PZI Teacher Archives

Hindrances and Gates


In meditation whatever arises in the mind or in your life is the gate. The hindrances are the gates; when they appear, it might be an indication that meditation is going well.

Dharma Talk by John Tarrant
Given during a retreat at St. Dorothy’s Rest, Meeker, CA

In meditation whatever arises in the mind or in your life is the gate. Looking at things this way is sometimes called a non-dual practice, meaning that there aren’t two things, for instance, you and the one true path. Your mistakes are the path, not a separate thing. There isn’t a meditation world and the regular world, or good meditation and bad hindrances. This has implications: for instance, you don’t always need to power through your difficulties with concentration. The hindrances are the gates; when they appear, it might be an indication that meditation is going well.

There’s an instance of this that I keep noticing. Most people have quite a lot of self-knowledge, but they hide from it. People might know, for example, that they are very self-critical, or that the way they are doing their job doesn’t work, or it may be that a friendship doesn’t work, or that there’s a lack of kindness. But they put this sort of thing in parentheses, off to the side. “I know some day I might pay attention to this, but meanwhile, I’m busy, I can’t face it, I’m going to be spiritual.”

One of the actions of the koan is to bring difficulties out, so you can’t keep them in parentheses anymore. Suddenly they are right here, the stuff of life, and the way you usually try to fix things won’t help you. If you spend a lot of time comparing and criticizing — “I must improve myself by making this small adjustment,” or, “I must improve you by making this small adjustment to what you do,” the strategy of running those thoughts in the background won’t work anymore. Koan work will bring into the foreground the thoughts that have been in the background and then you’ll notice how you suffer from them. The koan will not let you stay divided from yourself. It shows you the beauty of being human at the same time as it shows you the pain of being at war inside yourself.

During a retreat you usually get a relief from your common or garden variety hindrances. You might get a lift into spaciousness and generosity of consciousness. You might just get taken up into the world of enlightenment. When this happens, the way rises in the form of a tree or a face or an angle of light, and nothing else. Everybody can observe that. And the contrary motion also happens; you might wear down, fray, and get thinner in certain ways. Any protection you have constructed against your buried thought worlds breaks down and prejudices and pains start to spill out, either onto other people or onto yourself. You blame yourself, or you blame somebody else and both ways it feels like a war. If you see such a process happening, it can be helpful to think of it as the gift of the koan. The koan is not something separate. Your true nature and beauty are right in the midst of your pettiness and blame. If you can’t see that, then work out of what you can observe, which is that forgiveness is sweeter than vengeance.

One of the things that people often might put in parentheses, a belief that you might not pay much attention to, is the importance of effort. When you really try hard you will notice that trying doesn’t quite work. You might have to go through the stage of trying too hard, but at some point the practice has to carry you. Then you ask the koan not to be so lazy, and to trust it to do some of the work for you. When this happens you are at rest even in the middle of action. The Daoists call it “resting in the Dao.”

Then, events come naturally to meet you. And there’s no incentive to put things in parentheses, since you aren’t putting veils between yourself and what is actually happening. You aren’t protecting anything or hiding from the creatures your own thoughts have made. You aren’t hiding from the discovery that you are mortal, or more capable than you had imagined, or that you love a great deal and that makes you vulnerable. The koan makes a place to rest so the things that were out of sight can begin to drift into view.

When the koan is at work, we are just who we are and then nothing that appears is really a hindrance. We can look forward to hindrances, but they become hard to find. This is one of the koan’s gifts to us.

—John Tarrant