94 – The Five Hindrances

The Buddha taught that there are five hindrances or obstacles to realizing enlightenment. These obstacles are commonly referred to in Buddhist teachings as “The Five Hindrances” of desire, aversion, disinterest, agitation, and indecision. These mental states are considered to be obstacles because they keep us from being mindful.

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Transcript:

Noah Rasheta:
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast, this is episode 94. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about the five hindrances.

Noah Rasheta:
Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learn to be a better whatever you already are. A quick note I wanted to talk about before jumping into this weeks podcast episode. In the past I had been working with other partners to try to develop content or curriculum that ties in the concepts of mindfulness with another specific topic. What I have in mind at some point is to have a series of workshops, a general mindfulness 101 workshop, which I’m working on now, and when it’s available it’ll be out there available for free to anyone. Then a series of more specialized workshops, mindful parenting, mindfulness with relationships, mindful eating.

Noah Rasheta:
One of those projects that I’ve been working on is now complete, the mindful eating workshop that I did with my friend Page Smathers. We’ve done a couple workshops now in the past couple of years that have been very successful, but we finally took that format and made it an online version. If you go to secularbuddhism.com/workshops you’re going to be able to signup and then take these various online workshops. Like I said, I’m working on several of them but the mindful eating one is now available. That one is done in partnership with Paige. It’s hosted through her platform and her website. I have a discount code for podcast listeners who may be interested in listening or attending that online workshop. The code is secularbuddhism all one word, so if you enter that and you want to take that course online make sure you use the discount so you can save a little. That’s available now and you can stay tuned for future workshops that will be coming out also hosted on secularbuddhism.com/workshops.

Noah Rasheta:
Now let’s jump into the topic for this week. It’s believed that the Buddha taught that there were five hindrances or obstacles to realizing enlightenment, and these obstacles are commonly referred to in Buddhist teachings as the five hindrances. That’s what I want to talk about today. The five hindrances are desire, aversion, disinterest, agitation, and indecision. These are mental states and they’re considered to be obstacles because they keep us from being mindful. In a way it’s like they blind us by keeping us totally focused on them and prevent us from seeing things through a more skillful lens. Anger or aversion, for example, can often blind us from seeing the bigger picture and from understanding what’s really going on in a situation. I’ll go through each one of these one at a time.

Noah Rasheta:
First I want to emphasize that the key is to understand that you can’t just wish these things away. Instead you spend time understanding them, learning to work with them, practicing with them, and rather than trying to push these things away, we just allow them to naturally come and go without encouraging them to stay. We don’t want to repress or condemn these mental states when we experience them. It kind of reminds me of that old Cherokee teaching that I’m sure many of you have heard about, the old Cherokee teaching a young boy a lesson by saying there’s a fight going on inside of me and it’s like there are these two wolves, one is anger, envy, greed, superiority, ego, and the other is peace, joy, kindness, compassion. The boy asks, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee replies, “The one you feed.”

Noah Rasheta:
So this concept of the one you feed, but rather than seeing this as two wolves, the one good wolf and one bad wolf, imagine you have all these wolves inside of you, a whole pack, and these mental states referred to as the five hindrances are like those wolves. Instead of being two there’s just a lot of them. Similarly, the one that you feed and care for the most, that you tend to the most, that’s the one that ends up being the strongest. Keep that in mind as you listen to these five hindrances. Then take into account the irony in all of this. The irony is that these are mental states that you create for yourself, but until you can perceive that these are mental states that are going to be problematic.

Noah Rasheta:
In order to work with or practice with these five hindrances, you need to recognize when they arise. You acknowledge that you’re experiencing this mental state and then you can understand that you and you alone are the one that makes this feel so real. These states arise at any given moment. I’m here having a wonderful discussion with someone and suddenly I desire to be somewhere else or doing something else. I may be doing the dishes and I want to be somewhere else, or I’m doing something pleasant, something that I enjoy and desire kicks in and I don’t want this moment to end. It can be watching a show and suddenly I’m bored or disinterested, and I’m watching a show while browsing my phone and checking what’s on Facebook. Or I may be watching a channel and I want to change it and watch another channel. These are all moments where we can practice with these mental states, these hindrances.

