September 19, 2022

Open To Joy

This is a shortened version of a dharma talk given by Ruth King during the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Retreat at IMS’s Retreat Center in June. Ruth is the Founder of Mindful of Race Institute, LLC, and is a celebrated author, educator, and meditation teacher. To learn more about Ruth or to get in touch with her, visit her website here.


“How do we make sense out of a world that has corruption and innocence, purity and savagery, wisdom and irrationality, benevolence and wickedness, threat of outsiders and who we consider neighbors, distance and intimacy, receptivity and force?”—Toni Morrison


We’re all navigating tumultuous realities in our lives. This is the terrain we’re walking, trying to find some peace. There’s a lot going on in the world right now and in our own hearts, and we’re trying to figure out how to quench our thirst, hunger, longing, and yearning as we navigate this terrain.

So, we try different things—approaches, jobs, relationships, countries, everything. And the very thing we’re searching for out there is not to be found, because it has to do with how we’re in relationship with our mind. We seek satisfaction externally, yet the challenge is understanding that this is a big piece of work that requires us to look internally.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya says, “One thing you need to remember and understand is that you cannot leave the mind alone. It needs to be watched constantly. If you do not look after your garden it will overgrow with weeds. If you do not watch your mind, defilements will grow and multiply. The mind does not belong to you, but you are responsible for it.”

The Five Hindrances

Here, we look at the Five Hindrances, one of the systems that support us in looking at how we show up with our mind and our relationship with the mind activity. We’ll look briefly at all five hindrances, and specifically at one—restlessness and worry.

The first of the five hindrances is desire for sensual pleasure. The mind races with the idea of wanting and desire. The second is aversion—our drive to push away. Aversion is about all the ways that we’re at war with ourselves and our mind. Third is sloth and torpor—our inability to rise fully to a challenge. It can be a mental and physical fatigue which keeps us in a state of collapse that makes it difficult to rise fully.

I will skip to the fifth and come back to the fourth.

Fifth is doubt. This is when we’re uncertain, insecure about trusting, believing, or letting ourselves go. Because there’s all kinds of ways we’ve been burned, so we’re suspicious, unsure, and we question things, we question the teachings, we question our own good mind.

And fourth is restlessness and worry, which is the whirlwind of the mind. It is this sense of searching, agitation, ill ease, overwhelm, fear, fantasy, exhaustion, and ambivalence. We get into a cycle of judging, comparing, perfecting, fixing, and yearning. We worry about the world, our work, our lives, ourselves, so there’s this angst wrapped around restlessness and worry. It can feel like fear run amok. And there’s a sense that if I just could figure it out in my head, if I just worked at it a little harder, I’d get it. There also could be an element of being bored with your thoughts—tired of what you’re thinking, but you can’t stop thinking it.

The Job of the Mind

The mind is an organ; it’s a part of the body. The eyes see, the mouth tastes, the ears hear, the nose smells, the body feels, and the mind thinks. The job of the mind is to be busy. We’re not trying to stop that. What we’re trying to do is look at how we identify with what arises in the mind so solidly that it’s hard to see all the other things that are present.

The mind doesn’t belong to us, in a sense, because we’re not making it think. But we’re responsible for it because of how we are in relationship to it and how we are in relationship to our thoughts. We can’t control what arises, but we also don’t want to habitually keep running on the trail with the hindrances.

Hindrance Combinations

The tricky thing about restlessness and worry is that it is the hindrance that often wraps itself around other hindrances. When it solidifies around other hindrances, it can morph, creating other qualities. For example, when restlessness and worry solidify around desire, it can feel like speed without a destination. Inside the heart and mind there’s a sense of weariness and manifestation of claiming and holding on for dear life, a desperation that fills the heart and mind.

When restlessness and worry congeals around aversion—it’s like having your foot heavily on the gas pedal, while also on the brake. When restlessness and worry wraps itself around sloth and torpor, we can feel an intense mental fatigue and physical exhaustion, a sense of dizziness or being off balance. When restlessness and worry wraps itself around doubt, we can be saturated in a sense of despair. And we worry about our restlessness. So, there’s this vicious cycle of doubting our restlessness and worrying about it, wondering if this is ever going to end.


One of the ways that the teachings talk about this cycle, is the Pali word papañca. It refers to a diversity, proliferation, elaboration, or adornment of thinking. It’s a selfing process that keeps us solidified to some notion of what we think is right and wrong.

One way to think about it is there’s the bare bones mind of thought that arises, let’s call that a mannequin. Then we add to it by dressing the mannequin with clothes, jewelry, etc. Before we know it, there’s a whole outfit of identity, as opposed to just the bare experience of the mannequin—just the thought itself.

So, how do we not layer on to our experience? The nature of the mind is that it’s going to be thinking, but how do we not expand a whole identity out of it when that’s happening?

When this cycle of papañca or morphing or costuming of thought that we habitually do is not interrupted then this spiral continues. And what’s happening in that morphing process is the experience of grasping. There’s an imbalance and an over-efforting that is occurring. And the Pali word for that is dukkha or suffering. Our challenge is to interrupt this habitual dukkha producing activity of “mine.” This mechanism or habit is something that we can learn to see so that we can begin to discern clearly and have a different relationship to it.

