The Five Hindrances are one of the most useful and practical numbered lists in the Buddhist canon. They describe common obstacles that arise when we meditate.
In this post, I will review what the Five Hindrances are and how to work with them in meditation. If you meditate, I strongly recommend you memorize the Five Hindrances and incorporate them into your meditation practice.
These are the Five Hindrances as classically presented: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and drowsiness, restlessness and anxiety, and uncertainty.
Monks, there are these five hindrances. Which five? Sensual desire as a hindrance, ill will as a hindrance, sloth & drowsiness as a hindrance, restlessness & anxiety as a hindrance, and uncertainty as a hindrance. These are the five hindrances. — Nivarana Sutta: Hindrances, AN 9.64
In the system of meditation we use at the Monastic Academy, we have shorthand names for the Five Hindrances: Want, Hate, Stupor, Agitation, and Doubt.
Want or sensual desire is the desire for pleasant things of this world, or for the removal of their opposites, like pain or discomfort. The most obvious form of this is desire for sexual pleasure, but this also includes other forms as well, such as craving for a particular food.
Hate or ill will is the desire for a being to suffer or not exist. It can include anger, annoyance, frustration, and criticism. Ill will can be directed towards yourself or others.
Stupor, or sloth and torpor, is a lack of energy. It has two forms: drowsiness or falling asleep, and laziness, an unwillingness to put forth the effort needed to generate mindfulness and concentration.
Agitation, or restlessness and anxiety, is regret about the past or worry about the future. This worry or agitation makes it hard to be calm and focused.
Doubt or uncertainty is having unhelpful reservations about the practice. For example, we can think “Will this technique really work? It seems so simple, following the breath, how could that really help me suffer less?” Or we can have self-doubt come up, believing “I can’t do this.” Alternatively, we can forget why the practice is important to us, and get distracted by less important things. All of these are forms of doubt.
In The Mind Illuminated, Upasaka Culadasa points out that these Five Hindrances have evolutionary benefits. For example, sensual desire helps us to survive and reproduce, while sloth and drowsiness help us to conserve energy.
This perspective helps us to see that if we experience the hindrances, it’s not our fault—we’ve evolved to experience them, and they even have a certain benefit. But we can go beyond these evolutionary patterns to find even more wholesome and beneficial states of mind.
Once you’ve learned what the Five Hindrances are, practice noticing whether the hindrances are present or not. Check each of the Five Hindrances in order – is sensual desire present? Ill will? Sloth and torpor? Restlessness and anxiety? Doubt? Noticing the presence of one or more hindrances is the first step towards resolving them.
At higher levels of attainment or practice, the Five Hindrances are said to be permanently removed and can no longer arise. However, most of us still experience the Five Hindrances. Rather than aiming to resolve the Five Hindrances permanently, when we meditate we try to temporarily inhibit them so we can establish mindfulness and concentration.
In general, giving rise to mindfulness by doing a mindfulness technique can cause the hindrances to dissipate. However, each of the hindrances also has a number of specific antidotes or remedies that can help us to purify them from our minds.
Sensual desire can be resolved by:
- Having equanimity with respect to the sense experiences that you are drawn to
- Intentionally focusing on the unpleasant aspects of the thing you desire, bringing up a sense of disgust or repulsion
- Remembering that sense pleasures can’t last
Ill will can be resolved by:
- Giving rise to compassion or loving-kindness (whether for the person you are angry with, or someone else)
- Remembering that what you do matters, or, as they say traditionally in the Buddhist scriptures, that we are the owners and heirs of our actions (karma)
Sloth and torpor can be resolved by:
- Generating energy in the body, perhaps with the breathing
- Generating motivation and determination in the mind
- Changing postures (standing meditation is especially helpful)
Restlessness and anxiety can be resolved by:
- Acting in virtuous, ethical ways so that you don’t have a reason to worry
- Generating calm and relaxation in the body, perhaps with the breathing
Doubt can be resolved by:
- Remembering why you are practicing, why it is important to you
- Remembering what you’ve learned from the practice you’ve already done
- Clarifying your doubt into the form of a concrete question, writing it down, and then asking a teacher your question at the next opportunity
- Considering the teachings about Buddhism, the Dharma, and meditation that you have been exposed to
Over time, I’ve come to see learning the Five Hindrances in terms of a skill progression. Using them effectively in our practice is composed of a number of sub-skills, which we should learn and master in sequence. Here is the skill progression for using the Five Hindrances in your meditation practice:
- Knowledge #1: you’ve memorized the hindrances
- Knowledge #2: you’ve memorized their antidotes
- Recognition: you can recognize the hindrances in your own experience
- Self-Knowledge: you know which hindrances tend to come up most frequently for you
- Removal: you can cut through each of the hindrances
- Consistency: you can cut through the hindrances consistently
When we have mastered each of these skills, we use them at the beginning of each meditation session. We check whether any hindrances are present, and work with each of them until our mind is free from the hindrances. Then we can move on to cultivating mindfulness, concentration, and insight with our main technique.
The Five Hindrances aren’t the only obstacles that can arise when we meditate, and other approaches can be helpful for problem-solving on the cushion (like using the Bio-Emotive Framework, Gendlin’s Focusing, or Internal Family Systems). However, the Five Hindrances are very common problems in meditation, and it’s worth being familiar with them and learning to work with them.
- The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest: Selected Texts from the Pali Canon and the Commentaries – compiled and translated by Nyanaponika Thera
- Fire – Aggi Sutta (SN 46:53)
- Nodding – Capala Sutta (AN 7:58)
Thank you to my teacher, Soryu Forall, for teaching me to work with the hindrances, and to Jōshin, Renshin, and Daniel Ryūshin Thorson for reviewing this post.