Monday, February 1, 2016

Zen Sin

My blog post here a bit more than three years ago was a meditation on sin and Christianity. I concluded that sin was just the human tendency to f#%k things up, and one of Christianity's greatest gifts is offering humans a way through our screwups and back to grace and shalom.

In the months and posts since then--despite this potentially good aspect of Christianity and despite the wisdom I see in the teachings of Jesus-- I've wandered away from the church. Coincidentally, my interests have flowed towards mindfulness--secular meditative practices with roots in Buddhism. I'm now pursuing a Master's degree in the applications of mindfulness.

As I've written before, my interest in mindfulness is in the science of it. I am no fan of the touchy-feely-New-Agey aspects of mindfulness and I have no interest in becoming a Buddhist -- or embracing any other religion at this time. So I was taken aback to find my course instructors at Bangor (Wales) University teaching something that smacked of Christian sin: Buddhism's Five Hindrances.

This bugged me. Conventional concepts of sin often include withering condemnation of others, ignoring one's own sin, and missing out restorative processes of atonement and forgiveness. When the sin-detector gets turned on the self, it may discharge loads of self-contempt--antithetical to self-kindness essential to mindfulness.

But after some reflection, I am coming to a more elaborated view of the Five Hindrances, not unlike my revised attitudes about sin. There are similarities between "Hins" and Sins, including potential value in their recognition and avoidance, but they also seem to differ in their aims.

If you look at The Five Hindrances and The Seven Deadly Sins, side-by-side, it's not hard to spot the similarities. I've arranged the Hins and Sins to reflect what I see as the rough correspondences:

Sensual desire – Craving/wanting


Aversion/not wanting

Sloth, Dejection
Sloth and Torpor

Doubt and Hesitation

Restlessness and worry – Anger



I was interested to read on Wikipedia that the origin of the Seven Deadly Sins, like the five Hins, lies in a monastic tradition, in this case from the Desert Fathers -- ascetic 3rd Century hermits in Egypt.  The Five Hins were developed within the Buddhist tradition, according to Wikipedia, but it's unclear whether these came directly from the Buddha (who lived around 500 BCE).

The purpose of the Seven Deadly Sins included the teaching of good and evil and as a framework for confession and repentance. They evolved over the years within various traditions. Some Christians added to the list, or recombined the sins under different names.

The Hindrances likewise took on slightly different forms in different traditions within Buddhism, but generally were "identified as mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives," according to Wikipedia.

This was the context of the Hins in my Mindfulness course, so understanding their ultimate purpose leads to the question of the functions of meditation. For the Buddha and his followers, perhaps that meant enlightenment, Truth, Wisdom, Nirvana, or escape from endless cycles of suffering and rebirth. For contemporary secular mindfulness perhaps this would be summed up best as personal well-being.

My experiential sense of Mindfulness vs Christianity is that the former heals the self primarily for oneself, whilst the latter intends to fix the self for the sake of the larger community, God, and the afterlife. Most of the Seven Deadly Sins poison your interactions with others--your standing in the community and with God.  Soured relationships and losing face, in turn, undermine well-being. So both the Five Hindrances and  the Seven Deadly Sins impinge on happiness/well-being--but more or less directly, sooner or later; and absent or via external judgment, respectively.

Christianity has no qualms about designating things as good and bad, and fixing things is largely external. You compare your behavior to the accepted standards of wrong and right; confess, truly repent, correct the behavior, redress your sins, and you are forgiven--sometimes, perhaps, only by God and only by deathbed conversion. Go and sin no more.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, seems to me to depend largely on internal self-assessment and self-regulation. In this the Hindrances veer dangerously close to a paradox involving a prime enemy of mindfulness--the brain's "discrepancy monitor" :

". . . a process that continually monitors and evaluates the self and the current situation against a model or standard -- an idea of what is desired, required, expected, or feared. Once this discrepancy monitor is switched on, it will find mismatches between how things are now and how we think they should be . . .  [C]rucially, dwelling on how things are not as we want them to be can, naturally enough, create further negative mood." [from Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, by ZV Segal, JMG Williams, and JD Teasdale, 2013]

It's hard-- maybe impossible--to rid oneself of the Hindrances without switching on this rumination-inducing discrepancy monitor as you notice your meditation is not "what it should be." Dissecting out the specific hindrances that are at work tends to lead me--a comparatively new practitioner--to get caught up in distracting self-evaluation and criticism.

But I'm getting better at using mindfulness techniques to avoid getting quite so embroiled. One of the recommended techniques for this is slightly diverting attention from the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions by  just observing and labelling the mental phenomena as they appear ("There's anger;" "That's a self-critical thought"). Another technique is focusing on the associated sensations in the body (queasy stomach or clenched jaw, for example).

I wonder also if I might be better off looking at the Hindrances from a wider perspective -- as I did with sin. Instead of evaluating my meditation practice per se through this filter, perhaps I should view the hindrances as factors that affect my willingness or intention to even begin practice or stay with practice whole-heartedly.

A leading scholarly dissection of Mindfulness identifies three aspects to it: intention, attention, and attitude (i.e. maintaining a kind, non-judgmental attitude toward oneself). By this taxonomy, Hindrances could divert people from meditation-in-progress by competing for attention. But beyond diverting attention, perhaps the Hindrances also undermine intention--leading to excuses, basically -- familiar to Christian sinners and anyone who's ever tried to do anything that requires disciplined practice. I'm too tired/ busy/ hungry/ angry/ expert/ restless/ doubtful / sick of doing this ... Same old.

Wikipedia's entry about the hindrances stresses that the key to dealing with them is recognizing and accepting that the hindrances that are present; being curious about them; understanding them; and not identifying with them. You see laziness has sprawled across your day  -- but you don't come to see yourself as an inherently lazy person, for example.

Beyond this, my favorite quickie crib sheet on Buddhism offers fixes for the Hindrances, described below (this scheme divides the hindrances up slightly differently). Of course when the Hindrances are throttling your intention to practice, this means invoking an oft-repeated mindfulness pointer (which works fine for overcoming excuses in any aspect of life): "You don't have to like it, you just have to do it." I've included links to mindfulness practices that you can try for free.
  • For Sloth and Torpor -- get some sunshine or change your position -- sit up or stand up, for example.
  • For Doubt and Hesitation--study, ask questions

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