Understanding the Five Obstacles

maidenartFAchieving Concentration in Martial Arts training:

As an ancient Chinese martial art, Shaolin Kung Fu traces its roots back more than 1500 years to the Shaolin Buddhist Temple. Monks there developed martial arts practice not only for the purpose of self-defense, but also as an effective system of physical conditioning which would support their meditation practices. Sustained concentration during intensive and extended sessions of any form of meditation (standing, moving or sitting) requires good health, and a great deal of stamina, flexibility and strength.

Once a sound physical basis for meditation is established, Buddhism teachs there are then five common mental obstacles which must be avoided. These are:
dullness
restlessness
ill-will
ignorant desire
unresolved doubt.
In the Buddhist teachings it is also emphasized that meditation does not end when one finishes the formal session, but is an ongoing practice that needs attendance continuously through the day. This would include martial arts training, and an understanding of these same five obstacles to concentration can be helpful when applied in that context as well.

It would be wonderful to always walk into Kung Fu class feeling completely clear, enthusiastic and open to learning. More often than not, we can’t help but arrive on the practice floor with attitudes we have developed in response to previous events of the day (or our lives for that matter.) One morning in particular, this was especially apparent to me. Arriving late to class and without enough sleep again, the frustration I was predisposed for was immediately provoked by the instructor’s announcement we would be doing staff techniques. Generally I liked the staff forms and exercises I’d previously practiced, but now I was annoyed instead as it was the one morning I had failed to bring my personal rattan staff to class. So, consequently being stuck with one of the much longer and heftier school stick weapons, I gritted my teeth as we began a sequence of exercises.

As I struggled with the weight and unwieldiness of the unfamiliar staff my mind kept comparing this experience with how well I could be doing if only I had my own stick. Frustration and sweat increased along with my resistance, and the heavy stick grew stickier in my hands. It seemed the weapon’s response to my resistance was a refusal to cooperate. I just couldn’t get the techniques right at all.

I noticed my instructor carefully observing all this, and in particular how he did not comment on this obviously bad attitude attack that was effectively preventing me from learning anything. Seeing him watch me from across the room -quite intentionally leaving me to my own devices – somehow my own perspective shifted; my focus changed from my struggle with the techniques (what I assumed I should be learning,) to dealing with what was really going on: my own immediate obstacles to learning and concentration.

In Kung Fu practice it is important to be aware of the points of resistance encountered in the opponent, since these become the opportunities for an effective response. In this case, (me being my own worst enemy,) it was not only my own bad-attitude resistance obstructing the learning process, but even more fundamental, my own presumptions and inappropriate preconceptions about the primary lesson that morning being anything other than this immediate point.

Obstacles occur in both martial arts training and meditation practice because of an inability to surrender conscious and unconscious habituation and preconceptions, both mental and physical, which subsequently limits the potential range of responses. Instead, one must learn to abandon preconceptions in order to accurately perceive the actual reality of any situation, and in response adapt one’s thinking and movement of mind/body accordingly. Despite outer appearances, meditation is not a static, non-responsive state, but particularly at the higher and more intensive levels of practice, a very refined process of continual and subtle adjustments made in response to mental fluctuations in order to maintain clear concentration and meditative equilibrium.

Maybe that one particular morning the mental affliction level for me was a bit more extreme, but obstacles to concentration while training always arise to some extent for each of us. Such as: you suddenly notice that the instructor has just finished explaining the technique or exercise, but you didn’t get it because for the past few minutes you’ve been somewhere else in your mind running all those after-class errands. That is the obstacle of restlessness. Or, you find you just don’t care that much about actually improving on some especially demanding movement, and instead manage to slide by with minimal effort during that exercise. That would be dullness. And then there’s ill-will: we all have our least favorite practice partners (too stiff, too clumsy, too whimpy, etc.) or other students who are just so much better than we are, we really can’t stand to work with them either. (All this discrimination, as if we could have the same opportunity to select the fighting style or physical characteristics of the person who might someday attack us.)

In interfering with concentration, the obstacle of ignorant desire, (or as it is also known: ignorant attraction to objects of the senses,) would generally be considered the inability to maintain consistent discipline necessary to overcome detrimental distractions by objects of the senses. This might take the form of over-stimulation of the senses, such as too much food which can slow the body down, or too much sleep (missing morning meditation session or martial arts class altogether); or watching too many movies too late into the night and not having adequate energy available the next day for training practice. The obstacle of unresolved doubt arises as an inability to make a firm commitment to the training process. There is a lack of certainty, or trust, or inspiration, or even imagination as to the real benefits of the practice, which then of course do not materialize due to inconsistency in one’s efforts to progress.

In order to overcome one’s own obstacles to concentration, learning and progress in martial arts practice, it can be very useful to begin with clearly identifying these particular obstacles as they specifically manifest in one’s own training. In Buddhist meditation practice, this is called ” developing watchfulness,” also known as “mindfulness,” a skill which is then used to alert oneself to the rising presence of obstacles. The mind is checked at regular intervals to ensure intensity and clarity of focus. This requires a great deal of effort, honesty and patience, but can gradually lead to an understanding of one’s own habitual, ineffective reactions towards certain situations. Then, based on the motivation to achieve really effective ongoing concentration for the best possible training and practice, this conscious awareness of obstacles can become the first step in eliminating them.

In fact, the obstacles present us with our greatest opportunities to progress. It may be that each of us dealing with any of these obstacles is one of the most important lessons offered in any martial arts class.

maia farrell

One Response to “Understanding the Five Obstacles”

  1. Vince V says:

    Very interesting article. Sadly for me, I had been aware of mindfulness for many years thru both psychology and Buddhism and when I first started doing martial arts, was very often aware of my reluctance to go to class. This prompted me to quit Karate and move to Chinese Arts. But after many years and many schools, I found at around age 50, that nagging awareness of “wanting to be somewhere else than the dojo” was so often present. I erroneously thought that by just being aware and watching my feelings as if they were a TV show or a daily to do list to review I would develop the wisdom to lean into the sharp points as some Buddhists like to say. Unfortunately I have learned that a complete overhaul of ones life as well as a complete change of martial style, type of teacher and even atmosphere is sometimes needed when you get stuck for years in the same mindset. I have a saying…”If you don’t know what do change because nothing seems to be working, change everything!” And so I did.

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