The Buddha taught that there are five mental states called “the five hindrances” that negatively impact our ability to free our mind. The Five Hindrances are:

  1. Sensual desire (desire for sensory things)
  2. Ill will (negative feelings towards others and oneself)
  3. Sloth and torpor (drop in physical and mental energy)
  4. Restlessness and worry
  5. Uncertainty and doubt

These five hindrances:

  • Bind us to ignorance and suffering
  • Have a big impact on meditation practice and our daily lives, and
  • Are impediments to realizing enlightenment.

Here’s an introduction to the Five Hindrances. There are methods and strategies to work through the hindrances. Further resources can be found at the end of this post.

Sensory Desire

This relates to seeking fulfillment or happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.  It can be the desire to replace irritating or even painful five-sense experiences with pleasant, more comfortable ones. Sensory desire can become an obsession, seeking pleasure in such things as food, drink, drugs and sex.

Any pleasure experienced through the senses will require some form of retribution, often with negative consequences – Examples are drinking followed by hangover, or excessive eating followed by weight gain.

In Zazen, one transcends sensory desire by letting go of concern for the body and its five sense activity. The body disappears and the five senses switch off. The mind becomes calm and free to look within.

Ill Will

Ill will refers to the desire to punish, hurt or destroy. It includes hating, both others and oneself.

Ill will can generate so much energy that it can be both seductive and addictive. The nature of its power easily corrupts our ability to judge fairly.

Ill will towards oneself can manifest itself as guilt, denying oneself of the possibility of happiness.

Ill will is overcome through a loving kindness called Metta.  An essential part of Buddhism, Metta is thought of as a mental state or attitude that is cultivated and maintained by practice.

Metta arises within a warm-hearted, unselfish feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love. Loving oneself, forgiving oneself is a good place to start.

Sloth and Torpor

These two terms cover physical sluggishness, laziness, mental  inactivity and lethargy. They contribute to weak concentration and intermittent mindfulness. They basically defeat the purpose of zazen, in which you are seeking to be alert and “in the moment”.

What is required to offset sloth and torpor is positive energy.  Long term strategies for quality energy include proper diet, exercise, sleep (no surprises there!).

Short term tactics for maintaining alertness and focus during zazen:

  • Make sure your sitting space is ventilated and on the cooler side (so you don’t doze off)
  • Refresh up with splashing cold water on your face.

Restlessness and Worry

Here your mind is jumping from thought to thought, reviewing/adding things to your “to do” list. Or you’re absorbed with self-indulgent thinking, feeling remorse over past misdeeds, or dissatisfied with “the way things are”.

Overcome restlessness with these strategies:

  • Develop a sense of contentment
  • Be grateful for the moment
  • Reduce your impatience to get on with “what’s next”.

Uncertainty and Doubt

Uncertainty and doubt relate to questioning one’s ability to progress towards enlightenment and whether one’s personal practice is in alignment with “the right way”.

Doubt in one’s ability can be overcome:

  • Nurture self-confidence with the guidance of a good teacher
  • Trust your inner silence, without any inner speech.

Now that you know…

While we create these hindrances within ourselves, it’s important not to see these as personal failings. Having said that, they cannot be ignored or suppressed.

Work with the hindrances. Recognize them, understand them as we experience them, and take the necessary steps to lessen their impact on our happiness and well-being.


Access to Insight – Selected Texts from the Pali Canon

Audio Dharma On-line Courses – a comprehensive audio library.

The Four Noble Truths

Post Image credit: The Zen Universe