The Five Hindrances

As human beings, we sometimes falter when we walk the Buddhist path.  We have the best of intentions; hoping against hope to end suffering for ourselves and other sentient beings. But inevitably, obstacles arise that make it difficult for us to walk the path.  This is especially true when it comes to the practice of Right Effort.

We might have a strong desire to meditate when we get home, but then a favorite TV show comes on and we forget. Or we may drive to work with the intention of treating all living beings with compassion, but then a semi-truck almost runs us off the road. There are a host of problems that keep us from practicing the Dharma. And we can become discouraged if we don’t learn how to deal with them effectively.

That being said, none of these issues are new. For as long as Buddhism has existed, there have been people who struggled to make the practice part of their daily lives. However, in his wisdom the Buddha discussed the five major hindrances to Right Effort in the Nibbana Sutta when he said:

Monks, there are these five hindrances. Which five? Sensual desire as a hindrance, ill will as a hindrance, sloth and drowsiness as a hindrance, restlessness and anxiety as a hindrance, and uncertainty as a hindrance. These are the five hindrances.

Learning to deal with these hindrances in an effective manner is a key component of Right Effort. And while it’s not always easy, it’s simple to counter each one of them. The key is to pay close attention to our body, speech, and mind in every moment so that we aren’t caught by surprise when hindrances to practice arise. When we do this, we can stop them in their tracks, and exert the necessary energy to continue our training. Some of the ways that I deal with the five hindrances are as follows:

Sensual Desire: The truth is that sometimes we just don’t want to practice. This can happen if we’re overloaded with work, or we’ve made plans to go out with friends.  I deal with this hindrance in two ways.

First, I work to integrate my practice into everyday activities. For example, I often chant Nembutsu while I’m riding in elevators, and I practice mindfulness of the body while walking; focusing on the feeling of the pavement against my feet.  That way, there’s no conflict between my practice and daily life.

Second, if I find myself short on time, then I’ll abbreviate my meditation instead of abandoning it altogether. So, if I don’t have time to meditate for 1 hour, then I’ll meditate for 30 minutes.

Ill Will: If we aren’t careful, feelings of aversion that we have towards people or objects can keep us from practicing with the right amount of vigor.  It’s difficult to sit on the cushion when our minds are filled with anger.

One of the ways I counter this is by reminding myself that Buddhist practice helps neutralize feelings of ill will. In other words, if I’m trapped in the mind of anger, I take that as a sign that I need to practice more, not less! In this way, ill will becomes a source of motivation as opposed to being a hindrance.

Additionally, I strive to avoid actions that stoke the fires of my ill will. So, if I’m angry at someone I’ll avoid speaking negatively about them to another person. Instead, I’ll make a point of speaking about the kindness and generosity that they’ve shown me in the past.

Dhyana I (Tiger And The Meditating Monk), by Pratap SJB Rana

Sloth and Drowsiness: Tiredness can play a big role in our inability to practice. The world can take a lot out of us, and during these moments Buddhist practice may seem like one in a long list of items on our to-do lists that are sapping our strength.

When I find that a feeling of sloth or drowsiness is getting in the way of my practice, I always check to ensure that I’m getting enough sleep. If not, I work to prioritize being well-rested for my morning sit over whatever movie or TV show I may want to watch in the evening.

Also, when I’m feeling too tired to practice, I motivate myself by remembering that this isn’t just about me. The Dharma is a gift that I give both to myself and all sentient beings.  Thus, I may not be able to do something directly about the terrible things I see on the news. But I can ensure that I go into the world with a pure mind that will allow me to help where I can.

Restlessness and Anxiety: Between social media, cell phones, and the 24-hour news cycle restlessness and anxiety have become constant companions for many of us. It always seems like there’s one more thing that we need to get done before we can sit down and study a sutra or chant.

When I start to feel this way, I bring my attention to the present moment by practicing mindfulness of the breath. This involves closing my eyes and placing all of my attention on the feeling of air entering my nostrils along with the expansion and contraction of my rib cage with each breath of air. Doing this helps to change my state so that I’m able to focus fully on practice.

Additionally, I remind myself that I’m not ignoring the other things in my life when I take time out of my day for training. Rather, I’m preparing myself to deal with those things more effectively.

Uncertainty: No matter how dedicated we are to walking the Buddhist path, we will be plagued with doubt from time to time.  We may wonder if the practice is worth it, or if we’re truly capable of realizing enlightenment.

I’ve found that the greatest antidote to uncertainty is faith. First, we must have faith in ourselves and our own inherent enlightenment.  We must remember that Buddha was a human being just like us, and he was able to walk the path successfully, there’s no reason we can’t do it as well.

Second, we must have faith in the practice. Some parts of it may seem strange to us, and others may be harder than we would like, but it’s been around for well over 2,600 years. And it wouldn’t have lasted that long if it didn’t do what it promised. So, we can trust it in the same way that we might trust an old friend who we’ve known since grade school.

I’ve also found that practicing with other Buddhists can be helpful. When we have questions or doubts about our practice, speaking with Dharma friends or a trusted teacher can help lay our fears to rest.

The five hindrances have been a thorn in the side of Buddhists going all the way back to the time of the Buddha. However, they’re not something to be feared. Rather, we must accept them in the same way that we accept unpleasant weather and exert ourselves to deal with them effectively. When we do this the entire world opens to us, and our practice grows stronger as a result.

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