Anyone who has ever undertaken a self-improvement project has encountered nuisances – inner reactions, responses, habits, or proclivities that disrupt our progress:
The Buddha knew little about NordicTrack, Slim Fast, or cable TV. But he knew a lot about inner nuisances. He called them “hindrances,” “latent tendencies,” and “defilements.” They distort our perception and thinking and disrupt our progress. The goal of meditation is insight into our nature and the nature of life itself. Anything that clouds our perception or thinking makes insight harder to come by.
The mind-heart is naturally clear, kind, wise, and peaceful. Yet certain tendencies arise from a body and neural network that have been shaped by evolution. These tendencies can cloud the mind-heart and cause it to contract and lose its natural clarity and spaciousness.
It’s as if we’re all driving cars with internal combustion engines. We can fine tune the engine, add catalytic converters and other anti-pollution devices, use purified fuels, and so forth. But as long as the engines are running, they create a certain level of smog that cannot be avoided.
Most of us would prefer not to turn our bodies off completely! That will happen naturally soon enough. Until then, our physiology will tend to distort our thoughts and feelings.
Fortunately, it is a tendency, not a certainty. If we fully understand and accept these inclinations, we can see them clearly when they arise and not be thrown off balance. In the suttas, the Buddha often said, “Mara, I see you.” Mara is the metaphorical embodiment of greed, aversion, and delusion. The underlying tendency to be confused arose even in the Buddha. But he saw it clearly for what it was. He didn’t try to ignore it, push it away, rise above it, identify with it, etc. He just saw it and relaxed. It didn’t throw him off balance. So Mara turned and left muttering under his breath.
If the tendency toward ignorance can arise in a Buddha, it’s safe to bet it will arise in us.
The Buddha described many kinds of biases in our thinking, memory, and perceptions. They range from coarse and obvious hindrances to subtle and elusive latent tendencies. They can arise from our experience and early conditioning, from our biology, or from both.
For example: we close our eyes seeking peace, tranquility, and insight in meditation. The mind takes off like a squirrel on caffeine. This is an all too familiar example of the hindrance of restlessness. It is relatively obvious but can be difficult to work with skillfully!
When we describe the experience we may say, “I let my mind wander.” This is an example of a latent tendency to create a sense of self when none was experienced. When we closed our eyes, we didn’t go into blissful tranquility and think, “Enough of this peace and wellbeing. I want some agitation and irritation. I’ll tell my mind to run amuck.” There was no mythical self that went out and stirred up restlessness.
Whenever there is too much energy in our psycho-physical organism, the body channels some of that excess into the brain. We experience this as a restless mind. It arises un-invited out of how we are designed. There is no independent, pre-existing self causing this to happen. It’s just a biological reflex. It’s also a reflex to personalize this experience – to think “this is me, this is mine, this I am.”
It’s extremely difficult to see latent tendencies directly. But it’s easy to see their effects flow out into a world where people take pride in being offended, ego gratification and power plays are the norm, and even religions get lost in self-absorption.
In talking about distortions, the suttas often use three different Pali terms: nivarana, anusaya, and asava. Nivarana is usually translated as “hindrance.” It refers to obvious disruptions like restlessness. Anusaya is often translated as “latent tendencies,” one of which is to create a sense of self. Anusaya are very subtle and often biologically based. Asava is the effect anusaya has on our experience.
A lot has been written about the hindrances (nivarana), but not much about latent tendencies (anusaya) or their taints (asava). So before unpacking this further, let’s look at a more detailed example of biologically based distortions.
You’re walking through woodlands on a lovely day. You’re easy with the world.
Suddenly you freeze. A split second later you see a snake in the grass beside the path. Another second later you realize it’s no snake at all: it’s a smooth, snake-like stick. You relax and move down the path. But it takes a while for the adrenaline to metabolize out of your body.
Notice the sequence: first you stiffen, next you notice a snake, and finally you realize the snake is only a stick. Your body froze before you were conscious of a threat. How can that happen?
Refined recognition takes time. Visual information must first be processed through millions of neural connections in the cerebral cortex. If it had been a lethal critter ready to strike, you could have been bitten before you knew what was going on.
So our human and pre-human ancestors evolved a quick, emergency-alert system. Lower, pre-conscious brain centers receive visual information directly from the optic nerves. Even as it is being relayed to high centers, it does a quick check for patterns that roughly resemble snakes, spiders, or other lethal threats in the primordial forest. If one is found, the motor centers are triggered directly even though we are not yet conscious of what the eyes took in.
Our ancestors who had this instinctual, preconscious aversion to these patterns were more likely to pass their genes along to the next generation. So even today, we have an underlying tendency to freeze up or run away from certain images.
Notice the effects of these instincts:
As painful as these states may be, it is easy to see how they have been bred into us over millions of years of evolution. Without them, we might not be here today.
The Buddha never talked about fear of snakes in this way. But he did talk about in-bred tendencies (anusayas) toward contraction – states that ignore the larger context of our lives. Like being startled by a snake, they are wired into us. They arise out of our physiology. Anusaya is sometimes translated as “obsession” because it can be very persistent and immune to our intentions. But it is usual less obvious than the English word “obsession” connotes.
These latent tendencies (anusaya) give rise to defilements (asavas). The Pali word savathi literally means “flow.” The “a” on the front changes it to “flow in” (influent) or “flow out” (effluent). Some translate asava as “leakage.” These are said to flow out or leak out of the mind-heart and become a nuisance. Asava has been translated (unfortunately) in many yucky ways: “effluence,” “corruption,” “intoxicant,” “taints,” “fermentation,” “pollutants,” “fetters,” “cankers,” and more. These make it sound like moldy molasses or bug-infected sores. Their effect can indeed be discouraging. But they are usually subtle.
