1. Sensory desire
  2. Ill-will
  3. Lethargy and drowsiness
  4. Restlessness and worry
  5. Doubt

The last of the five hindrances is doubt, vicikicchā in Pali. To be clear, there are two distinct types of doubt: a hindering, pessimistic doubt, which can stop us in our tracks, and a questioning, clarifying form of doubt, which encourages curiosity and discovery. The hindrance refers only to the first of these two types.

Vicikicchā includes skeptical doubt, self-doubt, confusion, indecision, vacillation, over-thinking, and paralyzing fear/anxiety. Doubt can also originate in bringing wrong assumptions to spiritual practice, for example expecting to gain or accumulate (instead of shed) things through mindfulness practice. Doubt is a mental state related to delusion or being unclear; the metaphor for the hindrance of doubt in the Pali canon is trying to see truly in murky water.

Three remedies for doubt are:

  1. Gratitude or appreciation for the Dharma teachings
  2. Develop concentration by chanting, mantra, or other practice
  3. Investigate experience persistently

Gratitude or appreciation for the Dharma teachings could take the form of turning attention towards some part of the teaching that has meaning for us; it could be faith in the possibility of awakening (for everyone), or an appreciation for the coherence and power of the Buddha’s Four Truths or Eight-fold Path. If any of the “sublime state” practices has been useful in the past, they can be called upon in times of doubt, that is, unbounded, all-inclusive lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, or equanimity. We can also turn to any “noble” friends to discuss our doubts with, that is, people whom we trust to have our best interests at heart. Personally, I like to remember that I have not yet found a more coherent or helpful system for viewing experience.

We can purposely place the mind in a more congenial state by using one of the many concentration practices. Chanting when in distress can be soothing and a reminder of what is true. Mantra practice, or simply counting breaths may also be helpful. Walking meditation might also be in this category because it can even out our energy.

Lastly, giving one’s doubt appropriate attention, investigating it mindfully and methodically, can strengthen both our faith and our mindfulness. Ajahn Chah once reassured a Western disciple:

Doubting is natural. Everyone starts out with doubts. You can learn a great deal from them. What is important is that you don’t identify with your doubts: that is, don’t get caught up in them. This will spin your mind in endless circles. Instead, watch the whole process of doubting, of wondering. See who it is that doubts. See how doubts come and go. Then you will no longer be victimized by your doubts. You will step outside of them, and your mind will be quiet. You can see how all things come and go. Just let go of what you are attached to. Let go of your doubts and simply watch. This is how to end doubting.

Ajahn Jayasaro says that the hindrances don’t appear in the mind as a result of meditation; rather, meditation reveals hindrances that are already latent within the mind but are difficult to isolate and deal with effectively in daily life. With persistent, appropriate attention, we all become more expert at handling the hindrances when they come up in our practice.


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The fourth in the usual list of five hindrances to meditation (and much else) is restlessness and worry, sometimes “restlessness and remorse”. This is approximately the opposite of lethargy/drowsiness, a mindstate which is like checking out of life. With restlessness/worry we become hyper-sensitive, agitated, and reactive.

At this point we should note that the hindrances exist on a continuum of normal transitory moods. Sometimes we have a moment of low or high energy that passes quickly. It wouldn’t help to make too much of these, even during meditation. When one of the hindrances lasts long enough to obstruct our meditation or interfere with a reasonably peaceful life, then it’s time to address it directly.

Restlessness and worry can shade into a common modern problem, anxiety. Anxiety that makes normal functioning difficult can’t be remedied by mindfulness alone; it needs to be treated by medical and/or psychological professionals. With restlessness and worry we’re talking about normal concerns that sometimes obsess our minds. The causes could be fear, doubt, lack of stimulation, too much effort, or something else. The “remorse” aspect of this hindrance refers to the fact that if our actions are unethical, we are prone to guilt and regret, and these feelings interfere with mindfulness. If we are being nagged by the memory of our hurting someone’s feelings or letting someone down, meditation can be difficult or impossible. Keeping the precepts and maintaining an intention to live in a way that does no harm create the context for a peaceful heart.

I’d like to interject here that my mother, a good Lutheran, once said to me, “Worry is a kind of prayer I understand”, and this one form of the hindrance. Some of us are simply more comfortable if we are in a state of agitation about what may or may not happen, but this state makes a calm mind unlikely.

