What’s Your Hindrance? Five Obstacles to Happiness and Contentment

A post by Toni Bernhard on the Buddha’s “five hinderances” and how we can overcome these obstacles.

Toni Bernhard
2 December 2011
Photo by Time Gouw

The Buddha identified five mental states or habits of the mind that contribute to our dissatisfaction. He called these “the five hindrances.” All five are familiar to us all, but see if you don’t have your own “areas of specialization”:

Desire for sense pleasure

When you’re caught up in this hindrance, you seek out pleasant experiences (sights, sounds, bodily sensations, even thoughts and emotions). This seeking often takes the form of a relentless craving to get things, from the newest tech gadget to the affection of a person who doesn’t return your feelings. A friend of mine calls this seeking after sense pleasure, “the want monster.” We often trick ourselves into thinking that if we satisfy the “want monster,” it won’t come back: When I was a teenager, I got it into my head that if I just found the right color of lipstick, I’d be pretty and, if I were pretty, I’d be happy. With each purchase, I thought, “This is the one.” But soon, I’d be buying another color. My heart goes out to my teenaged-self, who thought happiness could be purchased, and so easily.


This hindrance can take the form of mild aversion or it can manifest in destructive outbursts of anger. You’re quick to criticize and judge yourself, others, and the world. The room is too hot; the room is too cold. Nothing meets your standards. No wonder you’re unhappy! This hindrance can take the form of mild aversion or it can manifest in destructive outbursts of anger. The Buddha said that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned first.

Torpor or lethargy

This one is characterized by apathy—a feeling of heaviness ,that everything is too much effort, as in, “I can’t be bothered.” To counter this hindrance, the Buddha suggested reflecting on “this precious human birth” and on the fleeting nature of each moment. Both of these reflections can arouse curiosity and energy in the mind for what is happening in the present moment.

Restlessness or worry

When this hindrance arises, you’re anxious, agitated, nervous, and easily distracted—the other side of the coin from mental lethargy in many ways. Physically, you find it difficult to be still in the moment. You want to be moving all the time—do this, do that, do anything but be still!

Worriers are caught up in stressful thoughts about the future. I know because this is my own little specialization: “If I’m in an accident and taken to the hospital, will they understand that I’m already chronically ill?” “What if my husband gets sick or injured and suddenly needs me to be the caregiver?” These scary scenarios are a great source of suffering for me. But mindfulness practice helps alleviate restlessness and worry because it calmly focuses my attention on what’s going on right now, right here. It also enables me to calmly question the validity of these stressful stories that my mind spins. When I catch myself worrying about the future, I remember what Twain said: “I’ve lived a long life and seen a lot of hard time… most of which never happened.”

Skeptical doubt

There is skillful doubt — not believing something just because others have said it. But when you’re caught up in skeptical doubt, you’re always looking for the flaw. You’re afraid to make a decision and, as soon as you do, you second-guess yourself. And you’re distrustful of others, always assuming they’re out to swindle you in some way. You skip from one belief to another, always doubting if you’ve found the “right” path when, in fact, any number of paths might be to your benefit. As with worrying mind, it helps to find the stressful stories that the mind has been spinning — stories that feed this doubt — and then question their validity.

How can we overcome these five obstacles to happiness and contentment?

It’s not the hindrances themselves that keep us from feeling content and happy. It’s our response to them. Note that when the Buddha talked about grasping that hot coal, he didn’t say that the arising of anger burns us. He said that holding onto anger does. So, he was focusing on our response to that arising anger.

With mindful awareness, we can learn to recognize when a hindrance has arisen. Then, we can refuse to feed it by refraining from spinning out stressful stories related to it. When we simply note a hindrance instead of feeding it, not only will it pass out of our minds more quickly, but we’re helping undo the mind’s inclination to give rise to that hindrance in the first place.

Example: Often when the desire arises to get something, like a new tech gadget or affection from a particular person, it feels like the only way to relieve the desire is to satisfy it. We just have to have it. But if we’re mindful of the desire when it first arises, we can see it for what it is — just an arising and passing event in the mind.

It’s not always easy to watch what goes on in our minds. (There’s an understatement!) This is why, in addition to mindfulness, patience and self-compassion are important to cultivate. These are mental states we do want to “feed” because they can help us to respond skillfully to the hindrances. With practice, we can rein a hindrance in, stop it in its tracks, and begin to reverse the inclination of our minds to give rise to the hindrance in the first place.

Toni Bernhard

Toni Bernhard

Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at www.tonibernhard.com.