Practice Tips: Dealing with the Five Hindrances as a Musician

On a virtual meditation retreat a few weeks ago I learned about a Buddhist concept known as the Five Hindrances to Enlightenment. A sort of Buddhist Seven Deadly Sins, but not in the right or wrong sense, more in a “something to be aware of” kind of way. They have different translations but they basically boil down to these:

  1. Sensual Desire
  2. Aversion
  3. Sloth and Torpor
  4. Restlessness and Worry
  5. Doubt

These were immediately familiar to me and I’m sure to you as well.

I recognized all of these states as general obstacles to any given practice session, whether music, T’ai Chi, or meditation. But what was helpful was identifying them! This enables you to learn to work with them and get past them. I thought that I would go through each one with you in this post and see how they might relate to the practicing musician.

Kannon-samas near the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi’s cave where he wrote “The Book of the Five Rings” incorporating Buddhist philosophy into the martial arts.

1. Sensual Desire

This applies to wanting anything: food, sex, alcohol, to talk to someone in the next practice room, etc. For me it might be practicing while only thinking about lunch, or some microphone I want to order, or anything that might take me out of focus.

Antidote: One solution might be to just recognize that you are feeling this desire right now, and hone in on it, which will allow you to let it go. Non-attachment. This doesn’t seem like it would work, but I have been repeatedly surprised. Of course, if something like hunger is really keeping you from focusing on your work, you may have to just take a break and give in! It’s not about fighting the urge: either recognize it and let it go, or recognize it and satisfy that desire.

2. Aversion

This would include anger, annoyance, disgust and the like. This is a common one in college style practice rooms, where it can be very hard to ignore the drummer in the room next to you, or the guy honking out long tones all day.

Antidote: The traditional solution to this is metta: loving-kindness meditation where you wish someone, in this case someone you may not like very much, health and happiness. Send out some silent words of encouragement for the guy in the next room to finally hit that 6th overtone on the horn with confidence. Not saying this will always work, but it’s worth a shot!

3. Sloth and Torpor

I haven’t been sleeping well lately, so this has been a very common one for me. If you are extremely tired, take a nap. There is no point trying to shed when you are too tired to focus, or maybe you can try something less physical for a bit, and see if you bounce back.

Antidote: However, for times when you just feel a little bored and sleepy, you can remind yourself that the amount of time you have to be the next saxophone superstar is limited. Make use of this half hour you have set aside to practice. This is the Buddhist concept of Right Effort. A little reminder of the goals you have set for yourself may be the push you need to wake up and get to work.

The See, Hear, Speak No Evil monkeys in Nikko, Japan. Restlessness is often reflected in the “Monkey Mind.”

4. Restlessness and Worry

Another common one for me! That feeling of wanted to get this over with so you can get to the next thing. As a doubler, I apply this to the days where I may just play flute for a few minutes, switch to clarinet, then to saxophone, and never really get very deep on any of them.

Antidote: An antidote to this might be to set a timer, focus on one aspect of something, and try to find that flow state. For example, if I work on a clarinet etude and just try to get through it, I haven’t achieved much. But when I stay in the first few measures, or notes even, and go deeper with the sounds I am making, whether they sound good to me, etc, I start to create a deep concentration that will extend to the rest of my timed practice.

I like to use Clockify to time my activities (like writing this blog post). At the end of the day you can see where you have spent your time.

5. Doubt

I think as artists we all experience serious amounts of doubt. Doubt that we are good enough, that we’ll ever be able to make a proper living, that we are spending our time on the right thing at any given moment. I get this all the time when practicing: “Oh maybe this tune is too easy, I should try an etude and work on my technique, oh shoot maybe I should be playing more tenor, I’ll never be any good at clarinet anyway,” etc. It of course also applies to jealousy of other players.

Antidote: I think one solution to this could be measuring your social media use! We’re always seeing videos of great musicians/peers doing things we wish we could do and we’re measuring ourselves against that. It can really wear you out. Take a breath, spend a day working on your own thing, and see if that give you the space to appreciate other players from a non-competitive perspective.

The way I’ve been working on these and the way that was taught on the retreat is to sit and go down the list and see which of the five you are experiencing right now. If you aren’t feeling one of them, rejoice in the fact that you aren’t! Use that to inspire your practice. If you are, which you probably are, just identify it. That already goes a long way.

I hope this is helpful, it has certainly been an eye-opener to me and my daily activities. Happy practicing!

In this post I’m just sharing my own realizations, but you can read more about the Five Hindrances and how to deal with them from the real experts in these articles:

All photographs were taken by me in the early 2000s in Japan.

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