions. It’s an endless battle that the contemplative must face with plucky perseverance, for plumbing the depths of our minds is nothing less than facing the armies of Mara.

In Obstacles to Stillness: Thoughts, Hindrances, and Self-Surrender in Evagrius and the Buddha, Shodhin K. Geiman, an associate professor of philosophy at Valparaiso University and abbot of the Chicago Zen Center, weaves together the wisdom of the Buddha and the Christian ascetic Evagrius Ponticus (345–399 CE) to address a universal problem: how to quell afflictive psychological states to find peace of mind. Bridging the two traditions through a comparative study, Geiman speaks to practitioners grappling with the challenges of a meditative life. With dry humor and sharp wit, his narrative offers a fresh lens through which to view the hindrances—or sins, depending on tradition—citing numerous Buddhist and Christian passages that shed light on the commonalities of the human experience. The book reminds us how much work we still must do, each page reflecting our “true self” like an unexpected glance in a magnifying mirror.

In Part I, Geiman lays out how the Buddha and Evagrius approach obstacles to stillness. Beginning with Buddhism’s five hindrances (Sanskrit: nivarana)—sensual desire, ill will, sloth-torpor, restlessness-worry, and doubt—Geiman presents them as formidable adversaries, imbuing them with an aura of cosmic proportions. Facing them is no easy task, but if we want to reach even the lowest levels of meditative absorption, we must.

One by one, our hindrances to awakening are laid bare through the compassionate guidance of a seasoned dharma lecturer.

The Buddha’s Christian counterpart, the 4th-century Desert Father known as Evagrius the Solitary, may be new to many readers. He spent years categorizing the temptations (Greek: logismoi), the fount of sinful behavior and the seemingly intractable obstructions to communion with God: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, despair, vainglory, and pride. These eight temptations would later become the seven deadly sins.

Although Geiman does note the differences, the similarities between the two traditions are striking. From them, he distills seven obstacles common to both: sensual desire; anger and ill will; sadness; restlessness-remorse; sloth-torpor; indecision; and pride. In Part II, he explains each obstacle and makes it urgently relevant to our lives through scripture and everyday examples. Each chapter draws us into the uncomfortably personal aspects of our emotional being with a skilled, literary flourish. One by one, our hindrances to awakening are laid bare through the compassionate guidance of a seasoned dharma lecturer.

Agateway for other obstacles, sensual desire is seductively treacherous, promising lasting joys that invariably end in dissatisfaction. To emphasize the dangers of sensual experience, Geiman cites Buddhist scripture: “It would be better, bhikkhus, for the eye faculty to be lacerated by a red-hot iron pin burning, blazing, and glowing, than for one to grasp the sign through the features in a form cognizable by the eye.” The apostle Matthew likewise admonished Christians to be on guard against sensual experience: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” In this manner, Geiman takes us through a comprehensive scriptural back-and-forth between Christian and Buddhist sources to make his point—the hindrances and temptations are our obstacles to stillness. Ill will, or anger, is like a coiled serpent within, ready to strike with the fangs of malice, subverting the peace and liberation we seek; sloth-torpor is a creeping shadow, a silent thief that robs us of our vitality and motivation; restlessness-worry is a fierce tempest, roiling the waters of the mind.

Indecision, or doubt, is the most insidious obstacle. It eats away at the foundations of our faith and trust in others. It shrouds the path in a dense fog, instills doubt about our teachers and the dharma, and leaves us in a wasteland of uncertainty. Geiman writes that “doubt keeps one ruminating on matters that thinking is utterly unequipped to resolve. Because one never finds any resolution for these thoughts, because one continues chewing and chewing on them without ever managing to swallow, one cuts off any prospect of receiving the nutrition they contain.”

The hindrances, or temptations, are powerful forces requiring all the courage we can muster if we hope to overcome them. With Evagrius, these temptations are stealthy intruders that disrupt contemplative life. Each is not a mere sin but a psychological battlefront and struggle for one’s soul. They are incarnate demons feeding on our psyche, their subtle and devious enchantments almost impossible to shake. These demons are no henchmen of a malevolent Satan or a wrathful God but manifestations of our own desire:

If the demonic logismoi do not have Satan as their source, still less are they banes sent by God. Evagrius appeals to Scripture to oppose “the thought that supposes that temptations come upon human beings from God: No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desires (James 1:13–14).”

Geiman’s choice of scriptural passages animates the intensity of contemplatives’ sacred battle to remain present to an elusive stillness. Although the grounds of faith supporting these two traditions may differ, Geiman shows how both paths share a common struggle toward communion with and dissolution in the absolute; their efforts to transcend sensory experience are mutually familiar and supportive in a world of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure.

The ideal Buddhist practitioner has always been the renunciant.

At the end of this exhausting emotional journey, it becomes clear that none of this is easy: thinking we have mastered any obstruction is a mark of delusion and an inability to be honest with ourselves. Geiman offers a cautionary perspective, warning against complacency and the mistaken belief of having “arrived” spiritually. He also warns that the religious practices outlined by the Buddha and Evagrius have only one use—they are a guide on a personal journey toward inner stillness, whether that signifies nirvana or communion with the divine.

shodhin geiman buddhist hindrances 2
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

According to Geiman, our practice is not about becoming a better person or being of service in the world. Instead, it is a profoundly personal cultivation devoid of external utility. Geiman criticizes the tendency to use religious practice for social transformation or public service as a subtle trap of vainglory and pride, a fantasy of spiritual success. The practitioner should focus on overcoming hindrances rather than societal engagement, similar to what the Buddha prescribed. The ideal Buddhist practitioner has always been the renunciant. Geiman’s perspective reminds us that the core of practice lies in self-transformation and the pursuit of inner peace rather than external accolades, societal improvements, or engaging with the world.

Carefully stitched throughout Geiman’s commentary is a reminder of the paramount importance of the renunciate life. The path begins with stepping out of the mundane and into the tumultuous waters of our distracted minds. But, before setting sail to the other shore, we must master sailing—or, as the Buddhists call it, train in moral action (sila). For both traditions, leaving the everyday world behind and taking up monastic training is only the start of a lifelong process of rejecting everything that hinders progression to union with the absolute:

One who would aspire to communion in God or to the unshakable deliverance of mind must therefore be nothing short of intrepid in confronting everything else that gets thrown in the way of that aspiration or otherwise obstructs its attainability. This means even letting go of what seem to be patently obvious truths about oneself and the world—truths that, until now, will have appeared incontrovertible and just as defining of oneself as the nose on one’s face.

Before taking on these almost insurmountable obstacles, we must be willing to abandon everything and set off on the well-traveled road of the mystics and masters. And this baseline is the mastery of our comportment and living a moral life, the very design of monasticism.

Obstacles to Stillness fosters interfaith dialogue, finds common ground in the shared difficulties of practice, and looks beyond religious boundaries. This book is not just academic; it offers practical discernment and perspectives beneficial for anyone on a path of self-cultivation, irrespective of religious affiliation. In this way, Geiman significantly contributes to the understanding of contemplative life. He challenges, enlightens, and guides both Buddhist and Christian practitioners, offering valuable insights into the nature of spiritual obstacles and reminding us, over and over, of the importance of being in the world, not of the world.

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