The Five Hindrances on the Buddhist Spiritual Path & How to Overcome Them

When we do our meditation, mindfulness or a reflection practice, it will not always be plain sailing. There are five things that Gautama Buddha taught that will interfere with, obstruct and impede our progress. These are called the five hindrances and they are five negative mental states.
Karma Yeshe Rabgye is a Western Monk in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism living and teaching in Ashoka Buddhist Temple, Khuda Ali Sher, Northern India.
Karma Yeshe Rabgye is a Western Monk in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism living and teaching in Ashoka Buddhist Temple, Khuda Ali Sher, Northern India.

Life’s spiritual journey is paved with challenges, among which certain recurring challenges are prominent. Buddhism calls them the five hindrances. They are:

  • sensual desire
  • ill will
  • sloth and torpor
  • restlessness and worry
  • doubt

According to Buddhist thought, the five hindrances act as barriers to mindfulness and can derail our progress toward self-mastery and enlightenment. Overcoming these hindrances is part of everyone’s journey, and understanding them is the first step.

The five hindrances aren’t just obstacles — they are opportunities for growth. 

By recognizing and addressing each hindrance, we clear the path to deeper understanding and spiritual awakening. Whether you’re new to meditation or have been practicing for years, the journey to overcoming these hindrances is a pivotal part of spiritual development.

Key takeaways:

  • Identify the obstacles: Understand the five key barriers to mindfulness and their effects on spiritual growth.
  • Strategies for overcoming: Learn how to navigate these challenges using practical, everyday tools.
  • Build mindfulness: Discover how integrating mindfulness into your daily routine can enhance spiritual clarity.
  • Embrace spiritual growth: Recognize the transformative power of facing and overcoming these hindrances.

Start your journey to master the hindrances: Ajahn Sumedho’s 4.8-star 5 hindrances meditation will guide you through these challenges and cultivate greater peace with them.

As we explore each hindrance, remember that the journey is as important as the destination. Embracing these challenges can lead to profound insights and a more fulfilling spiritual path.

What are the five hindrances outlined in Buddhism?

At the heart of many spiritual practices, the concept of the five hindrances, or nivarana, offers a framework to understand the challenges we face in achieving mindfulness and spiritual growth. According to Buddhist teachings, each hindrance represents a common mental obstacle that can disrupt our meditation and distract us from our spiritual goals.

Here’s a simple definition of each hindrance before diving in:

  • Sensual desire: Craving for pleasure through the five senses, obstructing true mindfulness
  • Ill will: Feelings of hostility or aversion, which cloud judgment and focus
  • Sloth and torpor: A state of physical and mental lethargy that hinders active engagement in meditation
  • Restlessness and remorse: An inability to calm the mind, leading to a lack of concentration
  • Doubt: Skepticism towards the practice that prevents commitment and progress

Prefer listening? Tune into our 5-star guided meditation, “Introduction to the Five Hindrances” prepared by the Buddhist Discussion Centre of Australia.

The first hindrance: sensual desire

Sensual desire is the craving from our five senses — sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch — for pleasure. While seeking pleasure is natural, excessive craving can tether us to material satisfaction, overshadowing deeper, spiritual fulfillment. This hindrance can manifest as a constant pursuit of sensory pleasures, leaving little room for inner peace and mindfulness.

If you are consumed by desires, look at what is making you dissatisfied. Helpful questions to help you reflect on how this concept works in your life are:

  • Why are you always wanting new things?
  • Why are you always wanting new experiences? 
  • Is it peer pressure, unhappiness with your life, greed or are you a shopaholic? 

Listen in: Lloyd Burton explores Craving — one of the mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives Buddhists call hindrances.

The second hindrance: ill will

Ill will refers to feelings of resentment, anger, and hostility. It’s the mental state that wishes harm or misfortune upon others. Ill will clouds our judgment, prevents us from seeing situations clearly, and hampers our ability to feel compassion and empathy.

If it is ill will that affects you most, see what causes you to feel that way. See how it is affecting your life and the lives of others around you. Helpful questions to help you reflect on how this concept works in your life are: 

  • Are you jealous of someone?
  • What bitterness are you holding?
  • Do you carry around anger or do you have too much pride?

Listen in: Lloyd Burton explores Anger — one of the mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives Buddhists call hindrances.

The third hindrance: sloth and torpor

Sloth refers to physical laziness, while torpor is a mental state of dullness or apathy. Together, they create a barrier to active engagement in meditation and spiritual practices, making it difficult to maintain focus and enthusiasm. It can look like drowsiness, sleepiness, mental lethargy, listlessness, sluggishness, and more.

