Practice Guides March 1, 2018

The Five Hindrances

Sean Oakes

Sometimes meditation is easy. Sometimes it really isn’t! Whether we find ourselves in a storm of emotions or sleepy, anxious, bored, or daydreaming, meditation shines a light on all the ways the heart and mind can be uncomfortable and resist settling down. The Buddha knew this, and the teachings are full of advice for how to work with our most unruly inner processes, beginning with recognizing them as natural expressions of the heart and mind. The difficult energies we encounter in both meditation and ordinary life are known as the five hindrances (nīvaraṇa), and engaging with them skillfully can change our practice time from a frustrating chore to the nourishing and insightful experience we know is possible.

At most Spirit Rock retreats, usually on the second or third day, one of the teachers will give a “hindrance talk.” It is a standard feature for a reason—everyone encounters these difficult visitors at some point in their practice, and it’s imperative that we recognize them and have tools for working with them. The word “hindrance” suggests that they are blocking our path, but it can be more helpful to think of them as the landscape the path inevitably passes through, which is sometimes smooth and pleasant and other times difficult and uncomfortable. The hindrances are the painful but natural expressions of the heart and mind when it is suffering, and working with them is how we deepen on the path.

One traditional way to think about the hindrances is as obstacles to deepening in both mindfulness and meditative concentration, or samādhi. The concentrated mind is focused and relaxed, and the cultivation of samādhi depends more on being able to let go into calm, easeful presence than focusing the attention relentlessly on one thing. The hindrances obstruct concentration because they all are active in a way that’s not helpful for calm and clarity. They are signs that the body, heart, and mind are stirred up, and can feel emotional, energetic, mental, or a mix of all of these.

The five hindrances (nīvaraṇa)

  1. Sensual desire (kāmacchanda)

  2. Ill will (vyāpāda)

  3. Sloth and torpor (thīna-middha)

  4. Restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)

  5. Skeptical doubt (vicikicchā)

It is important to remember, when exploring the hindrances, that none of us are wrong, bad, or at fault for having these kinds of experiences. The hindrances can be thought of as symptoms of an underlying disconnection or dissatisfaction (dukkha), or of old wounds, some of which may be personal, some familial, some cultural. They are impersonal, and if we can remember that they do not indicate anything about our worth or goodness, they will be easier to work with. The hindrances are habits of the heart and mind that, like many of our unconscious tendencies, are rooted in the heart’s attempt to stay safe in an unsafe world. They are reactive, judgmental, and above all, not under our conscious control.

The instructions for bringing mindfulness to the hindrances start with recognizing when a hindrance is present and when it is not. These are habitual energies, and can be so familiar that they feel like part of our personality, but in our practice we begin to see that they are sometimes present and sometimes not, depending on the conditions we find ourselves in. We are then encouraged to actively set up the conditions for the hindrances to diminish.

They understand how [the hindrance] arises; how, when it’s already arisen, it’s given up; and how, once it’s given up, it doesn’t arise again in the future. (MN 10)

Our practice asks us to be skillful in how we work with these energies so that instead of succumbing to their seductive power we learn to contain them, understand what is causing them, and set up the conditions for them to weaken and arise less and less.

Sensual desire (kāmacchanda)

Sometimes abbreviated simply as “desire” or “grasping,” kāmacchanda literally means wanting (chanda) sensual pleasures (kāma). This hindrance is present when craving for any kind of pleasurable sense experience is interrupting our peace of mind. Traditionally, especially for celibate monastics, it emphasizes the dangers of lust, but sensual desire can focus on any object of the senses—food, beauty, comfort, and even wholesome stimulating experiences like learning and human connection—and color our experience with the sharp ache of wanting things to be other than they are.

Antidotes for sensual desire include renunciation (turning away from distracting stimuli), and investigating the experience of desire with mindfulness. When we investigate desire, we may feel an underlying lack, loneliness, boredom, or loss of purpose that is too painful to feel directly, so our attention seeks stimulation outside. If we can be honest with ourselves and accept that sometimes we don’t get what we want and the world can be painful, it becomes easier to feel the dissatisfaction that is fueling the hindrance, which we must eventually do if we are to uproot this ancient habit and find freedom from constant craving.

Ill will (vyāpāda)

The hindrance of ill will refers specifically to hatred and wishing harm on others, but can be thought of broadly as encompassing many manifestations of aversion and negativity. It is the opposite of lovingkindness (mettā), and bringing the heart to a more kind, compassionate state is the primary antidote to this painful energy. As with sensual desire, our attention is focusing outward on unpleasant things, people, and situations rather than understanding our own fear, confusion, and insecurity. The psychological term for this reflexive judgmental habit is “negativity bias.”

Our nervous system is exquisitely sensitive to the perception of threat and danger, and focusing on what’s wrong, suspicious, or unattractive instead of on what is safe, trustworthy, and beautiful helps to keep us alive. Negativity bias is an unconscious survival strategy. Missing a threatening cue in the world may have a far more immediate impact on us than noticing something delightful or even neutral. The hindrance of ill will can be felt as a natural expression of this survival system, except that it goes too far. Instead of just seeing danger and taking wise steps to keep ourselves safe, it turns fear of others into hatred and meanness.

