The 5 Hindrances: Overcoming the Obstacles to Meditation

Jun 05, 2021

Anyone that has a continuous practice of meditation will come to realize that there are many obstacles to maintaining a consistent practice. Some days you are overcome with restlessness, other days you are lazy, too tired or simply don’t feel like doing it. While one could find many specific obstacles, generally, there are five obstacles in particular that pose as the greatest hindrances to meditation. These obstacles are:

  • Sensual desire
  • Ill will
  • Apathy and laziness
  • Anxiousness
  • Doubt

These obstacles are known in Buddhist teachings as the 5 hindrances, and it is helpful to be aware of these hindrances so you can notice when they arise in your meditation practice.

Sensual Desire

Sensual desire is simply the obstacle of the desires of the senses. It is often defined as “latching onto thoughts or feelings based on the pleasures of the five senses.” Sensory desire refers to that particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.

We are almost always desiring something. Desiring entertainment, desiring stimulation, desiring rest, desiring pleasure, desiring food and nourishment, and so on. If our desire becomes excessive, and leads to feelings of intense craving, this can distract us from our meditation practice, and make us get up from our seat in search of something more exciting and stimulating.

The essential way to overcome any of these hindrances, including sensual desire, is not to indulge in them, but to become interested in them, and study them.

The antidote to this particular hindrance of sensual desire is to first apply mindfulness and recognize that the hindrance is present. Then we must look at the hindrance, analyze it, make it the object of our meditation, and experience it fully. We can then apply specific techniques such as contemplating the impermanence of the pleasant desire, in order to lessen our attachment to it.

All things by their very nature are impermanent and subject to change. The parts come together, last for a period of time and then they change and transform. You can clearly see this in every form that exists—material objects, friends and family, and even your own body. All are impermanent, compounded, and constantly changing.

This is nothing to be sad about. Impermanence and change are what allow life to be. They are what allow the seed to become a sprout, the sprout to become a flower, and the flower to become compost that nourishes the soil for the next seed.

It is helpful to recognize that things are impermanent and always changing, because it helps us not be so fixated on our desires. Let’s say you get what you desire. Then what? Are you complete, or will another desire come? What if your feelings toward the thing you wanted change? Or what if the thing itself changes? How will it affect you? Does your peace and happiness depend on your desires? On getting what you want? Or can you just relax and appreciate what you have?

Why is it that you desire more things in the first place? What are you hoping to gain from fulfilling these desires?

If you are consumed by desires, shift your attention away from what you are desiring, and look at what is making you feel so dissatisfied. Why are you always wanting something new? Is it unhappiness with your life, greed, peer pressure, addiction? It is only when we get to the root of these desires that we can start to change.

Ill Will

Ill will is to have angry, unkind or destructive thoughts towards someone, though it is also possible to carry these feelings of ill will towards a situation or even yourself. It can make you burn inside and feel you are unable to concentrate on anything else but your destructive emotions. It is usually driven by resentment, jealousy, pride or anger.

This is an extremely powerful obstacle, and the antidote is to reflect on compassion towards others. The reason we have ill will is because we see other people as different than us, as outside of us. We do not see our unity with them or the interconnectedness of all living things.

Reflecting on your own life, you can see that you want to be happy, and you want to avoid suffering. You are not alone in this. Everyone shares this same basic desire, even animals. If we can see beyond our apparent differences and recognize what we have in common, we can see that really there is a shared connection between us and all beings.

Though some beings may not be aware of their interconnectedness with life, and may act negatively from a perception of separation or fear, they are still, in truth, a part of the web of life. See the innocent inner child within them, see the being within that just wants to be loved but may not know how to love. Inquire into their basic nature of being, which is no different from your own innate nature, and allow this to generate kindness within you, and the capacity to forgive and let go.

If we see that others are fundamentally no different than ourselves, we will build compassion towards them, or at the very least we will be empathic towards them. This is how we stop ill will. Equally important, inquire into yourself why you feel ill will towards another. See how this is affecting your life and the life of those around you.

Are you jealous of someone, carrying around anger or holding on to too much pride? If you know what causes your ill will, you will be able to cut it off at the root.

