Hindrances on the Spiritual Path

When we do our meditation, mindfulness or a reflection practice, it will not always be plain sailing. There are five things that Gautama Buddha taught that will interfere with, obstruct and impede our progress. These are called the five hindrances and they are five negative mental states.

The five are sensual desires, ill will, apathy & laziness, anxiousness and doubt. Let’s look at these hindrances individually.


Sensual desire is straightforward. They are desires of the senses. This hindrance is activated when our senses come into contact with sense objects, such as eye to form, ear to sound, nose to smell, tongue to taste, body to tangibles and mind to thoughts. Every time we point our concentration at our practice, this hindrance may pop up and distract us. We get stupefied by these sense objects, and we start to crave them and feel attachment towards them.


The antidote to this is to think about the impermanence of objects. If things are compounded, that is to say, made up of two or more things, they are by their very nature impermanent. The parts come together, last for a period of time and then change/die. You can clearly see this in your friends and family, your belongings and even your body.


If you are consumed by desires, look at what is making you dissatisfied. Why are you always wanting new things? Is it peer pressure, unhappiness with your life, greed or are you a shopaholic? It is only when we have gotten to the root of these desires that we can start to change.


Ill will is to have angry, unkind or destructive thoughts towards someone, though it is also possible to have ill will towards a situation or even yourself. It can make you burn inside, and you are unable to concentrate on anything else but your destructive emotions. It is usually driven by resentment, jealousy, pride or anger.


This is an extremely powerful hindrance, and the antidote is to reflect on compassion towards others. The reason we have ill will is because we see other people as different than us, as outside of us. We do not see the interconnectedness of life. If during your daily review, you think about what you want and don’t want out of life, you will see you are striving to be happy and trying not to suffer. You are not alone. Everyone is the same, even animals. So, if we see that others are no different than ourselves, we will build compassion towards them, or at the very least we will be empathic towards them. This is how we stop ill will.


If it is ill will that affects you most, see what causes you to feel that way. See how it is affecting your life and the lives of others around you. Are you jealous of someone, carrying around anger or do you have too much pride? If you know what causes your ill will, you will be able to cut it off at the root.


Apathy and laziness make our mind numb, so it is virtually impossible for us to concentrate. The first one makes it difficult for you to arouse any interest; the second makes you lethargic and sleepy. They both make it very hard for you to do any practice
The antidote for both of these is quite simple. You could open a window and let some air in, go for a walk, splash water in your face, have a break or a cup of tea. It is up to you how you do it, but you have to wake yourself up and become more alert.


What makes you lazy and disinterested? Is it boredom, are you unwell, not understanding what you are supposed to be doing or are you just not seeing any benefit from the things you do? Give it a lot of thought and get right into the causes of this laziness.


Anxiousness is when we are feeling tense and irritable. It could be that we are stressed from work or the journey home. You may have money problems, be worried about the future or your mind is just overloaded. This hindrance makes you overexcited and emotionally troubled. You are not able to concentrate on anything for any length of time. This is because you are not in the present moment. Your thoughts are either in the past or the future.


The antidote, which will bring you into the present moment, is to do a breathing or body scan meditation, or, at the very least, the three breath-calming technique. This will relax you and put you in a better frame of mind to continue.


If you are anxious about everything, find out why. Is it stress, illness, work, lack of money, loneliness or depression? Dig deep and find what makes you anxious. Then you can start to change.


Doubt is when we have a lack of confidence. It could be we don’t understand what we should be doing, or we don’t trust that it works or we think we are not doing it correctly. All of these make us wonder if what we are doing is benefiting us.


The most simple and effective way to clear up doubt is to ask questions, read books or surf the Internet for answers (be careful here as the net is full of misinformation). In certain forms of traditional Buddhism, doubt is looked upon as a very unhelpful thing. You are told to just believe your teachers and not question what they say. I find that extremely unhelpful. I have always asked lots of questions if I do not understand something, and it has always cleared away my doubt.


Look at the doubt you carry around with you. Find out where the doubt is in your life. See how it is affecting your life and holding you back. Don’t see your doubt as a negative thing. See it as a way for you to change.


These are the five hindrances. We can use these five in our daily review/reflection practice as instruments for change. Look at them and see which ones apply more to you than others. Grade them from one to five, one being most important for you to change and five least important. Work on the most important first. Set yourself goals and boundaries, and then work towards them. Check back from time to time to note your progress.


If we set ourselves goals like this, we will be able to start letting the hindrances be and change our lives for the better. We have to understand that the hindrances are mental states and, as such, stem from our mind. So, it is no good to blame anyone else for you having a hindrance. You may think it is another person’s fault that you have ill will, work is making you anxious or it’s the teacher’s fault that you have doubt. All of these are wrong. It is your mind that is bringing up the hindrance, and so it is only you that can deal with it.


Tags assigned to this article:
spirituality buddhism Lama Yeshe Rabgye Gautam Buddha


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