Noah Rasheta:
Let’s go through each one of them one at a time. Let’s start with desire. Desire, often referred to as greed, this is the desire to satisfy the senses. When it arises we can observe it, we can try to understand it. We don’t need to feel bad for experiencing it and we don’t need to fight it. In fact that often can make it take a more aggressive form. What we do is we observe it, we watch how it makes us feel, how it makes us interact with ourselves and with others, and we notice how it keeps us in this state of perpetual un-satisfaction. We’re always wanting more, suffering from never having enough.

Noah Rasheta:
Desire, again it’s not that it’s a bad thing, this is not about good states versus bad mental states, it’s just recognizing that when we’re operating from the standpoint of desiring things and never having enough, it’s an unskillful way to run your life. How do we practice with this? Well when desire arises just try to observe it. We either desire after something, a sensory experience or it may be that we’re already experiencing something and we desire to prolong that experience and we don’t want that feeling to go away so we just practice noticing it. Observe and watch and then return to whatever you were doing before.

Noah Rasheta:
Now often these things are practiced in the context of meditation, so lets say I’m sitting here meditating and the desire arises. It may be the desire to not be sitting here meditating so I can just observe it and notice it and then I go back to what I was doing before, which was just observing my breath. It can also take place where desire is the obstacle in meditation because I’m wanting to experience some mental state. I’m sitting here meditating, wanting to experience bliss, for example, and that becomes the obstacle because the point isn’t to experience something, the point is to be aware of what arises, whatever arises. Desire can be an obstacle if I meditate with the intent of achieving some kind of state.

Noah Rasheta:
This is kind of the big catch 22 I think in Buddhism in general and I referred to this before. It’s like the very reason you can’t attain enlightenment is because you want to attain it, that’s this hindrance of desire. The reason I can’t be at peace in my life because I want to be at peace in my life, or I struggle with being patient because I want to be patient. It’s the very wanting to be patient is the definition of not being patient. Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about this concept of desire.

Noah Rasheta:
What I like to do, I just like to analyze the process when it unfolds, especially when I have time if I’m not in a hurry like, for example, when I’m meditating and I’m sitting there in this mental state of desire arises and I just looked at it. What is it that I desire? Why do I desire it? Then I try to visualize well what happens if I attain it? I’ll think about whether or not it’s going to end there. If I get the thing that I desire then what? What will I desire next? Does that process ever end and I just try to look at it as a chain. If this then that, and if that then what? Then I go back to the object of my original focus, which if I’m meditating it’s often just focusing on my breathing. It can be a fascinating process to unpack.

Noah Rasheta:
Again it doesn’t have to be just during meditation, it can be anything that you’re experiencing. The moment desire arises just look at it. Why do I want that? Here I am with a good job. Well now I want a promotion. Okay why? Again, not because it’s bad to desire but it’s skillful to understand the source of desire. Where is it coming from? What do you think happens once you get it? Then what? Then what? Then what? You’re always unpacking, digging deeper to understand this more. That’s the first hindrance desire.

Noah Rasheta:
Let’s talk about the second hindrance, which is aversion, sometimes also referred to as anger. Aversion is what arises when the experience we’re having is unpleasant. Become something that we want to eliminate or push away and the underlying experience may be something like pain or fear or depression or guilt or anxiety, and what arises with that experience is the aversion to how we feel or to what we’re experiencing. We find ourselves in a position of resisting and pushing away. The practice here, again like the first one, is to simply observe. Watch the arising of the aversion and notice what may be the underlying experience that gave rise to the aversion in the first place. Observe this and let the process unfold, watch it arise and eventually fade, and then return to what you were doing before.

Noah Rasheta:
Now I experience aversion, as I’m sure many of you do, all the time. I may be experiencing it when I’m washing the dishes. I mentioned this before. That’s a time that I try to practice mindfulness. As soon as I start doing the dishes the aversion arises and I don’t want to be there doing the dishes. Rather than practicing oh I’m going to do this until I finally want to do the dishes, no every time that I do the dishes I don’t want to be doing the dishes and I notice that aversion. Where does it come from? I try to understand it. Where did this aversion start? What is it that I’m really trying to push away? Is it the sensation of my hands being wet? Is it the soap on my hands? Is it that I’m standing here and not standing there? Is it that I’m doing this and I’m not doing that?

Noah Rasheta:
The more time I spend unpacking and understanding my aversion to doing the dishes, the more I get to know myself, that’s it. At the end of the day I’m still there doing the dishes. You can do this again with whatever you’re experiencing. As soon as the experience of aversion arises, the mental state of aversion, notice it and observe it.