Apathy and Laziness

Apathy and laziness, traditionally called sloth and torpor, make our minds dull and numb, so it is nearly impossible to concentrate when this obstacle is present. The first one makes it difficult for you to arouse any interest; the second makes you lethargic and sleepy. They both make it very hard for you to do any practice.

The antidote for both is simply to refresh yourself and wake yourself up. Go outside and get some fresh air, move your body, take deep breaths, go for a walk, splash water in your face, have a cup of tea. It is up to you how you do it, but you have to wake yourself up and become more alert.

Inquire into what may be causing you to feel this way in the first place. Are you getting enough sleep? Too much sleep? Have you been exercising or have you been sedentary? Are you eating heathy or eating junk food? What is causing the laziness and disinterest? Is it boredom, are you unwell, unmotivated? Discover what the cause of the laziness is and cease the activities and thought patterns that create this state of laziness, and begin doing the things that energize you and inspire you.

It may also be helpful to reflect on the impermanence of life. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. All we have is today. All we have is this moment. Do you want to live in a state of dullness and apathy, or do you want to embrace life and feel alive? Honor and appreciate the time you have and use it wisely for your benefit and for the benefit of all.


Anxiousness, traditionally referred to as restlessness and worry, is when we are feeling tense and irritable. It could be that we are stressed from work, have a lot of responsibilities to attend to, have money problems, are worried about the future, or our mind is just overloaded with thoughts. This obstacle makes you overexcited and emotionally disturbed, and because of this, it makes it difficult to concentrate on anything for any length of time. When you are anxious you are not in the present moment. Your thoughts are either in the past or the future.

The antidote, therefore, is to do something which will bring you out of the overthinking mind and into the present moment. Focus your attention on your breath and take long and deep breaths. Allow the breath to bring you back to your body and to this moment. Feel the sensations in your body or do a body-scan meditation, scanning the subtle sensations that you feel from head to toe. This will relax you and put you in a better frame of mind to continue your practice.

If anxiety is continuously present, inquire into what may be causing your anxiety.

Is it stress, illness, work, lack of money, loneliness or depression? Dig deep and find what makes you anxious. Once you bring the root cause of your anxiety into awareness, then it can start to change.


Doubt arises when we have a lack of confidence in the practice. It could be that we don’t understand why we are practicing, what we should be doing, whether we are doing it right, or whether or not the practice even works. All of these make us wonder if what we are doing is benefiting us, and make us question whether or not we should continue. This can be a big obstacle to practice because it can create a lack of motivation to continue, and can lead to abandonment of the practice altogether.

The most simple and effective way to clear up doubt is to ask questions. Ask teachers in the practice, or ask yourself and try to feel into the truth of your own inner wisdom. Reading books or searching the internet may be helpful, but be careful not to take on any misinformation or to make the task too intellectual.

Basically, to overcome this hindrance we need to gain confidence in the practice and have total trust in it. This can be done through asking questions that clarify our doubts, speaking with or being inspired and assured by teachers that are more experienced than us, or by finding more clarity in ourselves through our own practice.


These are the five primary obstacles to meditation practice. Being aware of these obstacles can be of great help, as when we are unaware of them we are more likely to be under their spell without recognizing it.

The essence of meditation is awareness, becoming more aware of what we have been ignorant of—ourselves, our mind, our actions, life in the present moment, etc. It is the unconscious forces within our minds that influence us negatively and create our unhappiness. By bringing awareness to these forces, they are no longer unconscious, and that very awareness of them begins to transform them. If any of these obstacles are present in your meditation practice, acknowledge them and state to yourself what is present.

For example, when sensual desire is present, state, "there is sensual desire in me." Being aware of what sensual desire is like, you will also be able to notice when there is no sensual desire present.

We have to understand that the obstacles are mental states and, as such, stem from our mind. So, it is no good to blame anyone or anything else if you have an obstacle. You may think it is another person’s fault that you have ill will, that your work is making you anxious or that it is the weather that is making you lazy. All of these are incorrect. It is your mind that is bringing up the obstacle, and so it is only you that can deal with it and overcome it, and the way to do this is through self-honesty, self-awareness, and interest in understanding your own mind.

If you’d like to learn more about meditation or how to start and maintain a regular meditation practice, our Introduction to Meditation course is a great place to start.


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