Helpful questions to help you reflect on how this concept works in your life are: 

  • What makes you lazy and disinterested? 
  • Is it boredom, are you unwell?
  • Are you not understanding what you are supposed to be doing or are you just not seeing any benefit from the things you do?

Listen in: Lloyd Burton explores Sloth and Torpor — one of the mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives Buddhists call hindrances.

The fourth hindrance: restlessness and worry

This hindrance is characterized by an inability to calm the mind, leading to scattered thoughts and constant worry. It prevents us from achieving the concentration needed for deep meditation and can make us feel ungrounded and anxious.

If you are anxious about everything, find out why. Dig deep and find what makes you anxious. Then you can start to change. Helpful questions to help you reflect on how this concept works in your life are: 

  • Is it stress weighing on you?
  • Are you fighting illness?
  • Are you uneasy at work, lacking money, feeling lonely or depressed?

Listen in: Lloyd Burton explores Restlessness and Agitation — one of the mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives Buddhists call hindrances.

The fifth hindrance: doubt

Doubt is the skepticism towards the practice, teachings, or one’s own ability to progress spiritually. It undermines confidence and can stall our journey by making us question the path we’re on.

Look at the doubt you carry around with you. Find out where the doubt is in your life. See how it is affecting your life and holding you back. Don’t see your doubt as a negative thing. See it as a way for you to change and let go of resistance. 

Listen in: Doubt is very destructive to the spiritual process. Insight Timer teacher, Meredith Hooke explores spiritual doubt and how to overcome it

How to overcome the five hindrances

Recognizing these hindrances is the first step toward overcoming them. Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma, outline not just the hindrances but also the antidotes. By understanding their nature and effects, we can start to apply targeted practices to mitigate their impact on our spiritual journey. 

Explore Buddhism: Access to Insight offers a clear and helpful self-guided introduction to the Buddha’s teachings.

Master sensual desire as a path to liberation

Sensual desire is a powerful force that can easily lead us astray from our spiritual goals. While enjoying life’s pleasures is not inherently bad, becoming overly attached to them can hinder our spiritual progress. There are a number of helpful approaches that help us let go of limiting desires.

To master sensual desire, we must first acknowledge it without judgment. Recognizing when our desires are taking control helps us to gently steer our focus back to our spiritual practice. Meditation and mindfulness can be powerful tools in this process, offering a way to observe our desires without acting on them impulsively.

Here are some steps to help master sensual desire:

  • Mindfulness: Pay attention to moments when you’re driven by sensual desires. Notice how these desires feel in your body and mind without acting on them.
  • Reflection: Consider the temporary nature of sensory pleasures. Reflecting on impermanence can help reduce their allure.
  • Redirection: Engage in activities that provide deeper satisfaction and align with your spiritual goals, such as meditation, reading spiritual texts, or practicing acts of kindness.

By addressing sensual desire with mindfulness and reflection, we open the door to greater spiritual freedom and fulfillment.

Read more: Karma Yeshe Rabgye explains how to practice self-restraint by observing eight Buddhist precepts.

Subdue ill will by cultivating compassion

Overcoming ill will is crucial for cultivating a heart of compassion and advancing on our spiritual path.

The antidote to ill will is the cultivation of loving-kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna). These practices help to dissolve the barriers we’ve built around our hearts, allowing us to connect with others more deeply and empathetically.

Tara Brach, a respected psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, emphasizes the transformative potential of mindfulness in dealing with ill will: 

“When we are mindful and awake in the moment, we have the capacity to empathically sense the suffering within and around us, and to respond with compassion.” 

This insight underscores the importance of presence and empathy in overcoming negative emotions and cultivating a heart of compassion and equanimity.

Here are ways to overcome ill will and cultivate compassion:

  • Loving-kindness meditation: Regularly practice metta meditation, where you send wishes of happiness, health, safety, and ease to yourself and others.
  • Empathy practice: Try to understand the circumstances and feelings of those you hold ill will towards. Recognizing our shared human experience can soften feelings of hostility.
  • Forgiveness: Holding onto resentment binds us to the past. Forgiveness, even if it’s just internally, frees us from this burden, allowing us to move forward with a lighter heart.

By actively working to overcome ill will with compassion and understanding, we not only enhance our own spiritual journey but also contribute to a more loving and peaceful world.

Confront sloth and torpor to awaken vitality

Sloth and torpor make engaging in meditation and mindful practices challenging, as it weakens our energy and motivation.

