Working With the Five Hindrances

Resolving Difficulties in Buddhist Practice

Chained Gate
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The Buddha taught that there are five hindrances to realizing enlightenment. These are (words in parentheses are in Pali):

  1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)
  2. Ill will (vyapada)
  3. Sloth, torpor, or drowsiness ( thina-middha)
  4. Restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)
  5. Uncertainty or skepticism (vicikiccha)

These mental states are called "hindrances" because they bind us to ignorance and to suffering (dukkha). Realizing the liberation of enlightenment requires unbinding ourselves from the hindrances. But how do you do that?

This essay is called "Practicing With the Five Hindrances" rather than "Getting Rid of the Five Hindrances," because practicing with them is the key to going through them. They cannot be ignored or wished away. Ultimately, the hindrances are states you are creating for yourself, but until you perceive this personally they will be a problem.

Much of the Buddha's advice about the hindrances relates to meditation. But in truth practice never ceases, and usually what comes up repeatedly in meditation is an issue for you all the time. With every hindrance, the first step is to recognize it, acknowledge it, and understand that you are the one making it "real."

Sensual Desire (kamacchanda)

If you are familiar with the Four Noble Truths, you've heard that cessation of greed and desire is the door to enlightenment. There are different kinds of desire, from the urge to possess something you think will make you happy (lobha), to the general craving born of the misperception that we are separate from everything else (tanha, or trishna in Sanskrit).

Sensual desire, kamacchanda, is especially common during meditation. It can take many forms, from desiring sex to hungering for doughnuts. As always, the first step is to fully recognize and acknowledge the desire and endeavor to just observe it, not chase it.

In the various parts of the Pali Tipitika the Buddha advised his monks to contemplate "impure" things. For example, he suggested visualizing unattractive body parts. Of course, the Buddha's disciples were mostly celibate monastics. If you are not celibate, developing an aversion to sex (or anything else) probably is not a good idea.

Ill Will (vyapada)

Seething with anger at others is an obvious hindrance. and the obvious antidote is cultivating metta, loving kindness. Metta is one of the Immeasurables, or virtues, that the Buddha suggested as a specific antidote to anger and ill will. The other immeasurables are karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity).

Most of the time, we get angry because someone has bumped into our ego-armor. The first step in letting go of anger is acknowledging that it is there; the second step is acknowledging that it is born of our own ignorance and pride.

Sloth, Torpor, or Drowsiness (thina-middha)

Sleepiness while meditating happens to all of us. The Pali Tipitika records that even one of the Buddha's chief disciples, Maudgalyayana, struggled with dozing off during meditation. The Buddha's advice to Maudgalyana is given in the Capala Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, 7.58), or the Buddha's Discourse on Nodding.

The Buddha's advice includes paying attention to what thoughts you are chasing as you get drowsy, and direct your mind elsewhere. Also, you can try pulling your earlobes, splashing your face with water, or switch to walking meditation. As a last resort, stop meditating and take a nap.

If you often feel low on energy, find out if there is a physical or psychological cause.

Restlessness and Worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)

This hindrance takes many forms -- anxiety, remorse, feeling "antsy." Meditating with a restless or anxious state of mind can be very uncomfortable.

Whatever you do, don't try to push your anxiety out of your mind. Instead, some teachers suggest imagining that your body is a container. Then just observe the restlessness ping-ponging around freely; don't try to separate from it, and don't try to control it.

People with chronic anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders may find meditation to be unbearably intense. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to seek psychological help before beginning an intensive meditation practice.

Uncertainty or Skepticism (vicikiccha)

When we speak of uncertainty, of what are we uncertain? Do we doubt the practice? Other people? Ourselves? The remedy may depend on the answer.

Doubt itself is neither good nor bad; it's something to work with. Don't ignore it or tell yourself you "shouldn't" doubt. Instead, be open to what your doubt trying to tell you.

Often we become discouraged when the experience of practice doesn't live up to expectation. For this reason, it's unwise to be attached to expectation. The strength of practice will wax and wane. One meditation period could be deep, and the next may be painful and frustrating.

But the effects of sitting are not immediately apparent; sometimes sitting through a painful and frustrating meditation period will bear beautiful fruit down the road. For this reason, it's important to not judge our meditation as "good" or "bad." Do your best without attaching to it.

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Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "Working With the Five Hindrances." Learn Religions, Sep. 12, 2021, O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, September 12). Working With the Five Hindrances. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Working With the Five Hindrances." Learn Religions. (accessed March 25, 2023).