When restlessness/worry interferes with our meditation or with our sleep, what can we do? We can turn our attention towards it as an object of interest and curiosity. Where in our bodies does it register? How does it move? Does its intensity fluctuate? How does it affect our breathing? What words or images are associated with this instance of restlessness/worry? Can we identify a specific cause? Are we aware of its ephemeral nature?

Often before a long trip or a challenging event our minds are over-busy trying to remember details of preparation or imagining what could go wrong. This is a type of restlessness we can expect and plan for; we can incorporate it into our mindfulness practice, bringing ourselves back to the present again and again.

Good things are impermanent; bad things are impermanent. Why give them so much significance? If the mind is agitated, then look at that. If it’s peaceful, then look at that. In this way, you allow wisdom to arise. Agitation is a natural expression of the mind. Just don’t get caught up with it. (Ajahn Chah quoted in Stillness Flowing by Ajahn Jayasaro, p. 344)

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Low energy

As a reminder of what we’re exploring, the five hindrances are:

  1. Sensory desire
  2. Ill-will
  3. Lethargy and drowsiness
  4. Restlessness and worry
  5. Doubt

We come now to the third hindrance: lethargy and drowsiness. “Sloth and torpor” has been the standard translation from the Pali for decades, however both of these words are not in common usage, so I accept Ajahn Thiradhammo’s translation of lethargy and drowsiness. This captures the physical (lethargy) and mental (drowsiness) aspects of this hindrance. There’s no great mystery to it; we know when we are feeling low energy or are nodding off. Do we notice and name lethargy and drowsiness? Do we have a way of addressing them other than complaining?

Ajahn Jayasaro says that lethargy/drowsiness occurs most readily in a mind habituated to a high level of stimulation. Unless we are living a secluded life, this describes most of us; as soon as the momentum of activity flags, so do we. When one thing is finished, we automatically leap to the next item on our list, or else distract ourselves with a passive activity, but do we notice the ebb and flow of our physical and mental energy?

In Thirtysomething, an American television drama (1987-1991), there was a phenomenon called the “Presbyterian sleep response” (with apologies to Presbyterians). For one of the main characters, when anything distressing occurred, her way of coping was to fall asleep. It is a classic, passive way to avoid something we’d rather not face.

Particularly when meditating, we may find that simply relaxing our bodies and keeping them still will bring on a sleep response because we associate the two so strongly; moving/tension = awake, relaxation/stillness = sleep. This is not a problem unless we don’t face it squarely and name what’s going on. Once we’ve recognized lethargy/drowsiness, we can make it the object of our curiosity and mindful investigation. Like every other mindstate, it is not static; if we attend to it, we will notice more details and perceive subtle changes.

As with the practice of mindfulness generally, if we take lethargy or drowsiness as our object of meditation, it gives us just enough distance from it to identify with it less, which makes it easier to study. It changes our relationship to this and other passing moods, enabling us to more clearly “see things as they are” – not me, not mine, but an ownerless collection of physical and mental phenomena that comes and goes.

Lethargy/drowsiness is not enough energy, and restlessness/worry (the 4th hindrance) is too much energy. One way of diagnosing these mind states is to contrast them in our experience. What does sluggishness feel like to us? And what does restlessness feel like? Where in our bodies do we experience them? What thoughts are associated with each mood? Which is more often present? Bringing the two into balance by exploring and remediating whatever is out of balance is the work of mindfulness.

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Practicing friendliness

The Buddha, and many teachers after his time, recommended practicing  mettā (loving-kindness) regularly as a remedy for the hindrance of ill-will. In this practice, we meet ill-will with mindfulness when it’s present, and when it’s absent, we practice mettā. If we make mettā our default mindstate, our go-to when nothing much is happening, we can lay a strong and beautiful foundation for dealing with whatever comes. Eventually when we encounter episodes of ill-will we may remember that mettā is an attitude available to us.

From the Ajahn Chah lineage comes this mettā chant:

May I abide in well-being, in freedom from affliction, in freedom from hostility, in freedom from ill-will, in freedom from anxiety, and may I maintain well-being in myself.

