Not a day goes by without encountering some disappointment or frustration.
A minor example: You just put the pen down and now can’t find it.
A less than minor example: Your computer crashes.
A major example: Due to poor health, you can’t travel to meet a new grandchild.
The five hindrances
In Buddhist philosophy, there are five unskillful reactions to life’s challenges. They’re called hindrances because they hinder your ability to see clearly how to act so as not to make things worse for yourself or others. Whenever you’re feeling stressed and uneasy, it’s usually because you’re caught in the web of one or more of these hindrances. They often become habits of mind, meaning that each time you react in one of these five ways, the hindrance gets stronger and you’re more likely to react that way in the future.
I’m going to use a computer crashing as an example of the hindrances in action. Here are five ways you might respond to this unwelcome event.
#1: Seeking solace in sensual pleasure
This hindrance refers to any sensual pleasure you engage in under the mistaken belief it will make you happy by allowing you to forget your difficulties. And so, you avoid your computer problem by turning to something pleasurable, such as eating ice cream or putting on re-runs of your favorite TV show. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying yourself in these ways. They only become a problem when this behavior results in avoiding something that needs attending to, in this case, your computer.
#2: Getting angry
Anger arises when you believe that people or things should be other than they are. You feel as if the world is treating you unfairly because your computer should not be giving you trouble. But computers do at times, no matter what your IQ. Anger ranges from mild irritation to becoming so enraged that you throw your computer at the wall, thereby assuring that it will stay “crashed.”
#3: Becoming apathetic
This hindrance is often referred to as torpor or lethargy. You tell yourself that it’s too much effort to deal with a computer that’s not working. This hindrance is another way of avoiding what you know you need to do. And so, you say to yourself, “Forget it; I’m just going back to bed.” Unfortunately, when you get up, your computer will still be “asleep.”
#4: Feeling uneasy and worrying
This hindrance includes the tendency to spin worst-case scenarios, even though you don’t have the facts to back any of them up: “My computer is unfixable”; “I’ll never recover my data”; “My partner will call me incompetent because my computer crashed.”
It’s unlikely that worst-case scenarios come to pass. Maybe all your computer requires is a reboot (I speak from personal experience here). Unfortunately, you’re so busy forecasting a future that’s full of computer doom that it never occurs to you to try any number of simple solutions.
#5: Doubting yourself
This hindrance shows up as a lack of confidence in your ability to solve life’s challenges. You feel as if you’re not competent to deal with any computer issue. You blame yourself for it having crashed in the first place. This type of thinking keeps you from focusing on how you might fix your computer, something everyone has to do once in a while.
The multiple hindrance attack
You may have recognized your own reactive tendencies in one or more of these five hindrances. People tend to “specialize” in one, depending on the habits they’ve formed over their lifetimes.
It’s also not uncommon for more than one hindrance to arise in response to things not going your way. Buddhist teachers lightheartedly call this a “multiple hindrance attack.” You may be downing that ice cream to avoid fixing your computer and be angry at yourself and be worrying about what’s going to happen with it and be doubting your ability to solve any problem in life. And there you have it—four of the five hindrances working together, making you more and more miserable.
Responding skillfully to the hindrances
The first step in changing these habitual responses to things not going your way is to become aware that they’ve arisen. This is a mindfulness practice. For me, it helps to keep a list of the five hindrances in mind. Identifying which hindrance has arisen helps because it keeps it from intensifying. In fact, bringing it into conscious awareness may dissipate it altogether because, for example, you’ll see that neither anger nor worrying will get that computer fixed.
The second step is to dis-identify from the hindrance. By this I mean, you can lessen its hold over you by seeing it as a temporary visitor in your mind (although an unwelcome one), as opposed to as a permanent resident. Remind yourself that these are simply mental states that come and go as reactions to not getting your way. For example, try reframing what you’re feeling in this way: “My computer crashed and I’m angry and I’m worrying, but these reactions won’t help me fix it.”
The third step is to treat yourself kindly by acknowledging that these reactions don’t feel good. When life isn’t conforming to your desires, what is called for is self-compassion, not blame. Cultivating self-compassion tells you that you care about your suffering, and this calms your mind so you can see more clearly what steps you might take to make things better.
Not a day goes by without our experiencing some frustration over not getting our way. I call this want/don’t want mind. I want to find that pen I just put down; I don’t want my computer to crash. The fact is… life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. When this happens, it helps to recognize which of these five unskillful reactions have arisen and then to counter them with mindfulness and self-compassion.