And how to overcome them.
I’m in the middle of an inner revolution where I’m going all-in on mindfulness to go all-in in my life. After reading about a monk who burned himself to death, yet sat absolutely motionless while being consumed by flames, I realized that mindfulness is much more potent than I comprehended.
Besides, it’s these monks that have the most insane work ethic. They spend a very significant part of their days meditating. That cannot be easy to do over and over again, their entire lives. And I realized that the best way to understand the true power of mindfulness would be to dive into the brain of one such monk. And who’s a better choice than the ultimate Buddhist monk, Buddha himself.
Which is why I’ve spent the past few weeks reading about Buddhism and understanding the principles that Buddha shared that monks use to master their minds. That is when I came across the concept of the Five Hindrances. The Five Hindrances are obstacles that every monk must overcome on a daily basis on their path to liberation. That said, the five hindrances are not exclusive to monks and also apply to us non-monks. If we’re to understand the five hindrances and follow Buddha’s advice on how to overcome them, we too can learn to unlock our most extraordinary selves.
Which is why I spent some time contemplating these to try and figure out how they come into play in my own life. I penned down my thoughts in my journal. I recommend that you take some time to do so too. I’ll share a picture at the end of this article if you need some reference! But for now, here are the five hindrances.
Sensory Desires: Taking Out a Loan
In Buddhism, indulging ourselves in sensory experiences is considered as taking a loan. The loan of pleasantness in the present is always repaid in the form of unpleasantness when that pleasure is used up. In fact, even the metaphorical bank of life issues an interest on this loan, and repayment in suffering is always higher than the borrowed pleasure.
All the time I spent binge-watching in high school — among other things — denied me my dream college and I had to settle. I’ve made my peace with it, but I am aware of what I’m missing out on. All that fast food I indulged in a few years ago has denied me the athletic body I always wanted. Suffice it to say, repaying the loan sucks.
The question to answer:
What sensual pleasures am I addicted to that act as a hindrance to my growth?
To overcome the hindrance, Buddhist monks often spend time contemplating impermanence. They spend time thinking about how all sensory pleasures have a much-too soon expiration date. And the practice is more than ‘to know’. We all know that our pleasures are impermanent; however, we can’t resist them even then. It’s because there’s a huge gap between knowledge and action. Contemplating the impermanence of whatever sensual desire you are addicted to, is a way to bridge that gap.
Recognize the sensual pleasures you are addicted to and start spending some time — say, 5 minutes — every morning to contemplate the impermanence of that specific pleasure.
Ill Will or Aversion: Sickness
Ill will or aversion is the resistance we develop to people or situations in the form of anger, bitterness, resentment or hostility. Aversion is often compared to sickness. Just as sickness steals from you the joy and freedom of health, aversion steals from you the joy and freedom of peace.
Aversion can manifest itself in small and big ways. For instance, I wish I didn’t have to care about the marketing aspect of writing. There’s so much talk about SEO, converting your writeups into 500 little pieces of content, promotion, etc. I just want to write. However, I also realize that I have to care about marketing at least a little bit to grow as a writer in the modern world. So I might as well make my peace with it, and even befriend marketing while I’m at it.
The question to answer:
What situations do I find myself developing negative emotions towards?
The antidote to aversion in Buddhism is loving-kindness. In a broad sense, it’s merely a meditation where you convert negative feelings into positive. It’s to recognize that negative emotions — no matter how valid they are — act as hindrances to your growth, and it’s wise to convert them into positive emotions or at the very least, get rid of the negative emotions.
For instance, if there’s some obstacle in your career path that you have no control over, instead of complaining about it and breeding negativity, you could simply learn to make your peace with it. And it may also be something that’s beneficial to you, but you feel averted to it anyway as I do to marketing. In that case, you could try a total reversal of emotions. You could attempt to convert dislike to like and hate to love.
Sloth or Torpor: Imprisonment
Sloth is the dullness of mind and Torpor is the heaviness of the body. Together, they’re considered equivalent to being imprisoned in a dark cell, unable to move in the sunlight outside. To put it simply, it’s laziness: of the mind and the body.