The more obvious distortions are called hindrances (nivarana). Nivarana literally means “covering” or “veil.” Hindrances obscure clear seeing. This is the bad news. But they also mark where we need to be more mindful. This is the good news. If we can just lift the covering, there is much insight and wisdom to be seen beneath them. And since they are coarser and easier to see than latent tendencies or defilements, they are easier (though not always easy!) to work with and learn from.
When we six R the hindrances, they turn from nuisances to spiritual trainers. We can also six R the underlying tendencies (anusayas) and the outflows (asavas) when we see them. But the anusayas and asavas are subtle and will continue long after the denser hindrances have been released to greener pastures.
The suttas list seven common examples of latent tendencies, three examples of defilements, and five hindrances. But I suspect these came after the Buddha’s time as people tried to commit his teachings to memory by codifying them. The earliest texts have no such numbering but do talk about anusaya, asava, and nivarana and the problems they create.
I’ve listed the lists of seven, three, and five in the notes at the end of this article. I don’t think it’s important to memorize these lists. The Buddha often spoke metaphorically as he searched to name things for which there was no common language. I bring up the terms only to explain where all the various translations come from.
But if you really want to go nuts, you can look at the various biases modern psychologists and cognitive scientists have studied. One article on Wikipedia lists 172 kinds of distortions of perception, judgment, or memory. Just reading the list gives an appreciation of how natural some level of delusion is.
Latent tendencies, leakages, and hindrances should not be conflated with original sin – the belief that human nature is corrupt at its core and can only be fixed by divine intervention (conveniently offered through the rites and rituals of the church). The notion of original sin has had such a strong influence in Western history that those who do not subscribe to it may still feel its effects internally as an inner critic that becomes overzealous at awkward moments.
In contrast, Buddhism rests on a sense of original goodness – or “Buddha nature.” But just because we may be pure at the core doesn’t mean we’re pure through and through. We all have “impurities” sometimes overzealously referred to as “cankers,” “pollutants,” or “effluences” that do not corrupt our being but certainly distort our perception, delude our thinking, and bias our feelings.
It’s important to remember that the underlying tendencies are wired-in. We can unwisely cultivate the coarser hindrances. But the underlying tendencies do not arise because of something we did in this life or any other life. They are not moral failings. They are not personal flaws. They are part of the human physiology. The enlightened attitude toward them is what the Buddha illustrated with Mara: “Ah, I see you. There you are.” No resistance, no grabbing hold, no pushing away, no identification. Just recognition and acceptance and relaxing.
If we do this, they still arise. But they no longer throw us off or cause us to contract for more than a moment.
It’s easy to infer anusayas from human behavior. But to perceive them directly and release them fully requires a mind-heart that rests in tranquility and equanimity. Consider:
In this latter state, it is possible to sit comfortably for many hours with nothing going on. Every once in a while the mind notices it could become less peaceful. The water is still smooth. Or perhaps there’s a subtle upwelling from the depths that is barely discernible. This is pure anusaya: the potential for disturbance is there though it has not yet surfaced.
It is possible to six R even this subtle tendency: recognize it, let it be, relax, and soften. The potential subsides and the mind relaxes into a soft, clear glow where even the potential for disturbance no longer exists.
The bottom line is humility: we cannot be free of all these natural delusions. But, like the Buddha, we can learn to greet them in a friendly manner (“I see you Mara”) and see them so clearly that we live comfortably with them. Some stay with us as long as we have a body. But if we recognize, release, relax, and smile, they needn’t throw us off balance. At this point, they are no longer a nuisance: just part of the texture of life.
Contemporary Buddhism is filled with lists: four noble truths, eightfold path, three characteristics, five hindrances, three outflows, seven latent tendencies, and on and on. I suspect that when the Buddha spoke, he did give people examples to illustrate what he was talking about. In the earliest texts, these are clearly evocative images. In the later text they have been frozen into a catechism.
Nevertheless, if we don’t take these lists too literally, and look at the wide variety of ways some of these terms have been translated, we may get closer to the Buddha’s intent in teaching. They give us an intuitive feel for what is hard to pin down in language.
In this spirit, I offer the traditional lists of anusaya, asava, and nivarana. Pali is the language of the suttas. So I’ll give those terms first followed some of their most common translations.
Kama raganusaya: sensual pleasure, pleasurable sights, sensations and thoughts, attraction
patighanusaya: aversion, resistance, ill-will, irritation, stubbornness, opposition
ditthanusaya views, speculative views
vicikicchanusaya: doubt, uncertainty, skeptical doubt
manusaya: conceit, self-ing, conceiving “I Am”
bhava raganusaya: lust for existence, wanting to become something
Notice how each of these three has the same root as one of the anusayas. They are clearly related.
kamacchanda: desire, sensual desire, wanting happiness through sight, sound, smell, taste, touch
byapada: aversion, ill-will, hatred, bitterness, pushing away
thina-middha: sloth, torpor, drowsiness, mental dullness
uddhacca-kukkucca: restlessness, remorse, worry, inability to calm
vicikiccha: uncertainity, skeptical doubt, distrust, lack of conviction
These are obviously cousins to the seven and the three. But as noted before, hindrances are coarser. They are the obvious distractions that we meet the first time we close our eyes to meditate. They are the longing and aversion that color human society in ways that anybody with a few moments of reflection can see easily.
Here again is the list of mind distortions verified by contemporary research. We have plenty of reasons to be humble.