Noah Rasheta:
That’s the second one, let’s talk about the third one, disinterest, sometimes referred to as apathy. In some schools of Buddhism this is talked about as boredom or laziness. I’m cautious to use those words because what we’re referring to here is a mental state, not the physical state. While laziness or drowsiness may have more to do with your physical experiences, this hindrance we’re talking about is referring to what takes place in the mind when we experience apathy or disinterest. It’s important to note that disinterest is kind of like the minds way of dealing with something that you don’t want to deal with. Similar to aversion the mind doesn’t want to deal with some things, so it just seems to turn off and become disinterested, it becomes apathetic, it’s kind of like with boredom.

Noah Rasheta:
I see this a lot, for example, in relationships. Rather than dealing with the discomfort of addressing a certain issue, it may seem easier to just become apathetic or disinterested and not even have to go there about certain topics or certain issues. This is a tough hindrance to deal with, but it’s dealt with in the same way that we deal with the others, through mindfulness, through noticing, and through observing. Noticing it when it arises, paying attention to it, not fighting it or resisting it, but just noticing. The key here is to notice it right away because when we become bored or disinterested in something we move on, we distract ourselves, we don’t even realize that we’re not interested in that thing because obviously we’re not thinking about the thing.

Noah Rasheta:
You want to catch this early on when a specific topic or an experience arises and disinterest kicks in. You can mindfully ask yourself, “Why am I so disinterested in this right now?” Then you pay attention to that and you notice what arises, what feelings you have associated to it, and you pay attention. Again disinterest manifests as a hindrance to achieving a state of mindfulness because you can’t be aware of something you’re not paying attention to.

Noah Rasheta:
The fourth one is agitation, and again this is a mental state. It’s the mind that seems to not be able to settle down. We may be replaying a memory over and over and over from the past, or it may be replaying some concern we have about the future and again we run it in our heads over and over and over. It’s like our minds just jump around constantly and don’t want to settle anywhere. The practice is to mindfully observe the experience, notice how much agitation is present, notice the desire to push it away and watch it long enough and you’ll see that sometimes it can fade away and you can return to what you were doing before. Again if you were sitting in meditation when this happens you can just simply return to noticing your breath.

Noah Rasheta:
Agitation, I think, manifests in our day to day living. If I’m trying to be more mindful in my day to day living and this mental state of agitation arises it becomes very difficult to be in the present moment or to notice anything meaningful in the present moment because I’m not in the present moment, I’m in the past and I’m in the future and my mind is jumping around. When this arises in me I try to notice it and I say, “How interesting, my mind seems very agitated. Could there be some underlying issue here? Is this a form of distraction from a deeper emotion, and the mind wants to stay agitated to not have to deal with that thing?” Again it’s all through observation and mindful non-judgmental observation of the experience that you’re having and that’s how you practice with this.

Noah Rasheta:
Again with all these mental states I can’t express enough that we’re not trying to change these states or trying to push them away or prevent them from arising, we’re practicing with them. When they do arise you just notice it. Wow I’m feeling really agitated, or my mind is really agitated, or wow my mind is really disinterested, or oh this desire is really strong, or oh my aversion feels really strong. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Noah Rasheta:
Then the fifth one, indecision. I think this is kind of a fascinating one. This is a form of apprehension. Could even be talked about as a form of confusion. Again it’s another mental state that is somewhat like a mental trick. I don’t know what I want to do so I’m just going to stop here and I’m not going to make a decision about it. In the Pāli Canon it gives an example of this where someone is out walking in the desert on a path and they come to a fork in the road, and then they’re gripped by this indecision. Should I go this way or should I go that way? Because of the indecision they don’t progress forward, they just stay there at the fork in the road and never move.

Noah Rasheta:
I think we do this a lot in our lives. I think we experience this with practices like meditation where we’re trying to become better at meditating so we sit there, and as we sit there it’s like we have this mental conversation that’s going on. Hmm, is this really helping me? Why am I sitting here? Am I getting better at this? Shouldn’t I be somewhere else doing something more productive than just sitting here meditating? No, I said I was going to do this so I’m going to force myself to sit here on this cushion. Well what if I’m just being stubborn? I don’t know if you guys have had this conversation in your mind, but the indecision prevents us from actually benefiting from the practice of just sitting there and meditating.