A primary antidote to ill will is compassion. When we see others (and the difficult parts of ourselves) as suffering beings just like us, even the dangerous ones, we may be better able to feel compassion for them instead of hatred—even as we maintain appropriate boundaries with them. Seeing how much harm hatred causes in the world, the restraint of ill will and the cultivation of non-harming can be seen as part of ethical practice and how we keep the precepts. Mettā, forgiveness, patience, investigation, and equanimity all are helpful in weakening ill will and uprooting hatred from our hearts.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

(Dhp 5, tr. Fronsdal)

Sloth and torpor (thīna-middha)

Sloth refers to low motivation and laziness, and torpor suggests the more bodily and energetic imbalances of excess sleepiness, sluggishness, and fogginess, so the term thīna-middha brings together the emotional and somatic aspects of excessively low energy. They can appear as overwhelm, brain fog, freeze, or collapse, or can disguise themselves as ordinary sleepiness or disinterest. This hindrance of low energy is rooted in deep layers of loss of purpose, weak or unclear intention in practice, and a narrow window of tolerance for discomfort, especially emotional. We may get sleepy when we don’t want to feel something painful.

Of course sometimes we’re just sleepy. It takes practice to feel the difference between ordinary tiredness and emotional shutdown, but one antidote for sloth and torpor when it is very strong can be to just take a nap. Refreshing the body by giving it the rest it is asking for can leave us more clear-headed and able to engage in our practice again. The traditional antidotes are to wake yourself up in various ways: doing walking meditation, looking at light, moving the body more vigorously, and even pulling on your earlobes! If the root of the hindrance is indeed emotional, which it often is, allowing the underlying feelings to be felt and bringing mindfulness and compassion to them can brighten the energy.

Restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)

The opposite imbalance to sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry is another compound word that includes both somatic (restlessness) and mental (worry) manifestations of excessively high energy. This extremely common hindrance can be felt in so many aspects of our lives now, with the pace we keep, the multitasking we attempt, and the short attention spans we’ve become accustomed to. In meditation, it can simply take time to actually come into stillness, and on the first days of retreat as well as in our daily meditation practice we may feel like this hindrance is an almost constant presence.

The mental counterpart to physical restlessness is the obsessive rumination of worry, anxiety, or vigilance. The most powerful antidote to restlessness of any type is concentration. All of us can remember times when we were so immersed in what we were doing that we were no longer distracted, worrying about anything, or pulled away by every little sensation coming through. In meditation, we cultivate the powerful medicine of concentration, and as we do so the nagging distractions that so easily pull us away begin to quiet down.

Simplifying our sensory environment, controlling the pinging notifications and obsessive media engagement we’ve normalized, and doing one thing at a time all can support us in becoming less restless. And, as with sloth and torpor, we can explore the experience of restlessness directly, feeling for an underlying painful emotion we may be avoiding feeling with all this moving around.

Skeptical doubt (vicikicchā)

The most difficult of the hindrances for many practitioners is the slippery mental and emotional territory of doubt. The traditional translation “skeptical doubt” points to the difficulty that loss of faith and no longer trusting the Dhamma, the Saṅgha, or one’s teachers bring. For many of us, skepticism of external things and people is easier than faith in them, but even more challenging is finding confidence, or faith, in ourselves. Because of this, many people suffer from the personal hindrance of self-doubt and low self-esteem. Just as we cultivate faith in the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha as an antidote to doubt about the teachings or the path, remembering our own natural goodness and wholesome intentions is an antidote to the very convincing stories that self-doubt tells us.

In the Buddha’s story, doubt is often personified as a spirit called Māra, which literally means “death.” Māra shows up in the stories to convince the Buddha and other monastics to give up the renunciate life and return to lay life, and challenges them on choices they make, as he does when the Buddha lies down for a nap and Māra comes to accuse him of laziness. The Buddha dispels Māra easily by seeing him for what he is, and the other awakened monastics who encounter Māra do the same.

This is the main antidote to doubt: seeing it and naming it for what it is. Doubt is primarily a story—something the mind is coming up with that wants to turn us aside from the path. Māra wants us to give up, and the energy of giving up and deciding that we can’t accomplish a goal can be quite seductive and seem reasonable. But when we see a discouraging narrative for what it is, the story loses some of its power over us. Doubt is difficult to dispel alone. Having spiritual friends and teachers who can see our goodness and help us stay true to our own deepest intentions can be the most powerful support for resisting the delusions of Māra.

Similes for the Hindrances

The Buddha uses the simile of water to explain how the hindrances obstruct clarity, with the image of a bowl of water used as a mirror to see one’s own face (SN 46.55).

  1. Sensual desire is compared to water colored with dye. Anything we see through this colored water takes on the color of the dye, and we cannot see it for what it really is.

  2. Ill will is compared to water heated to a boil. Through the heat of anger and hatred, it is very difficult to see clearly.

  3. Sloth and torpor is compared to water filled with algae and water plants. The reflective quality of the water—the mirror-like quality of the mind when it is calm and concentrated—is gone when the surface is clogged with plant matter.

  4. Restlessness and worry is compared to water blown into choppy waves by strong wind. Stirred up and rippling, the water once again fails to reflect anything clearly.

  5. Skeptical doubt is compared to water that is turbid, muddy, unsettled, and murky. Doubt muddies the mind, and the reflective quality of the water is ruined.

The hindrances are also compared to being in debt, suffering from disease, imprisonment, slavery, and crossing a dangerous desert (MN 39). Escaping from any of these brings happiness, ease, and joy.

Seeing the hindrances as natural expressions of the nervous system trying to stay safe, and as impersonal reactions to the discomfort, loss, and danger that are inevitable in life, we can bring mindfulness and compassion to ourselves and others. Understanding the conditions in which the hindrances arise and thrive can teach us how to create more supportive conditions for the heart and mind to settle, come out of unnecessarily activated states, and experience the joy and ease of undistracted presence. The hindrances are the path, but working through them can be empowering and transformative in all parts of our life. The heart of the Dharma is the cultivation of wholesome states of mind, and skillfully diminishing the hindrances is how we get there.

Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.