Read time: 9 minutes. Watch my video on the topic by clicking here.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought. – Buddha
In Buddhism, the 5 hinderances impede or get in the way of forward progress in meditation and life. They are obstacles that challenge you. It’s important to pay attention to what is happening when you feel their challenge. By identifying the hindrances, you can get a better sense of what caused them to arise. Then figure out how to overcome them.
Generally, the 5 hinderances are applied to the practice of meditation. If you are able to keep the mind’s energy and attention focused on your meditation practice then you’re more likely to achieve a meditative state. However, if your attention is dispersed because the hinderances are pulling it in different directions, then your mind’s state will be shallow and ineffective.
In order to understand these hinderances it’s important to first understand the Buddhist view on attachment; the root of all suffering is attachment. Attachement is like taking out a loan that you’ll have to pay back later with interest. Any pleasure one experiences from the attachment must be repaid through the unpleasantness of separation. The topic of attachment does deserve its own writing piece because I think it is more complicated than that. However, I bring it up now because your mind forms an attachement to the hinderance it experiences. In order to overcome them, you must lose your attachement and let them go. If you can’t let the thoughts go then your attachment to each hinderance leads to your suffering.
The 5 Hinderances (The Obstacles)
1. Sensory Desire: The particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.
Example: The desire to eat a delicious snack when you see one.
2. Ill-Will: All kinds of thought related to wanting to reject; feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.
Example: Being angry at someone for cutting you off in traffic.
3. Sloth and Torpor: Heaviness of the body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.
Example: Snoozing your alarm 5 times in the morning before getting up.
4. Restlessness and Anxiousness: The inability to calm the mind or body.
Example: Being bored with your own company leading to continuous scrolling of social media.
5. Doubt: Lack of conviction or trust.
Example: Doubt in your ability or someone else’s to do something.
How do you navigate modern life while overcoming the 5 hinderances? It is impossible to absolutely avoid them but you can encounter them less and move past them sooner. Buddhist monks will actively avoid these hinderances in their daily life through control of their environment, thinking, and making deliberate choices. Hinderances in the mind are experienced by every human, however, what you do from there is up to you.
The Antidote (Getting Out Of Your Own Way)
The antidote to the 5 hinderances is in the practice of understanding them and then abandoning them. They’re all overcome in the mind by thinking better. The solution is not about changing something outside of you, but rather changing you. The environment can affect the challenges needed to be overcome, but you have a choice on what you attach to.
The more you indulge the hinderances the harder it becomes to change your behaviour. This is because our behaviours become etched in our brains. So don’t get discouraged if you find the process of overcoming them hard. It’s normal. You are physically changing your brain with your efforts. Keep going and you’ll get there.
“Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them…” – Steve Jobs
You are going to experience sensory desires every day and I think that’s normal. It’s hard not to pay attention to the body’s senses because they build our reality. The body is providing signals to influence behaviour, like releasing ghrelin when it’s time to eat or at the sight of a tasty snack. Being mindful of these senses and the associated desire is important so that you are not mindlessly giving into them. For example, when you’re hungry what do you reach for? The quickest and easiest snack? Are you mindful of your actions that are being lead by your senses?
The way to overcome this hinderance is to transcend the senses so you’re not stupefied by them. If you allow the senses to stupefy you then you won’t be able to think clearly. It’s like going to the grocery store hungry, never really a good idea. In meditation, you can move past sensory desire for the period by letting go of the concern for your body and its five senses. The body disappears and the senses are “switched off” which allows you to focus within.
But how do you do this outside of meditation? The senses serve an important purpose so it’s not practical to just “switch them off” in our daily lives. I think that the hinderance is overcome by doing the complete opposite of switching them off; turn up the volume on them. This allows you to be mindful of what senses are being stimulated, how they’re being stimulated, and make conscious choices with that information. At the end of the day there’s nothing wrong with giving into your sensory desires. We’ve all got to eat. But, it’s when the sensory desires are not serving you, clouding your thinking, or hurting you, that you must be mindful of them and change your behaviour. You have the control so practice exercising it. In summary, in order to overcome sensory desire you must become aware of these desires and make mindful decisions with a clear mind on what you do with that sensory information.
A feeling of anger, resentment, or hostility is not an enjoyable state of mind, although it can be seductive and addictive. At the time it feels justified and the feeling begins to corrupt your mind. It’s like grasping a hot coal. Ill-will can also be felt against yourself in the form of guilt. The feeling of guilt denies oneself any possibility of contentment.
