I often see patients in my psychotherapy practice who are unable to make changes in their life and do not understand why they keep sabotaging their efforts. Usually this is due to a hidden resistance or unwholesome belief associated with the desired change. There are five hindrances that I’ve found to be particularly common in the experience of resisting needed or inevitable change: the hindrances of wanting, illusory thinking, sleeping mind, restlessness, and doubt. You may experience more than one of these resistances at a time, and their remedies can overlap somewhat, but I find recognition of them very helpful for understanding how to replace the negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations that can keep us stuck in an unwholesome mind-set.
Here is a brief explanation of each hindrance along with a remedy to help you shift the unwanted emotion and thoughts. In my book, Wise Mind, Open Mind I discuss these resistances in more detail along with a specific mediation to augment each remedy. I always encourage my patients to include a mindful meditation practice to enhance their efforts.
Hindrance #1: Wanting Mind
Wanting mind has the qualities of grasping or clinging. We cause ourselves suffering when we ache for something that lies out of our grasp or cling in vain to something that has already passed away. In wanting mind, we feel that our current state of unhappiness could be cured if only we could have the money, job, relationship, recognition, or power we had and lost, or never had and strongly desire. Sometimes, wanting mind involves tightly holding on to something negative: an unwholesome belief about how things ought to be or should have been, or an unwholesome emotion such as anger, sadness, or jealousy. We also often suffer when we get what we think we want and suffer when we don’t get what we want, a paradox to explore.
The real antidote to suffering marked by the quality of wanting is not to achieve a temporary panacea but to experience satisfaction in this moment, exactly as it is. Only by experiencing satisfaction right now can you open yourself up to the type of creativity that will help you see what you have to do to bring about better circumstances. Click on the link to listen to the Satisfaction Meditation to help you with this remedy. This is from my Meditations for Creative Transformation CD.
Hindrance #2: Illusory Perfection
Sometimes we dearly wish to hold on to a chimera: the illusion of perfection. You’ll cause enormous suffering for yourself if you feel entitled to lasting satisfaction with every aspect of life. Thinking about what you “ought” to have achieved or acquired, you may become angry, frustrated, sad, or confused, wondering what went wrong. You may also find yourself feeling envious or jealous, thinking that the only thing standing between you and the perfect relationship, financial situation, career, or happiness is someone else.
The remedy for this hindrance is acceptance and clarity about the impermanent nature of your experiences. To release the negative thoughts about your entitlement to perfection, you must let go of the idea that perfection is a set of unchanging, external circumstances that you find pleasing in every way. Every moment, no matter how perfect, must fade into the past. Another such moment can’t occur until you let go of the hindrance of illusory perfection that keeps you locked in suffering. The remedy is to accept whatever’s happening in the present moment.
Hindrance #3: Sleeping Mind
Depression and ennui spring from the hindrance of “sleeping mind,” which is marked by the qualities of drowsiness, sluggishness, fatigue, laziness, apathy, and malaise, or torpor. A major part of depression is the lack of energy or motivation to get out of bed, to do what needs to be done without procrastinating or giving in to the feeling that there’s no point in taking action.
The remedy for sleeping mind is vitality, which is experienced in the body as well as in the mind. Vital thoughts and feelings arise when you awaken your body. To start remedying this hindrance, be mindful of any physical causes for your sluggishness, from a poor diet to a lack of exercise and sleep, and even allergies and intolerances to substances in your food and environment. Also stress and the powerful emotions of anger and sadness can create physical fatigue, which destroys motivation to move physically and leads to depressive thoughts and emotions. Exercise actually alters the body’s chemistry, making it easier to let go of unwholesome states of mind and replace them with wholesome ones. The traditional Taoist and Buddhist walking meditations focus on the slow process of putting one foot in front of the other and being mindful of the shifting sensations as you propel yourself forward.
Hindrance #4: Restlessness
On the surface, restlessness may seem like a positive state, because it inspires you to keep moving instead of becoming stagnant. Creative artists talk about having an “itch” or urge to get back into their music or art studio. What they’re describing is a form of creative motivation that’s quite different from restlessness. They’re referring to a discomfort with being distracted and unfocused, and a desire to enter a focused, creative state. Restlessness is most often simply undirected, unproductive action, such as puttering or flitting about from one activity to the next, never completing a task.
The hindrance of restlessness can be remedied with comfort and relaxation. Generating a feeling of comfort allows the mind’s frenzied activity to slow down, and triggers the sympathetic nervous system to begin releasing calming hormones into the body and slow your heart rate and breathing. A mindfulness meditation practice is particularly helpful in shifting restlessness.
Hindrance #5: Doubt
The hindrance of doubt has the qualities of skepticism, cynicism, confusion and pessimism. But unlike pessimism, doubt at least leaves some room for the possibility of positive change. Cynicism and pessimism only provide an illusory sense of power for a short time. There can be no true joy or contentment in believing that what lies ahead will, in all certainty, generate more suffering.
The remedy for doubt is curiosity, appreciation of the mystery of life, and resolve, all of which are intertwined. Acceptance and wonder at the mystery, coupled with the resolve of acceptance, allows you to minimize the suffering of a loss. No one likes losing something of great value, and you don’t have to believe the loss was meant to be part of a divine plan, although some may find that belief comforting. What’s absolutely necessary is acceptance and the resolve to move forward with an open mind, believing that positive people, opportunities, and situations will show up in your life again.
Acceptance of what’s happening in the moment, and of the current situation, is a cornerstone of positive psychology. The paradox is that this wholehearted acceptance of the present, regardless of how unpleasant or even painful circumstances might be, is absolutely necessary if you’re to change the situation for the better. From acceptance, you move into action allowing resolve and determination to rush in.