If we’re feeling physically tense, it’s important to try to relax and let the chant resonate in our torso – heart or belly – to release energy from our intellect into a more general experience. Letting go of whatever we’re clinging to clears the way for metta; in fact, the more we let go, the more ease and friendliness will naturally arise, creating a virtuous cycle. It may help to say the chant out loud, especially with others, to feel the breath and the vibration of our voices.

We could add:

May everyone abide in well-being, in freedom from hostility, in freedom from ill-will, in freedom from anxiety, and may they maintain well-being in themselves.

In this way, we recognize that just as we want to be free from hostility, ill-will, and anxiety, so does (pretty much) everyone else. We are not unique in this desire.

If we’re experiencing pain or suffering, we can also apply mettā directly to the difficulty, or to ourselves as we experience a problem. This is similar to feeling compassion for someone in distress.

Here is one way to apply mettā when we’re caught in ill-will. It’s an imagined conversation between mindfulness (M) and the self (S):

Mindfulness says: ‘There is some pain there.’ The self says: ‘Yes, but I don’t like it.’ M: ‘Hey, there’s more to this pain than meets the eye. And it’s very interesting.’ S: ‘Really?’ M: ‘Yes, take a look.’ S: ‘How do I do that?’ M: ‘Relax your defensiveness, be more friendly and it will start to show itself.’ S: ‘Hey, it is interesting, and this friendliness is not too bad. Actually, it’s quite nice. And I notice that what I thought was painful is not as extreme as I first imagined.’ (p. 107, Working with the Five Hindrances by Ajahn Thiradhammo)

We can make up our own mettā mantra. One I like to use is: “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from harm and suffering. May all of my good purposes be fulfilled.” And then, “May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm and suffering. May all of their good purposes be fulfilled.” We can experiment until we find a phrasing that actually touches our heart and helps it to open.



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The hindrances are not our fault, but they are our responsibility. Greed and hatred in particular are not things we should blame ourselves for; they are part of the natural, imperfect world. At the same time, if we let them lead us blindly throughout our lives, we are not living up to our potential.

We could think of the hindrances as obstacles, but also as stepping stones. By taking responsibility for our words and actions and the intentions behind them, we can start to understand how our minds and bodies work at a deeper level. We can learn to see how the hindrances create suffering for ourselves and others. Once the suffering is clearly perceived – not avoided but fully experienced and recognized – we will gradually become disenchanted with our own grasping nature. The possibility of being free from oppressive compulsions will become visible and attractive.

As explained in the NY Times article linked to the previous post, patience is a key to happiness in many areas of daily life (as well as in meditation practice). The good news is that patience can be cultivated; we are trainable, and it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a gradual training, not a switch. The habits of grasping built up over a lifetime must be brought into the light and studied so we can see them as they are, both their uses and their drawbacks.

As the NYT article explains, the causes of our aversion/impatience are in our physical bodies, specifically in the limbic system of the brain:

Amygdalae are the culprit. This almond-shaped set of nervous tissue in our brains is responsible for sussing out threats and regulating emotions. While this component of the limbic system is perfectly calibrated for protecting our ancestors from ferocious predators, it’s not as adept at determining credible threats in modern life.

As a result, many react to irritating situations as if these encounters were more dire than they actually are. The amygdala … is too unsophisticated to know the difference between a true danger (say, a growling tiger) and something substantially less life-threatening (dealing with an obnoxious person).

The amygdala is intimately connected to our endocrine system and our autonomic nervous system. This is why we sometimes feel we have no control over our positive or negative reactions to stimuli. But if we look closely enough, we can interrupt the process that leads from impulse to action. In terms of the causal chain described in the Pali canon (dependent origination or dependent co-arising), it is possible to break the link between vedana (liking/not-liking) and tanha (grasping). This is the instant between recognizing that we’re attracted or repelled and giving in to the urge to grab or push away. Can we experience liking or not-liking and mindfully resist the impulse to grasp at or reject the object?

Many times, simply not rushing makes this way of training possible. We can stop, breathe, and reframe our experience. We can re-set our expectations and remember to be patient, with ourselves and others.



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Goodbye anger

Confronting our own ill-will is hard, but if we are to make any headway towards a peaceful heart (let alone liberation from all suffering) we must make the effort.

