A Zen’s-Eye View: Work with the greatest hindrances first

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This is a perfect slogan for procrastinators. It is all about looking into the things that we avoid, that we put off, that we somehow never end up dealing with. In particular, it is about our hindrances to spiritual growth. But what are hindrances?

In Buddhism, hindrances refer to patterns of thought, habits and emotions that sap our energy and keep us from realizing our best self. They prevent us from awakening wisdom, joy and compassion. They pollute our pure nature and block our instinct to grow and develop. They are powerful inner obstacles such as laziness, resentment and fear. Of course, we may have outer obstacles, as well, but the idea is to start with what is close at hand, something we can actually influence, something we can intimately work to transform.

In daily life, there always seems to be something that ends up at the bottom of the to-do list. It could be cleaning the cat box or hemming curtains. Sometimes, after you’ve done everything but that one thing, it migrates to a new and improved to-do list, but once again it ends up on the bottom. Zen training has a solution to this tendency; it is called “samu”, work meditation.

In samu, we just do what needs to be done and treat it as a form of meditation. In this way, our personal preferences don’t govern our actions. The practice of samu shakes the pattern of procrastination, so we can step through our resistance and go straight to the most difficult task.

Although we may have a variety of things to do, it is easy to figure out which task raises procrastination. We can feel the avoidance in our bodies.

At a deeper level, this slogan challenges us to analyze what really sets us back. We need to be persistent if we want to expose our core obstacles and get to the root of what prevents us from realizing happiness. In Zen, we do this research through the practice of meditation. By observing the activity of our own minds, we meet the challenge of digging deeply enough to uncover our greatest hindrances, be they fear, anger, laziness, skepticism or addiction to pleasure. Once we have identified our greatest barrier to spiritual joy, we need to work with it and to keep working with it until we are free.

This slogan offers us an on-the-spot way of transforming our spiritual situation immediately and directly. We do not put anything off, but we deal with whatever arises right away. In cooking up a spiritual life that is based in compassion, nothing is moved to the back burner. One step at a time, we remove practical and spiritual hindrances.

Today’s practice: What patterns of thought or habit do you have that block your development of wisdom and insight? What is your most consistent and frequent roadblock? Take some time to reflect on this and on how you might begin to work with it.

This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.