Mindfulness and the Five Hindrances to (Inner) Peace
January 20, 2017

All kinds of things can hinder or obscure a sense of inner peace. Whether a serious matter like conflict with a loved one, or a more minor inconvenience like being stuck in traffic, when things don’t go our way, we don’t like it!

In Buddhist psychology, the concept of “The Five Hindrances” sheds light on what gets in the way of us feeling as peaceful as possible and making healthy choices, regardless of the particular circumstances we face.  The Five Hindrances – known as sensory desire, anger & aversion, restlessness & worry, sloth & torpor and doubt  refer to the key mental states that stir up our body and mind in ways that can lead to emotional or behavioral difficulties.  While its original intent was to explore hindrances to the practice of meditation, the principles can be applied to everyday life. The point of this theory isn’t to minimize the difficulties and stress that are unavoidable in life; rather, it’s to help us work more effectively with them.

“How do you control a bull?  Give it a larger pasture.”
Suzuki Roshi

The Five Hindrances

1.)  Sensory Desire:  seeking pleasure through one of the five senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.  Also referred to as “the wanting mind.”

Wanting things –  food, love, comfort, a new bike, or just about anything else you can imagine – is a core part of the human experience, and the first of the Five Hindrances.  There’s a direct relationship between the degree of want and potential for suffering; the bigger the want, the greater turmoil experienced when we don’t get it (and also during our quest to obtain it). Even minor desires can create a sense of uneasiness, by insinuating that something is lacking.  In the modern world, we’re inundated with messages telling us we need more things, so for most, sensory desire is a strongly honed mental state.  When it’s particularly strong, it can manifest as addiction. (Source: Insight Meditation Center)

2.)  Anger and Aversion: ill will toward another, oneself or some type of experience; the “not wanting mind.”

From the Buddhist psychology perspective, anger is essentially the opposite of wanting.  It involves a dislike or aversion to our experience, some type of dissatisfaction or resentment.  “I can’t stand this traffic” or “he/she needs to act differently in order for me to be happy” or “If only X stopped happening, I could calm down.”  Anger often arises when we take things personally, failing to recognize the deeply impersonal nature of virtually all things. Of course, feelings of anger may be justified, as is the case when one is harmed or treated unfairly.  However, we often add layers to the anger or ill will, making it bigger than it has to be.  When we harbor anger or resentment, we suffer greatly because we’re essentially at war with ourselves.  Upon further examination, anger often turns out to be related to an underlying primary emotion like fear, sadness or shame.

“We can never make peace with the outer world, until we have made peace with ourselves.”
– Dalai Lama

3.)  Restlessness and Worry: the inability to rest in the present moment; feelings of agitation.

This hindrance takes the form of worrying about the future, fretting over the past, or constantly searching for things to do.  Our human minds are thought-producing machines, for better and for worse.  Researchers estimate that we have somewhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day, and a majority of these are the same, old, recurring thoughts (some Buddhist teachers refer to this as playing the “top 10 tunes” over and over again; we can’t seem to get on another channel!).

When we’re caught up in the hindrance of worry and restlessness, it’s easy to bounce to and fro, often between a place of hope and fear. We hope for something new or better, and fear that we won’t get it, or that we’re missing out on something – as the trendy acronym of “FOMO” illustrates so well (Fear of Missing Out).

When we’re experiencing this hindrance of restlessness, we tend to be quite externally focused – always looking for the next best thing outside of ourselves.  As Michael Liebenson Grady from the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center writes in Tricycle Magazine, “We need to learn to recognize our insatiable craving for new experiences. Being ashamed of our cravings doesn’t help, but justifying or denying them doesn’t help, either. Instead, we should learn to be with our situation as it is rather than moving away from it.”

This “being” with experience, in contrast to the “doing” mode we’re so accustomed to, can free up our minds to go to a deeper, more peaceful place.