Example: Let’s say someone we know makes a forceful, bossy, cutting-off comment. We react strongly, thinking “Don’t tell me what to do!” and that the speaker is out of line, disrespectful, treating us like a child, sanctimonious, etc. This is a physical as well as a mental experience; there might be a tightening of the throat, clenching of teeth, and (possibly) seeing red. The stream of our anger is a force of nature that we could easily surrender to, but there is an alternative. We could also stop, breathe, and surrender to our wisdom, thinking “this person is behaving in an unpleasant way, but I don’t have to participate in the exchange”. Silence works very well here; sometimes there just are no useful words. Forgiveness may or may not come later; we may re-evaluate what we choose to share with this person and how much time we’re willing to give them. If we feel we’ve been burned, we might be wary in future encounters. We might also remember that the person has many good qualities as well as some problematic ones (for us, at least).

When this or a similar type of experience comes to us, how do we respond? Sometimes the force of our anger is too much for us and we’re overwhelmed, often making the situation worse. But the choice is there: participate in the exchange or not? Can we recognize that the anger is a hindrance within our body and mind and that it is ours to deal with? Can we feel the power of ill-will and stand up to it?

This sort of exercise may not come up very often, but how we handle it is important. Once we go against the grain and choose wise silence or withdrawal (when appropriate), there is a feeling of self-control, of autonomy, even of liberation. Knowing that we have a choice to go with or against our anger, to choose wisdom even in the heat of the moment, we are on our way to becoming free, at least from the grossest forms of ill-will.

Patience is a key element with this process. One successful confrontation with our own anger doesn’t eliminate it from our psyche. We’ll have to practice choosing wisdom again and again, though it may start to feel more natural as we progress.

Patience is also the quality that can help us with lesser instances of ill-will. This recent article from the New York Times is titled “How to Be a More Patient Person” and I think it covers a lot of useful ground. I’m attaching the link:

and also the content as a document, in case you’d like to avoid the embedded advertising. How to Be a More Patient Person by Anna Goldfarb

Please consider reading the article and choosing one or more of the strategies suggested. More on these ideas in the next post…

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Hello anger

The second of the hindrances is ill-will. It covers a lot of ground from minor irritation to rage, and includes dislike, annoyance, resentment, aversion, frustration, anger, hostility, impatience, and hate (in addition to irritation and rage). General grumpiness could also be included. We may not recognize ill-will as an energy until it moves to the center of our consciousness, but it is often there in the background, as a motive to avoid or move away from people and situations or in judgments (whether spoken or silent).

Ill-will interferes with mindfulness, although if we commit to working with ill-will, mindfulness may be the primary tool to address it. If we take on this challenge we must be realistic about our current level of good will vs. ill-will. Ill-will may be mild or powerful; it may be intermittent or almost continuous; it can manifest as angry words or angry silence.

Ajahn Tiradhammo posits that energetically, ill-will is a physical and mental contraction. If too much pressure builds up, there may be an explosion, which can temporarily relieve tension, but doesn’t address the cause, which is embedded in our personal relationship with experience.

So we begin by noticing. Is there a particular person or situation that almost always causes an aversive reaction? What is it about them that causes us to recoil? How do we think things should be instead of how they are? If we have difficulty noticing what our triggers for ill-will are, we can ask a friend to help us identify them.

Speaking personally, I can say that whenever I get behind the wheel of a car, the danger of ill-will is right there with me; my patience is usually short with other (inconsiderate) drivers. I’ve also noticed over the years, when I hear a proposal, especially if it’s something I hadn’t thought of myself, my impulsive first reply is, “no!”. I may change my mind in the next three minutes, but my initial reaction is often defensive. Knowing this about myself, I can stop, take a breath, and decide to say yes or no or that I’ll consider whatever is being proposed. In these cases, hearing the other person out and delaying my own reaction has been a useful remedy.

But we can’t apply a remedy until we understand what circumstances in our lives cause ill-will to arise. What aggravates it? What prevents it? When is it present? When is it absent? Do crowds make us edgy? Loud noise? Physical discomfort? Having to wait? Is a negative attitude our default setting? Do we often feel the need to correct others?

Some of us are not prone to ill-will and have the ability to easily overlook inconveniences. This is also a useful thing to know about ourselves. I can think of at least one person I knew well who never seemed to get annoyed and was always ready with compassion and care, no matter who she encountered.

Try to work out what your ill-will triggers are. In the next post we’ll consider remedial strategies.

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