Overcoming sloth and torpor requires a proactive approach to reawaken our inner vitality and engage more fully with our spiritual practice. Here are strategies to help awaken your energy:

  • Physical activity: Incorporating light exercise or yoga can stimulate both the body and mind, creating a conducive state for meditation.
  • Mindful engagement: Choose activities that require focus and presence, such as mindful walking or engaging in creative pursuits, to counteract feelings of lethargy.
  • Regular meditation practice: Establishing a routine for meditation can help overcome resistance and build momentum in your practice.

By actively confronting sloth and torpor, we can unlock a deeper level of engagement and vitality in our spiritual journey, paving the way for more profound insights and growth.

Soothe restlessness and worry with grounding

Feeling restless and worried makes it hard to find calm and focus, and tough to meditate or stay mindful.

To find peace amidst this turmoil, we need to cultivate practices that ground us in the present moment and soothe our restless minds. Consider these approaches:

  • Body scan meditation: This practice involves slowly moving your attention through different parts of the body, noting sensations without judgment. It can anchor your mind in the present, reducing restlessness.
  • Breathing techniques: Focusing on your breathing, especially slow and deep breathing, can calm the mind and ease worry. Understanding how these breathing techniques work is a crucial step toward finding peace.
  • Setting small, achievable goals: Begin your practice with short, manageable sessions, gradually increasing as your concentration improves. This can reduce feelings of overwhelm and build confidence in your ability to meditate.

Embracing these practices can help transform restlessness and worry into a source of energy for mindfulness, leading to greater peace and focus in your spiritual endeavors.

Read more: Discover how breathing techniques for anxiety work.

Dispell doubt with learning and reflection

Doubt can really hold you back. It makes you question your path and whether you can grow spiritually. 

Everyone has doubts, but it’s important to not dwell on them. To ease doubt:

  • Talk it out: Share your doubts and feelings with someone who gets your spiritual journey. It can lighten your load. Our groups are great places to find spiritual community
  • Learn more: Engage with books or listen to spiritual talks. A study highlighted by the Harvard Gazette shows that spirituality is linked with better health outcomes and patient care, suggesting that deepening your spiritual understanding can have profound benefits on your overall well-being.
  • Reflect on your journey: Remember how far you’ve come. Recognizing your progress can push away doubts and boost your confidence.

Tackling doubt not only strengthens your commitment to your practices but also bolsters your confidence in your spiritual growth.

Take action: Lou Redmond’s inspiring meditation helps transform doubt to power. Inspired by the poetry of Rilke, this meditation helps you embrace uncertainty and trust your intuitive knowing. Learn humility, mystery, wonder & curiosity to cope with the uncertainty of life.

Practical tips to overcome the hindrances

The five hindrances are catalysts for personal growth. Some apply more to you than others. 

  1. Grade them from one to five, one being the most important for you to change and five least important. 
  2. Work on the most important first. 
  3. Set goals and boundaries for yourself, and then work towards them. 
  4. Check back from time to time to note your progress.

To recap, here are comprehensive tips to help you overcome each hindrance:

  • Sensual desire: Seek meditations that enhance appreciation for the present and cultivate contentment, reducing the craving for external pleasures.
  • Ill will: Engage in loving-kindness meditations to dissolve feelings of hostility and develop a compassionate outlook towards yourself and others.
  • Sloth and torpor: Participate in sessions that invigorate your energy and awaken your mental clarity, such as guided meditations for alertness and yoga classes.
  • Restlessness and worry: Explore practices focused on calming the mind, like mindfulness breathing exercises, to alleviate anxiety and foster inner peace.
  • Doubt: Immerse yourself in teachings and courses that strengthen your faith in your spiritual path, offering clarity and confidence in your practice.

If we set ourselves goals like these and use the resources at our disposal, we will begin letting the hindrances be and change our lives for the better. 

We have to understand that the hindrances are mental states and, as such, stem from our minds. So, it is no good to blame anyone for having a hindrance. 

You may think it is another person’s fault that you have ill will, work is making you anxious, or it’s the teacher’s fault that you have doubt. All of these are wrong. It is your mind that is bringing up the hindrance, and so it is only you that can deal with it.

Move beyond hindrances: In this talk, Doug Kraft discusses specific techniques for working with persistent mental and emotional obstacles.

How can meditation help overcome the five hindrances?