Strategies for Working with the Hindrances

When you discover that you’re caught by a hindrance, notice the moment you become aware of it. And right there, take a breath. In that breath, you can explore the contrast of then and now. Because there is a different experience in the body, heart, and mind when you’re caught in a hindrance than when you notice that you’re caught. And that’s a powerful thing to know. Also, that shift represents being fixated in the hindrance to observing what’s happening. And then being curious about whatever it is—thinking, restlessness, doubt, etc.—and then feel what it’s like to have seen that and now to be in the place that you’re in. Notice the contrast. In time it can become a preference to feel into the place of recognition rather than fixation.

Another way to work with this is if the restlessness and worry is persistent, and you feel steady enough inside yourself, you can investigate or lean into it with a bit more curiosity. “What is this?” Give it a word, “sadness” or “fear” so you know what’s happening. Then open to how that’s experienced in the body. All thoughts have roots in the body. You can always shift from a thought to investigating its deeper roots, which will help you be with the sensations in the body.

Noting practice is like a tracking practice. What’s happening now? What is the thought that I’m having? What sensations are the thoughts rooted in in this moment? Then we begin to see that we can rely on the impermanence of our thoughts—that they all appear, do their thing, and then disappear. The nature of our thoughts and everything else is that it arises and passes away. We can trust that.

The dharma also instructs us to notice these hindrances in five distinct ways. Notice: 1) when they are there; 2) when they go away; 3) when they are returning; 4) when you lose interest in them; and 5) when the loss of interest is sustained. The last two are what makes the practice more transformative as opposed to observable. Because up to that point, we’re observing what’s happening. But with these last two, we’re in a transformation process of shifting our relationship to how we engage with the hindrance.

To do that, we need to understand the experiences we’re having from a broader lens. The habit of mind is that we’re fixated on the hindrance, but there’s a way that we can expand the view. This is a mindfulness approach of seeing before, during, and after the hindrance. It’s like the hindrance is not the only thing that’s going on, but it’s where we get in lockdown mode.

The practice is seeing if we could zoom out enough to see a broader play of mind. This means becoming acquainted with before, during, and after the hindrance. Sometimes that experience before and after it happens is kind of fuzzy and unfocused which is why we may ignore it because it doesn’t have a big charge to it, so it doesn’t capture our interest. We fast forward through these in between places, yet these can be spaces where we find some relief, rest, and emptiness.

Mindfulness practice is teaching us how to prolong our view of awareness, so that we’re not fixed on the object of our agitation, desire, etc. What we’re trying to do is open the lens wider and see the full experience—not just what we like or don’t like.

The hindrances can’t survive the bright light of awareness. And mindfulness has a way of putting a frame around the overwhelm of restlessness and worry. As we continue to do this practice, it supports a ripening of awareness and insight. And as mindfulness grows, our mental capacity gradually shifts from the object of our fixation to the process of being aware. That’s really what we’re after in this inquiry. To understand the awareness process.

Here’s another strategy that I refer to as “don’t pick it up.” Ajahn Chah tells a story that he brought two very large boundary marker stones into his monastery. And he asked one of his monks, “Is that stone heavy?” And the monk says, “Oh, yes, clearly very heavy.” And Ajahn says, “Not if you don’t pick it up.”

If the hindrance continues to be intense and you’re fatigued from the habit of mind, you can say, “No, not now,” and return to your anchor—the breath, body, walking, etc. We get to choose whether we are going to be in the habit of suffering or not. Because that’s our responsibility. We can’t stop the mind from thinking. But we can shift how we’re in relationship to it. “Don’t pick it up” is a practice of gently aiming and sustaining our attention to our anchor.

Open to Joy

Find these moments when you aren’t hindered in your mind, but rather in a place of calm and ease. In these moments, there is a flood of delight and joy that can come into your experience. The teachings say that when restlessness and worry have subsided, it can feel like you’ve been freed from bondage. When desire is no longer gripping you, the feeling is like you’re free from debt. To be relieved from the grip of aversion is like feeling healthy after a long illness. To be released from sloth and torpor feels like being released from prison. And when doubt is not our occupation, it’s like feeling safe after a dangerous trip across the desert without food or water.

In those moments when you are feeling blissful or peaceful, the invitation is to open to that—to not allow the fixation of mind to rob you of the good feelings that can also be available to you. You can’t force this feeling of delight; you can’t make it happen—that would be another form of grasping. But you can open to this happening by suspending your habit of over identification with the hindrances when they arise. You can then examine what’s happening and what conditions supported it.

The mind is a dynamic process. When it’s stuck on what has arisen, it’s rigid and limited. Our joy from fixation on any of the hindrances is not dependent on whether the external environment changes. Your happiness doesn’t depend on whether the world ever gets it right. Don’t wait for that. Your happiness is much more readily accessible. And it’s in your mind. It’s your relationship with how you’re working with the causes and conditions that arise in your heart and mind. The game changes when insight ripens—our capacity to be stable and clear in our understanding of suffering and its release.

To listen to the full talk, click here.