4.)  Sloth and Torpor: thoughts and feelings related to boredom, low energy and inactivity.

“Sloth and torpor!” Sounds so medieval!  Nevertheless, these feelings are common, referring to both the physical and mental dullness or sluggishness that we feel, even when we don’t need to sleep or rest!  As Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal notes, these feelings can arise when people are lacking the constant stimulation they are accustomed to in modern times (i.e., related to sensory desire, the wanting mind).  For example, if an activity does not enhance self-image, it can be hard to get motivated; it may feel easier to just avoid it or take a nap instead!

A lack of meaning or sense of purpose in life can also create these feelings of sloth and torpor.  Setting a small goal, moving our bodies, or deliberately trying to see the newness, the freshness, in each experience can all help with these feelings of ennui or disengagement that are the hallmarks of this hindrance (Ajahn Brahmavamso, Wikipedia).

5.)  Doubt: excessive skepticism or indecision.

When we’re caught in the grip of uncertainty, the hindrance of doubt can be particularly strong.  Us humans really dislike uncertainty.  In fact, research suggests that in situations with unpredictable outcomes, people prefer bad news over no news at all.

Life is full of uncertainty, yet most of us living in the modern world are trained to believe that we can and should try to control everything. Learning to find balance, let go, and cultivate a sense of trust and faith, are all necessary components of inner peace.  Sure, we all like “control” and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we lose sight of what’s healthy and realistic – that our greatest control rests in how we relate and respond to our circumstances, more than the actual circumstances themselves.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” –
-Yogi Berra

Of course, a healthy dose of critical thinking, probing and questioning is both normal and necessary throughout life, but it becomes deleterious when taken to the extreme. Difficulty making commitments is one manifestation of doubt.  Some Buddhist scholars differentiate between “small doubt” (a hindrance) and the “great doubt” of the “don’t know mind” – taken from the Korean Zen tradition, this questioning is believed to be healthy and lead to openness (Cohen, 2016).

Working with the Five Hindrances

Working with these mind states of the “Five Hindrances” can help increase feelings of well-being, as well as skillful action in the world.  When the hindrances are more at bay, we tend to not only feel better, but also to think more clearly.  Below are some of the many ways to work with the hindrances, using the tools of mindfulness both informally as well as on the meditation cushion!

1.) Simple Naming

When working with the Five Hindrances, we must first cultivate awareness of when they occur, as a means of stepping out of our habitual ways of reacting.  As others have noted, doing this can help us distinguish between actual needs vs. more transient wants or cravings.

Look at the first hindrance of sensory desire.  Wanting something isn’t always a bad thing; it can be necessary to survival.  If you’re truly hungry and you want food, that’s your body’s natural way of telling you something important – you need to eat!  But, if you’ve had enough nutrients for the day, and you’re still craving a bar of chocolate, then you want to work with that craving, rather than just give in to it.  You may find that underneath the desire for candy is a feeling of sadness, loneliness, or fear that needs to be addressed through other means than ingesting a lot of sugar.  That’s a simple example of the difference between reacting habitually (or unskillfully) versus with responding with awareness. Being able to name them when they occur is a good first step in liberating the mind from these patterns. It may seem simple, but the awareness – the naming – gives us more space and time to reflect.

2.) Metaphor of the Larger Container

When we’re in an emotionally distraught or stuck place, we can feel “glued” to our experience.  For example, when you’re angry, worried, doubtful, or desirous, it can feel all consuming and make it hard to think about anything else.  It’s this limited, close-up view that fuels much negativity and lack of perspective.

Contemplative practices like meditation can help by providing a sense of spaciousness and healthy distance. It’s like the analogy of salt in water: if you put a tablespoon of salt in a single glass, the water will taste very salty.  If you put that same tablespoon into a large body of water (fresh water, of course, for the analogy to work!), how does the water taste?  Not salty at all.

