The Five Mental Hindrances
by Prof. David Dale Holmes
Venerable Nyanaponika in The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest, begins:
“Unshakeable deliverance of the mind is the highest goal in the Buddha’s doctrine. Here, deliverance means the freeing of the mind from all limitations, fetters, and bonds that tie it to the wheel of suffering, to the circle of rebirth. It means the cleansing of the mind of all defilements that mar its purity; the removal of all obstacles that bar its progress from the mundane (Pali: lokiya) to the supramundane consciousness (lokuttara citta), that is to arahatship.”
“Many are the obstacles which block the road to spiritual progress, but there are five in particular which, under the name of hindrances (nivarana), are often mentioned in Buddhist scriptures.”
The Five Mental Hindrances are:
1. Sensual desire
2. Ill will
3. Sloth and torpor
4. Restlessness and remorse
5. Skeptical doubt
“They are called ‘hindrances’ because they hinder and cloud . . . the development of the mind (bhavana). They can hinder right concentration so the mind remains bound within the mundane state — blocked from attaining access to supramundane states. The mind which demands nourishment based on fetters to mundane states will be tied to attachments from which it cannot be delivered.” (Nyanaponika 4, 1993)
Concerning nourishment, Venerable Nyanaponika quotes the Pali texts:
Just as monks, this body lives on nourishment, lives dependent on nourishment, does not live without nourishment — in the same way, monks, the five hindrances live on nourishment, depend on nourishment, do not live without nourishment. (Samyutta Nikaya 46:2)
Nourishment of sensual desire:
There are beautiful objects; frequently giving unwise attention to them — this is nourishment for the arising of sensual desire that has not yet arisen and the nourishment for the increasing and strengthening of sensual desire that has already arisen. (SN 46:51)
Nourishment of ill will:
There are objects causing aversion; frequently giving attention to them — is the nourishment for the arising of ill will that has not yet arisen, and for the increase and strengthening of ill will that has already arisen. (SN 46:55)
Nourishment of sloth and torpor:
There arises listlessness, lassitude, stretching of the body, drowsiness after meals, mental sluggishness; frequently giving unwise attention to it — this is the nourishment for the arising of sloth and torpor that have not yet arisen and for the increase and strengthening of sloth and torpor that have already arisen. (SN 46:51)
Nourishing restlessness and remorse:
There is the unrest of the mind; frequently giving unwise attention to it — that is the nourishment for the arising of restlessness and remorse that have not yet arisen and strengthening of restlessness and remorse that have already arisen. (SN 46:51)
Nourishment of doubt:
There are things causing doubt; frequently giving attention to them — that is the nourishment for the arising of doubt that has not yet arisen and strengthening of doubt that has already arisen. (SN 46:51)
We have all experienced sensuous desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt. They are like bad companions that like to hang around, but there is a way to get rid of them: the conquest of the Five Mental Hindrances can be achieved by starving them — giving them nothing to feed on — through “de-nourishment.”
Suppose the object of perception is a beautiful young woman or man. Despite our eyes being attracted by outward beauty, we may also realise that her/his body is full of blood, pus, guts and faeces — and not quite as attractive as it first seems.
When we note an object of sensual desire entering the perceptive field, we may observe and analyse it as a source of impurities. Knowing that an attractive form is also ruled by feelings, perceptions, arising mental associations, and resultant consciousness, we realise that the desired object is a bundle of urges and energy aggregates that are certain to spell trouble.
And so it is with all Five Mental Hindrances — what first attracts the senses or consciousness may start a fire within the mind instead of providing soothing satisfaction. When the eye and the other six senses are not trained, they will want to get up to mischief, and, therefore, they have to be carefully contained.
When the senses want pleasant perceptions, but instead get undesirable ones — ugly, noisy, smelly, distasteful, or repulsive to touch — then suffering ensues.
Suppose a neighbour’s music is too noisy, or his garbage is too smelly. It is easy to get involved and react to the unpleasant perception, developing a sense of consciousness and thinking, “This is not right! I’m going to tell him!” No sooner have you reacted than the neighbour is reacting back, and you are both feeling ill will. The moment you get involved and react, you lose whatever sense of equanimity you had and you may begin growling like an untamed animal.
The antidote to ill will is a good grounding in loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. When these four factors are there, you will not make your neighbour your enemy — no matter how badly he behaves. Under no circumstances should we lose composure. Loss of equanimity affords an opportunity for the ill will to nourish itself and run rampant — and this is exactly what ill will wants to do with you.
SLOTH AND TORPOR
We fall into sloth (lack of motivation and laziness) and torpor (lethargy and listlessness) when we sink into a state of inertia and cannot arouse enough energy to do anything — but we can combat inertia by arousing energy through an act of the will.
If our mind becomes dull, we can arouse energy through reflecting on birth, decay, disease, death, and impermanence. We can avoid over-eating or change body postures in order to keep alert or contemplate the perception of light, remain in the open air, or do walking meditation in places where there are sharp-sided stones, or, alternatively, converse with suitable Dhamma friends, to arouse sympathetic joy.
RESTLESS AND REMORSE
We have all felt restless, uneasy, nervous, or full of worry and remorse. The antidote for de-nourishment of restlessness is the application of wise attention to direct the mind into calmer mental states of quietude and tranquillity, or, alternatively, through practising the monk’s rules more thoroughly, thereby developing calmness.
The more restlessness there is in the mind, the more opportunities the defilements will have to stir up nervous energy, to create a spark in the mind that eats up nervous energy as fuel for negative nourishment.
There may be doubt within the mind or uncertainty, which enters via outside influences. Once a spark of uncertainty has arisen to ignite doubt, it is hard to establish and maintain confidence.
Uncertainty, which lurks and hides in the dark corners of the mind, can be a dangerous enemy because it attacks from inside where we are defenceless, owing to a lack of focus and concentration. It is good that we have the Five Precepts, which counterbalance the Five Hindrances, giving us the confidence to follow the Buddha’s doctrine of unshakeable deliverance of the mind.