Noah Rasheta:
It also prevents us from just getting up and going and doing something else and being productive at that. That’s kind of what happens with indecision, and to practice with indecision, again we simply become aware when it arises. We notice it, we observe, and we try to not stay stuck in it. You can backup, backup and observe. Okay here’s the fork in the road, here are the decision. Notice how strong the impulse of indecision makes us want to not do anything and how easy it is to want to remain there without having to make a choice, without having to pick which road we go at the fork in the road. If this takes place while meditating, just go back to observing the breath, observing the physical sensations of sitting there.

Noah Rasheta:
Indecision to me seems to be a common one at the start of wanting to do something, whether it’s deciding to take up a meditative practice or it could be deciding to go to the gym or to eat healthier. We get stuck at this fork in the road and then we just sit there with the indecision and we never move forward. Everybody’s experienced that feeling of I want to start going to the gym. I’ve done this and it’s like okay, when should I go? Oh should I go in the mornings or in the evenings? Every little fork in the road it becomes easier to sit with the indecision, and years go by and I never adopted that practice because I just remained with the indecision. That can take place with our goal of trying to live more mindfully, and yet we never do anything about it because we can’t decide the best way to go about doing it.

Noah Rasheta:
These mental states are happening all the time in all the things we do, even the good or noble things like ooh meditation, right? We pick up this practice and then we experience something, something we like perhaps. Now every time we meditate we have the desire to feel that thing that we felt that one time that we meditated and there desire becomes the hindrance that prevents us from being mindful of whatever it is we’re experiencing in the moment because we’re blinded by comparing what we’re experiencing to what we desire to experience or that we may have experienced one time when we meditated. I think we do this in all things.

Noah Rasheta:
These hindrances ultimately blind us from being mindful of the present moment, that’s what they do. Like all mental states these come and they go. They arise and they fade away. As you continue to practice being more mindful you’ll perhaps notice these states more, and the trick is to not become attached to them, just see the mental state as it is, watch it arise, watch it eventually get replaced by another mental state. Concentrating I think is one of the skills that we develop to not allow these obstacles to prevent us from being more mindful. Concentrating on the skill of observing these mental states will allow us to develop a more skillful relationship with the mental state when we’re experiencing it.

Noah Rasheta:
This is something I would invite you to give it a try this week, see how it goes. When you notice instances of desire, aversion, disinterest or apathy, boredom, agitation, indecision, and ask yourself are there areas of my life where I’m experiencing these things? Are these acting as obstacles for me in this facet of my life or in this relationship or in whatever, in any aspect of your life? If they are sit with it for a moment and notice what may be the underlying cause of experiencing this mental state. Again, not with the intent of okay then I’m going to change it, but with the intent of okay, I really want to understand this, this is what I’m experiencing and I want to understand why I’m experiencing it. If you can’t get to the why, at least understand how is this affecting me in my life? My life is like this because of this thing I’m experiencing. How is that affecting me, how is that affecting others around me?

Noah Rasheta:
Just again, from the perspective of I’m just observing. Imagine that you sat down with a little notepad and you’re just observing and taking notes. What does this look like? What does this feel like? What is this causing? Where is this coming from? Where will this go? You’re just noticing, as with all things that we practice with mindfulness, you’re trying to understand you and yourself. I think that’s one of the greatest mysteries out there. Of all the unknowable things that there are in the universe, how incredible is it that perhaps one of the most mysterious is understanding our own selves, the motives behind why we do what we do, and say what we say, and think what we think, and believe what we believe. Inside of you is a fantastic mystery that you can become a little bit better and understand yourself a little bit better, and that’s where this whole premise of becoming a better whatever you already are kind of kicks in.

Noah Rasheta:
Spend time looking inward and practicing and noticing these hindrances to these things manifest in a way that they may be hindering or, as on obstacle to experiencing something that you didn’t know you could experience, or to see in something that you didn’t know you could see. Again internalizing all of this, making this about you, your quest and your journey to have internal or inner peace and understanding yourself better. I like to always take it back to that, we’re trying to turn inward. We’re not turning outward on these things.

Noah Rasheta:
Those are the five hindrances and that’s how you would typically practice with those hindrances. Again, as always, if you want to learn more about Buddhism and mindfulness you can always check out No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners, one of my books Secular Buddhism, or the Five Minute Mindfulness Journal. The information on those is available on NoahRasheta.com, and if you enjoyed this podcast episode please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. If you’d like to make a donation to support I’m doing with the podcast you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click the donate button. That’s all I have for now but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.