Meditation offers a direct approach to understanding and overcoming the five hindrances, providing a way to observe these mental obstacles without judgment or attachment. By engaging in regular meditation practice, you can gradually reduce the power these hindrances have over your mind and emotions. For example, 

  • Focusing on the breath during meditation helps counteract sensual desire by bringing attention back to a simple, present experience
  • Loving-kindness meditations are effective against ill will, promoting feelings of compassion and empathy towards oneself and others.
  • Mindfulness meditation soothes restlessness and worry by anchoring the mind in the present moment, easing anxiety. 
  • Meditation addresses sloth and torpor by increasing mental alertness and energy. 
  • It can dispel doubt by fostering a deeper trust in the process of spiritual growth. 

Meditation is a key tool in transforming the hindrances from obstacles into opportunities for deepening mindfulness and spiritual awareness.

  1. Relaxing Your Mind Karma Yeshe Rabgye 8:30
  2. Experience Stillness Karma Yeshe Rabgye 16:41
  3. Mindful Body Scan Karma Yeshe Rabgye 10:55
  4. Befriending Yourself Karma Yeshe Rabgye 12:01
  5. Positive Breathing Awareness Karma Yeshe Rabgye 10:23
  6. Breathing Awareness With Anchor Words Karma Yeshe Rabgye 10:13

Cultivating mindfulness and awareness

Mindfulness is key in spotting and handling the five hindrances effectively. It teaches us to stay present and observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment. This awareness lets us see the hindrances — like desire or worry — for what they are, helping us manage them better.

Practicing mindfulness meditation helps us recognize these obstacles without getting caught up in them. By learning to respond to hindrances with a calm mind, we lessen their influence on us and journey on a more peaceful and focused spiritual path.

How to prevent the hindrances

Now that we have given you practical advice to overcome the hindrances, it’s important to incorporate daily practice to prevent their initial arousal. This proactive approach differs from overcoming existing hindrances by focusing on habits that maintain a clear and balanced state of mind from the outset.

Starting your day with a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can set a tone of awareness and presence, reducing the likelihood of falling into patterns of desire or aversion. Practicing gratitude, through either morning reflections or keeping a gratitude journal, can shift your focus away from sensual desires and towards appreciation of what you already have.

Engaging in regular physical activity, such as yoga or walking, not only keeps sloth and torpor at bay but also promotes mental clarity, making it easier to deal with restlessness and worry before they take hold.

Setting daily intentions to act with kindness and patience can preempt feelings of ill will, fostering a more compassionate outlook towards yourself and others.

By integrating these practices, you’re not just reacting to hindrances as they arise but actively creating a lifestyle that reduces their emergence, supporting a smoother and more focused spiritual path.

Embracing the journey beyond hindrances

Navigating beyond the five hindrances opens up a path of deep transformation and spiritual growth. It’s not just about overcoming obstacles but about using these experiences to enrich our journey. Applying the lessons learned — like mindfulness and compassion — to our daily lives transforms challenges into opportunities for personal development.

Living by these principles brings a profound change in how we relate to ourselves and the world, fostering meaningful relationships and inner peace. Embracing this journey and the practices that come with it leads us toward a more mindful, enlightened life.

Read more: We asked Buddhist monk Ajahn Achalo and Buddhist teacher Dr. Miles Neale what being a Buddhist means to them. Read their inspiring and personal answers.

Buddhist five hindrances FAQs

What are the 5 hindrances to nirvana?

The five hindrances — sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt — act as obstacles not only to mindfulness but also to achieving nirvana, the ultimate state of liberation and freedom from suffering in Buddhist philosophy. By working through these hindrances, practitioners can move closer to the peace and clarity that nirvana represents.

Do I spend too much time on social media (sensual desire) which is a way to avoid studying (aversion)?

Spending excessive time on social media can be a form of sensual desire, seeking pleasure in distractions, and may also indicate aversion to tasks like studying. Recognizing this pattern is the first step towards addressing the underlying hindrances of sensual desire and aversion (a form of ill will towards unpleasant tasks).

What did the Buddha himself advise on their use?

The Buddha advised that acknowledging and mindfully working through the hindrances is essential for spiritual growth. He taught various meditation techniques to observe these mental states without attachment, understanding their impermanent nature, which allows practitioners to overcome them.

How can the five hindrances impact meditation practice?

The five hindrances can significantly disrupt meditation practice by causing the mind to become distracted, lethargic, agitated, doubtful, or desirous of sensory experiences. Recognizing and addressing these hindrances as part of meditation practice can lead to a deeper and more focused state of mindfulness.

How can I identify and overcome the five hindrances in my meditation practice?

Identifying the hindrances involves becoming aware of them as they arise during meditation, and observing their effects without judgment. Overcoming them can be achieved through targeted meditation practices, such as loving-kindness for ill will or mindfulness of breathing for sensual desire, which helps to cultivate the opposite qualities and reduce the power of the hindrances.

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