The maps of meditation can be remarkable technology, helping to explain, normalize, and contextualize strange experiences that can result from meditation or even just being alive. They can provide extremely helpful warnings of common pitfalls, help meditators figure out how to make progress through odd, unfamiliar territory, catch what they are missing, and even explore cool options related to whatever is going on that otherwise might have remained hidden.
However, as basically anyone in a map-based tradition knows all too well, they can also end up becoming a source of fixation, obsession, and distraction. In this, they become hindrances for those who are educated in the maps.
The standard Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, boredom, restlessness and worry, and skeptical doubt. Every single one of those can drive those prone to analysis to fixate on maps in a way that derails practice in exactly the way that the more standard, non-map presentations of the hindrances can, except repackaged and rebranded to appeal to those who have been given these empowering frameworks.
It is often very obvious when the hindrance of desire shows up in some mundane form. The mind fixates on something, some image, some dream in the future, a new phone, a new car, a fun vacation, a person we find attractive, some great meal we could have, etc. Hopefully, if we have some meditation skills, soon enough we notice, “Ah, this is the hindrance of desire,” and hopefully notice it as a pattern of sensations and get our meditation back on track.
However, the desire to achieve some future meditation goal, some next stage, some next state, some path: when that arises and becomes the object of desire, it can seem to sanctioned, so helpful, so much a source of motivation and inspiration, so what we are supposed to be doing in our meditation, that we hardly notice this is just the hindrance of desire repackaged in a much shiner wrapper, a wrapper so shiny we may hardly notice it for the ordinary, disruptive hindrance that it is.
By being pulled towards the future instead of this moment just as it is, we ironically thwart that same desire, as it is each immediate unfolding moment that forms the basis of progress, not some non-existent future moment unless we can notice the immediate experiences of the thoughts that make up that sense of future right now as they are, and notice that pull towards the future in our body just as it occurs.
If we can do this, we turn a hindrance back into meditation. If not, we reinforce the bad habit of obsessing on an imagined future without insight into that obsession, so that next time, it will be easier to fall back into that trap instead of actually making progress. We must guard against building that sort of wiring without turning it into an object of skillful inquiry as it occurs.
The same is true of aversion. When aversion arises, as hatred, irritation, anger, or some other emotion that pushes experiences away, hopefully we notice this hindrance as the hindrance it is and get back to meditation. We hopefully learn to notice when we are replaying an old argument in our heads, notice when we rehash old grievances, notice when we try to get away from our knee or back pain, notice when we get frustrated by our meditation experience, etc.
However, when the hindrance of map-fixation arises as aversion, while not pleasant either, it seems so much more important. We reject what we are feeling, seeing, hearing, thinking, smelling, and tasting as it isn’t what is supposed to be happening, so our mapping mind erroneously tells us. We reject whatever state or stage we are in. We reject the qualities that make up our actual experience for some imagined experience we would greatly prefer. We cut ourselves off from the sensations occurring now due to the ordinary hindrance of aversion, but again repackaged in the wrapper of the tradition’s Mighty Maps.
We can be so convinced this is good meditation when in fact it is just aversion fooling us again. If we can notice the sensations of aversion when they arise in this seductive way, we can make them a foundation of progress rather than further reinforcing the bad habit of cultivating hindrances.
Like aversion and desire, boredom can also camouflage itself in the garb of map fixation and stealthily attack. The breath seems so boring, we think, but jhana sounds so good. The feet are just feet, we think, but somewhere else is Nibbana. The technique is tedious and tiresome, but one day we will be awakened. Through boredom, which is common in the early stages of meditation, but even some later stages as well, we slip into daydreams of desire and aversion, or just ordinary dullness, but it is really fueled by boredom in these cases, a lack of ability to appreciate the vivid, amazing, remarkable truths that each of these seemingly boring sensations is trying to tell us if we just learned how to pay attention to them clearly.
If we can learn to perceive the remarkably fascinating intricacy of all the little vivid sensations of our meditation objects, experience, and boredom itself, we can turn these into sources of progress, but if we persist in the habit of boredom, again that habit is written into our minds and we are more likely to fall into it next time.
Restless and worry also often arise as map fixation in smart people. When they arise the ordinary way, worry about our job, relationship, finances, education, or just restlessness and ordinary anxiety on the cushion or when walking or whatever, we hopefully are able to recognize them as the hindrances they are. However, when they arise in more map-fixated forms, they may be a lot more pernicious.
Questions that seem so compellingly important can arise, such as, “Will I have enough time left on this retreat to get stream entry?”, or “What will happen if I leave this retreat still darknighting this hard?” Ordinary restless and worry have wrapped themselves in the cloak of mappiness and struck hard. We need to identify these as the hindrances the immediate patterns of sensations they are, or, like an evil grand vizier who has gained the ear of the sultan, they can lead us into trouble.
Similarly, skeptical doubt can creep in just like restlessness and worry, and often they gang up together for asymmetrical warfare guerrilla attacks, again disguised as oh-so-compelling map fixation.
“Is this really the right technique for me? Maybe if I did another technique I would get jhana or awakened faster?”
“What if I can’t handle the difficult meditation stages?”
“Everyone else seems to be getting to stages and states that I can’t; maybe I am just born to be a bad meditator.”
“My teachers aren’t giving me the right instructions, as I am still stuck in this stage and unable to get to some other stage.”
“What if there are other, hidden, secret teachings that lead to much better awakening variants than this technique?”, basically the map-based version of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Doubt can even manifest in more insidious forms, as we map and analyze each little bit of each stage and state as they arise, placing them into our mental map of “where we are”, being somehow certain that this is oh-so-important and that if we do this, something great will happen, and if we don’t, something bad will happen. We doubt that we can just let sensations show us their truths, and instead are sure we have to retrofit our own intellectual and phenomenological brilliance on top of them and that this is a great idea. It is not that we might not recognize familiar landmarks as they arise, as that is normal to a trained mind familiar with the states and stages, but if this becomes the focus of our meditation rather than the landmarks, then it can subtly or overtly derail practice.
If we don’t catch these sorts of thoughts filled with map-based doubt, restless, and worry, seeing them as the patterns of immediate sensations that they are, they will immediately derail our practice and ironically make the outcomes they fear much more likely.
In this way, we see that essentially all map-obsessed thoughts that derail practice are just the ordinary hindrances dressed up in compelling disguises. Thus armed, we can go back to basics, learn to recognize each of these hindrances when they occur, even in sophisticated forms, and apply the appropriate remedies. We can learn to see these sensations as they are. We can redirect an unhelpful fixation on an imagined future and a long-gone past to comprehension of this moment as it is, even if that moment involves sensations that ordinarily might become hindrances. In these skillful ways, we can avoid the very traps that all of these hindrances simultaneously fear and yet ironically create.
A very similar analysis of the causes of map-based fixation can be constructed from the later version of the Ten Armies of Mara, which has considerable overlap with the Five Hindrances but adds a few more of relevance, typically listed as:
Desire and sensual pleasures
Hunger and thirst
Sloth and torpor
Conceit and ingratitude
Gain, renown, honor, and falsely received fame
Extolling one’s self and disparaging others
When Mara’s armies attack cloaked as indispensable map fixation, be on guard in the same way at the other hindrances.
Learning these skills is essential for meditators who have learned the maps so that they can draw on their amazing benefits while not being impeded by falling into the well-known traps that they can create if misused.
Best wishes for your practice,