Buddhism teaches five mental hindrances to self-discipline: giving in to the five senses, animosity and malice, apathy and laziness, anxiety and remorse, and hesitation and doubt. The common thread is that they all require immediate and urgent attention, even if it is fabricated urgency. When you are so focused on the now, the later that self-discipline serves becomes wholly unimportant.
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5 Mental Hindrances to Self-Discipline
What blocks us from attaining strong self-discipline? An especially illustrative set of obstacles comes from Buddhist philosophy.
When you think of Buddhism, the world discipline is usually not far away. In fact, discipline is right at the core of Buddhist teachings.
Its tenets emphasize maintaining a sense of control over one’s mind and body as a means to fulfillment. In fact, it preaches that we are naturally endowed with the ability to do what we want and feel happiness at all times. However, we give up those feelings of control to someone or something outside of ourselves; we relinquish our own power to an external force that we perceive has more power. We say “I can’t,” “I shouldn’t,” or “I won’t” far more often than we should. We say it so much that we believe that fighting against these powers is useless, and thus we lose power over ourselves. In other words, when we tell ourselves we have no discipline, it ends up being true.
Therefore, Buddhism teaches that a lack of personal power is illusory. It can be difficult to take that power back, but this, of course, is one of the first steps to self-discipline – believing that it’s possible and within your control.
Part of the process involves knowing exactly how we’re being blocked or prohibited from exercising that control. To that end, there are five areas that cover most, if not all, of the sources of our trepidation in taking control of our lives. If you’re just starting to figure out where your shortcomings in self-discipline exist, these five areas are helpful to start investigating yourself. If you’re a grizzled veteran seeking new methods, these five areas may provide new perspective on familiar issues. Below are the five mental hindrances:
- giving in to the five senses
- animosity and malice
- apathy and laziness
- anxiety and remorse
- hesitation and doubt
Giving in to the five senses. Control over our thoughts is usurped when we are distracted by our physical surroundings. We put too much attention and importance on information from our senses of sight, sound, smell, hearing, and touch – whether it’s physical beauty, the smell of freshly baked bread, a great love song, or a horrible scene of violence. We allow these sensations to overwhelm us and replace our conscious thoughts and goals.
Our senses bring us the most immediate understanding of the external world, and as such, we overstate their importance to us. Many of us only believe in what we can experience with these senses, or we at least allow them to take over our concentration as we seek to gratify ourselves. Sensory information by its very nature is instant gratification. But not everything is beneficial or even deserves our attention.
To attain self-discipline, we need to put sensory information in its proper context: allowing ourselves to indulge in and experience those senses fully but also keeping aware that they are temporary, distracting, and ultimately hindrances.
Animosity and malice. Emotions have the ability to completely override our thoughts of self-discipline, and anger is one of the strongest emotions. People are adept at unconsciously ingraining all emotions adjacent to anger, such as resentment, bitterness, and animosity, into their thought patterns. The destructive power of malice isn’t just about what other people do to us, either – it can also be directed toward ourselves in the acts of guilt or self-loathing. They have the ability to undermine all of our thoughts and render us practically blind in fits of rage.
We obsess over past miscarriages of justice or fairness that hurt us: the ex who broke your heart, the company that fired you for stupid reasons, or the drive-thru restaurant that got your order wrong. These feelings activate our impulse to exact retribution or punish the people or institutions who have “done us wrong.” It’s draining at best and self-sabotage at worst. When you act to address animosity and malice, you certainly don’t address your goals.
Apathy and laziness. The simple act of doing is not usually preferable. Being human takes a lot of work. For many, it’s easier to allow themselves and their bodies to seek an escape from constant mental and physical activity by shutting down and feeling nothing. Whatever it takes to get along in the world is just too much for them to deal with, and the end product is apathy and sloth. This is a mental hindrance you are probably quite familiar with.
Humans tend to enjoy the path of least resistance and will seek it whenever possible. The problem is when this becomes an instinctual course of action, with a corresponding inability to break out of it when necessary.
Anxiety and remorse. Like anger, anxiety has the ability to completely overpower your more productive thoughts.
The previous three hindrances show how one can be immobilized by inner thoughts – but anxiety causes you to be mentally overactive and do too much. Anxiety is the fear of a bad or less-than-perfect outcome leading to agitation and worry, making one become overwhelmed with stress, worry, and then finally remorse after the fact. How can you function if you are crippled with fear? It becomes clear that no action at all is far safer. Self-discipline is relegated to a distant priority compared to safety and security.
Hesitation, disbelief, and uncertainty. Why would you engage in self-discipline if you believe it is all for nothing? For somebody who struggles with doubt, low self-esteem, or insecurity, self-questioning can be a debilitating factor that goes well past the point where introspection remains valuable. “I don’t know if I can do this,” “Am I doing this right?” “What’s the point of this anyway?” “What the heck is this?” – all these questions serve as barriers to disciplined action.
They indirectly call out our reasons for doing anything or raise just enough uncertainty about a given task that you might abandon it without much resistance – the very opposite of what a self-disciplined person does.
Planning and powering past these doubts is a key to restoring self-discipline. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as self-awareness, as you’ll learn in the next section. Though you may be able to solve a couple of your mental hindrances through stopping and pausing, you’ll need to address some deeper, biological issues as well.