Today we’ll talk about the nine obstacles to mental clarity. These are also obstacles to practicing yoga or to succeeding in anything else that requires hard work and practice. The nine obstacles are:
- Lack of effort
- Fatigue or disease
- Dullness, inertia (tamas)
- Inability to turn the mind inward
- Distorted thinking
- Lack of perseverance
The first and last obstacles are of particular interest. Lack of effort is in many ways the most powerful obstacle and the key to all of them: if you don’t put any effort into your practice, you can’t possibly make progress. In addition, a lack of effort opens the door for the other obstacles to come in: if you’re working hard, you’ll be focused on your work, but if you’re not putting in any effort, you’re more likely to become lazy and careless. If you can avoid experiencing a lack of effort – if you strive to put your best effort into all you do – it will be easier to avoid the other obstacles as well.
The last obstacle, lack of perseverance, is also important. J defined “perseverance” as “practicing for an extended period of time without break”. While this concept can be applied to an individual practice or yoga class (powering through a full hour instead of copping out after 20 minutes), it shouldn’t be understood to mean practicing for hours and hours on end, day after day, which wouldn’t be healthy. Instead think about perseverance as the willpower to go do the work regularly, to do it without break, every day if you can. Practicing yoga once a month at random won’t help you very much, but if you practice every Tuesday or twice a week or every morning, you’ll see yourself making progress. Lack of perseverance goes hand in hand with lack of effort: to get anything accomplished you need to show up and try!
Another of the obstacles I want to talk about is laziness. In our lecture J gave us a definition for laziness that’s stuck with me: “laziness” is “the inability to take action even though there’s a longing for action in the mind”. Most of us have experienced this. You know you should go clean the bathroom but you think you’ll just sit down for a minute, and oh, Pawn Stars is on and you haven’t seen this one. Or it’s some movie, like Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, that you’ve seen a dozen times and don’t really care about seeing again, but you get sucked in and you stay on the couch even through the commercials and there goes your whole Saturday afternoon. You know you don’t really care about the movie, and that if you did care you could rent it or get it on Netflix with no commercials, but you sit there anyway. In class, we asked J, how do you fight laziness? And he said, um, get up. So even the big sage guy doesn’t have a magical answer. You know you need to get up, so turn off the TV, let Ferris go about his crazy day, and get back to your own life.
To me, the thing that seems so insidious about the nine obstacles is the way they feed on each other. Say you’re feeling lazy, so you shorten your yoga practice or do it carelessly, maybe you skip it entirely – there’s lack of effort and lack of perseverance. Let it go and a pattern develops: the longer you sit around, the easier it is to keep sitting around, and inertia sets in. Soon you begin to doubt your purpose, whether there’s any point to this yoga stuff, even though you know you feel better and stronger when you do yoga. And without your regular practice you lose the ability you’d been building to focus and turn the mind inward, becoming even more distracted by what’s on TV. The nine obstacles draw you in, drag you down, and keep you there.
That’s an overblown worst-case scenario, but we all deal with these obstacles every day, not just in yoga but in our jobs and other work, and over time they can keep us from achieving our goals. However, by identifying the obstacles and knowing their tricks, we can fight against them. The next time I’m tempted to watch just one more episode of Pawn Stars, I’ll remember: this is laziness! I don’t want to be lazy! And I’ll turn off the TV.
So what do the nine obstacles look like in your life? Which one is hardest for you, and what do you do to fight it?