The question to answer:
Am I feeling mentally or physically unmotivated?
They say that a skillful meditator is on a sharp look-out for the first signs of Sloth and Torpor, which enables them to recognize its approach and take the needful action before it’s too late. The monks then take simple measures to arouse energy to prevent Sloth and Torpor from overpowering them. A simple brisk walk or splashing water on their face does the trick for them.
Arousing energy comes down to individual preferences. I often listen to some Linkin’ Park if I feel some sloth coming my way and take a stroll around the house if I feel drowsy. However, the key takeaway, I think, is to develop that sense of being on the look-out for Sloth and Torpor. Because Sloth and Torpor are vicious powers, getting progressively more potent and it’s wise to stop them early before they become unmanageable.
Restlessness is compared to being a slave in Buddhism, continually having to jump to the orders of a tyrannical boss who always demands perfection and so never lets one stop. Our ego is the overbearing boss that desires perfection, which leads to us overwhelmed by a slurry of restless thoughts.
It’s like our mind is a monkey, jumping from one thought to another, not being able to stay put. It’s the opposite of calmness. However, as we all know, calmness is a superpower when it comes down to manifesting our best selves in the present moment.
The question to answer:
Am I calm, or am I restless? If I’m restless, what is the cause of it?
Buddhist monks are taught to cure restlessness by developing contentment, which is the opposite of desiring perfection and fault-finding. It’s to focus on what’s right at this moment and not what’s wrong about it. Instead of cursing the moment, it’s to be grateful for the moment and find bliss in it.
However, for the most part, it’s also to find the root cause of your restlessness. If you’ve been a tax evader for ten years, the answer might be to simply pay the taxes. Developing contentment might not work if the root cause is not uprooted.
Doubt: Lost in a Desert
Buddha describes doubt as being lost in the desert with no landmarks in sight. Doubt breaks the synchrony of the mind with its actions. For instance, if I start doubting my path as a writer, I won’t be able to write with total involvement. If I were to continually question my decision to follow this scary path, I’d quit very soon.
However, I’m not in any doubt. And it’s so much more than just a career path. In fact, it’s an insult to reduce it to that. Writing is — as Liz Gilbert calls it — my home. To be in doubt is like having a constant weight dragging your mind, preventing you from doing your best work. To be free of doubt, on the other hand, is to have the ability to fly.
The question to answer:
Am I doubtful or indecisive about the path I’ve chosen?
Buddhist monks are told to seek clarity from their teachers if they are sceptical about any meditation practices. And that is what we may do too. We may seek the advice of someone who’s already walked the path that we have just begun to walk.
Doubts and indecisiveness bite away at our energy and our productivity. Hence, it’s essential to free our minds of doubt if we’re to act with total involvement.
Putting It All Together
Like I mentioned earlier, I spent some time going over the five hindrances, and I wrote down how they might be disabling me from manifesting my true potential as a writer. Here’s a snap.
For me, the first three hindrances were applicable, and the next two, not so much. Each one of us should recognize the hindrances that prevent us from exuding our true potential and try to overcome them. Here’s a summary.
- Sensory desires refer to indulging too much into worldly pleasure that may prove as a hindrance to your potential life. Try to remove this hindrance by contemplating impermanence for at least 5 minutes a day.
- Ill will is the development of negative emotions towards unwanted obstacles or necessary actions that you need to take but aren’t necessarily fond of. Convert negative emotions to positive ones by practising loving-kindness.
- Sloth and Torpor is mental and physical laziness, respectively. Train your mind to be on the look-out for the first signs of these hindrances and take actions that arouse energy within you to prevent them from disrupting your work.
- Restlessness is a state of mind that’s overwhelmed by thoughts. To induce calmness and come back to the present moment, practice developing contentment of the now.
- Doubt breaks the synchrony of your mind and your desired actions. To get rid of doubt, seek clarity, get to a decision and never look back.