With this exercise, first find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.  Take 5-10 minutes to visualize yourself inside a very large container. Notice the hindrances you see in the container – the irritation, the angst, the doubt, etc. – whatever it is that you’re experiencing that’s distressing. Describe what you “see” in detail, imagining its size, shape, texture, etc.  Then, shift your focus to “seeing” what else is in your orbit, so to speak. You may notice that you have plenty of food to eat, a comfortable home, cherished relationships with others, a meaningful livelihood and so forth. Paying attention to a more complete picture of our situation – what’s hard and what’s good – can be grounding. The metaphor of the larger container helps us do that.

3.) The RAIN Tool

The Insight Meditation Center of Redwood City, California recommends what’s known as the “RAIN” tool for working with the hindrances.  RAIN is an acronym which stands for “Recognize, Accept, Investigate and Non-Identification.”  This mindfulness exercise provides a structure for observing your experience, which can bring both insight and relief.

For detailed instructions on this practice, see this page: More Peace? Try the RAIN Tool.  Try to spend at least 5-10 minutes doing this exercise.

4.) Loving Kindness Meditation

When we’re gripped by any of the hindrances, but particularly with desire and aversion, honing a more wholesome state can create more peace and balance.  The mindfulness practice of loving kindness (known as “Metta” in the Pali language) can provide both greater ease and perspective.

The Cliff Notes version of this practice is to silently recite something along the lines of the following, with the intent of genuinely sending these kind, loving thoughts your way:

May I be safe and free from danger.
May I be healthy and free of disease.
May I be happy, peaceful and content.
May I be free.

You then proceed to pick a person you easily feel love toward and send the thoughts their way, “May you feel safe and free from danger,” “may you be healthy and free of disease,” etc.

You can stick with one person, or proceed to send these thoughts of loving kindness to other people in your life. Traditionally, the process is done in a step-by-step fashion, where you eventually send loving kindness to strangers and even people you have great dislike for – which can feel quite challenging, but also transformative.

Time: 5-10 minutes (or more, if you’d like!).  Here are two guided audio clips for you to try: Loving Kindness from UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and Loving Kindness from Tara Brach, Ph.D.

5.) Gratitude Practice

Similar to loving kindness, gratitude (or appreciation) practices are a great counterbalance to times when we feel dissatisfied or insatiable. Studies suggest that gratitude practices can increase positive feelings, help us build better relationships, and even improve our physical health.

See these articles for more details (and inspiration) on how to start a gratitude practice: Want to be Happier? Practice Gratitude and Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal.

6.) Touch Points Meditation

In addition to the basic mindfulness of breath practice, the ‘Touch Points Meditation’ is another great tool that helps connect our body to our mind. When we’re feeling trapped in doubt, restlessness or anger, we’re often over-analyzing a situation; our minds are on overdrive. Connecting with our bodies allows for increased body-mind integration; a method that quiets the mind and helps us slow down and think more clearly.

The touch points meditation (5-10 minutes) is a simple practice whereby attention is placed on the parts of our body that are making contact – like our hands contacting our legs while sitting, our eyelids touching while eyes closed, our feet meeting the ground, etc.  For instructions, see these resources from Sitting Together (Pollak, Pedulla and Siegel): Touch Points Meditation Handout and Touch Points Guided Meditation.

“As the seeker dissolves – then the peace is born and there is stillness.”

As with anything and in the spirit of mindfulness practice, see all of the above as ‘experiments’ – try some out, keep what works and discard the rest!

References & Further Reading

1.)  Great piece on this topic in Tricycle magazine, from leading Buddhist teachers:

2.)  Comprehensive series of podcasts on the Five Hindrances from AudioDharma:

3.)  Basic, quick overview of The Five Hindrances from About.com:

4.)  Five Hindrances Dharma Study Program outline from the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA:

5.) Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation: The Five Hindrances

6.) The Buddha’s Path of Well-Being and Happiness, Dharma Talk at Spirit Rock Meditation Center by Howard Cohen

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