What is the meaning of our lives? What is our individual purpose for being here? What can we achieve with the right motivation? These questions are the big ones, and many people struggle with answering them throughout their whole life. Many of them will never find a satisfactory answer. But that journey towards understanding our own value – finding self-mastery – is one of the most important journeys we can go on, even though it may require years of patience, discipline, and introspection.
The reason that it takes so long is that you must truly come to understand the relationship between your mind and your body. You must realize how your emotions and desires affect your behaviour, and balance them in harmony. To do this effectively, let’s look at five obstacles identified by the Shaolin Master Shi Heng Yi that often get in the way of our goals, called the “Five Hindrances to Self-Mastery”. By overcoming these, he says, you can make good decisions, help achieve your goals, and live a happier life. While these teachings are not fully within the realm of kung fu, the underlying message will definitely be helpful to all.
The Five Hindrances of Self-Mastery, by Shi Heng Yi
1. Sensual Desire
Sensual desire is the feeling of craving, pleasure, or lust. When we want something that will stimulate one of our primary senses, like taste or touch, this is the desire that it arises from. Because it is tied in to our underlying, biological brain, denying these cravings can be incredibly difficult, even when they set us back in our goals.
This is the obstacle that knocks us off the healthy eating plan we have been following for weeks, because we catch sight of some candy or other sweets that we can’t resist. It’s part of our nature to want things that taste, feel, or smell good, especially when the alternative is something more difficult to maintain. And in reality, these desires are not necessarily bad – enjoying good things in life is part of what makes it worth living. It’s when those desires become impossible to break, like addictions or bad habits, that they turn into negative traits.
These decisions often end up costing us progress we have made. We lose track of good diets and exercise routines. To overcome these, think about these negative consequences of giving in to such temptations. Think about if it will help you achieve your goals, and how. When you understand the long-term effects, the short-term decisions will become easier.
2. Ill Will
Ill will, also known as aversion or avoidance, is the polar opposite of your sensual desire. It is an active decision to avoid or reject something, because it will cause discomfort or negative emotions. This is the obstacle that prevents us from sitting down for difficult conversations with friends or family, speaking up about your needs in a relationship, or getting up early to go to the gym.
These negative emotions are as much a part of life as the positive ones, and avoiding them entirely is impossible. It’s understandable that we don’t want to experience them more than necessary, but that is not where the issue lies. It is when we dwell on these emotions and get stuck on them that we cannot move forward, and become bogged down with those feelings.
Rather than trying to actively avoid your ill will, think about why it appears. For example, if you don’t like confrontations, try to figure out why – and from there, you can likely figure out better ways to deal with those emotions. Ask what went wrong in the past, or what you fear going wrong in the future. This can help you let go of past anxiety and move forward into a less troubled mindset.
3. Sloth and Torpor
Have you ever been faced with a task, only to find your motivation and energy disappear when you try to start it? That’s the effect of sloth and torpor. While sometimes it can be as simple as a bad day or little sleep, it often shows up as habits or conditions like self-pity, self-criticism, defeatism, complacency, and depression.
Modern society has much of this – you may work a job that does not inspire you, and find it hard to get rolling each morning. You may feel like you’re not skilled enough to be doing what you’re doing, or feel like you will never advance even if given a chance. This form of mental “imprisonment”, to use the Buddhist term, can result in a complete isolation from the things you love and want to accomplish, and compound the problem even more over time.
So how can you overcome this? Identify what triggers these reactions. Why do you feel unmotivated, uninspired, or lost? Remind yourself of your goals and inspirations, and look at the small but important steps that will lead you in the right direction. Once you start making small breakthroughs, bigger ones will come.
An opposing problem to sloth is restlessness: an unsettled mind that can never quite let go of worry, anxiety, or apprehension about current or future events. It makes us acutely aware of what others might be thinking of us. It causes immense stress about all the ways that things could “go wrong”, even when they do not. It makes us unfocused and undisciplined toward our goals. The Buddhist term for this hindrance is having a “monkey mind”, since it is like a monkey jumping between branches of a tree.
The best way to overcome this is to practice meditation. We have written before about how meditation is great for mindfulness and living “in the moment”, without being weighed down by unnecessary thoughts. As you clear your mind, it is easier to focus on your goals, and this can help reinforce the practice in the future.
It is important to recognize that there is no such thing as “thinking of nothing” in meditation. Instead, it is the practice of acknowledging our thoughts, accepting them, and then allowing them to dissipate without affecting our mood or behaviour. As thinking beings, we will always be thinking, and that’s okay. The key is to understand, accept, and release.
5. Skeptical Doubt
This is a hindrance that many people experience in some form or another. Whether it is doubting our own skills, those of others, the probability of a desired outcome, or something else, being constantly skeptical can lead to hesitation, endless questioning, and what some call “choice paralysis”.
Part of this is due to the fact that we will never know every detail about a situation, especially when it affects the future. Waiting for every single piece of information is a losing game, because when have we ever known everything about the decisions we make? We can only do our best with what we do have.
You may question your abilities, capabilities, or advice, and you are likely to wonder about your decisions – like everybody does. Questions like Can I do this? What if I fail? What if _______ happens? are a part of life, and having healthy doubt is part of making informed decisions that align with our own values. But if you find yourself constantly unable to make concrete choices, or that your choices may not always be logical, it could be time to step back and analyze your reasoning.