The first step to overcome this hinderance is to breathe and take some time to clear your mind. Then bring your mind back to try to understand why you’re feeling this way and if a person caused this feeling inside you, understand why they may have done what they did. Then apply the antidote to ill-will: love and kindness. It sounds cliche but the ill-will feeling only ends up hurting yourself more than anyone else. By showing love and kindness you can overcome this hinderance.
Maybe that person who cut you off on the road needs to get to the hospital? They could also just be a jerk. But that’s their issue, not yours. It really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Do not dwell in the feeling of ill-will for you are only hurting yourself further. Always be kind because you do not know what a person may be going through.
Sloth and Torpor
Sloth, torpor, or just laziness can drag you down when your mind is holding too little energy. Your energy can start to spiral down into a disabling inertia. It can be a debilitating state of mind. In the practice of meditation the hinderance can manifest in the form of falling asleep. In daily life it can manifest in the form of lethargy and depression. Depending on your circumstances you may need professional help to overcome this state of mind.
The way to overcome a lack of energy is to generate new energy from within. A young child will have a natural curiosity in the world because it’s new to them. Children have a beginner’s mind which is always generate new energy. Bring out again this beginner’s mind inside you and see beauty in the ordinary. This will generate renewed energy inside you and overcome sloth and torpor.
You may know of other ways that bring about renewed energy inside you. I find a walk outside in nature to be energizing. Nature is constantly changing and bringing a beginner’s mind and curiosity to the walk can make it energizing. Figure one what techniques you currently have that turn on the energy inside yourself and do more of that.
Restlessness and Anxiousness
If your mind is holding too much energy (opposite of sloth and torpor) then you’ll become restless and anxious. Restlessness can be physical or mental. When you’re physically restless you’re unable to remain still. When you’re mentally restless your mind is continuing to swing from thought to thought and won’t settle down. They call this monkey mind. The anxiousness, or worry, part of this hinderance is when your mind is not in the present. It may be worried about a past action or a future possibility.
The first step of the antidote is to figure out what triggered the restlessness or anxiousness. By removing any actions or activities that cause the trigger you’re one step closer to being free from the hinderance. It is also helpful to develop appreciative contentment with what you already have, rather than fault-finding. Practice thinking about what you’re grateful for and show that appreciation.
Finally, your mind will settle if you’re patient and sit with it for a while. Try and steer its focus to the present, catching it each time it drifts away into the past or future. Don’t force it into a different state, but rather allow it to work through the thoughts and gently bring it back to the present. Bringing your focus to your breathing can also help. Remember, you don’t have to believe every thought that is crossing your mind. The ones that cause the worry and restlessness can be acknowledge but don’t need to be attached to, let them go.
Doubt is healthy in the right amount but can also lead to a lack of confidence. It’s important to be skeptical at times, especially when there is not established trust in the relationship. However, there is a point where doubt starts to hurt you and becomes a hinderance in the mind. Doubt tends to manifest in the form of questions that undermine something. The feeling of doubt can be towards others or the self. You may be asking yourself questions like “can I really do this?” or “is this the right way?”.
The antidote to overcoming doubt is to get clear instructions, like a roadmap. Having a mentor can help you develop those clear instructions and roadmap. They’ve been been on the path before and so can provide insights to remove your doubts. If you’re doubting others then review evidence shown by their actions only with the purpose of understanding its meaning. The most simple way out of doubt is through asking questions, reading books, and learning from others. Doubt can help begin the journey of seeking to understand. Trust yourself.
“The Buddha says that all the hindrances arise through unwise consideration and that they can be eliminated by wise consideration. Each hindrance, however, has its own specific antidote. Thus wise consideration of the repulsive feature of things is the antidote to sensual desire; wise consideration of loving-kindness counteracts ill will; wise consideration of the elements of effort, exertion and striving opposes sloth and torpor; wise consideration of tranquillity of mind removes restlessness and worry; and wise consideration of the real qualities of things eliminates doubt.” (S.v,105-106)
Buddhist teaching provides one way of thinking about how to overcome the obstacles faced in daily life. I think that there is something to be learned here regardless of your beliefs. The hinderances are 5 ways of describing types of thinking that do not serve you. In order to think better it is important to understand these states of mind and how to overcome them. Get to know yourself and what brings the hinderances into your mind. Through an active effort to understand why they rise up inside you and then deliberately detaching from the thoughts, you can get out of your own way. Thanks for reading. These were just some thoughts.
I appreciate you.