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Weekly Blog #42 - What holds us back in life...

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

This article is partially about rediscovering a mental state of focus and happiness that inspires me to do more of what I really want to. It is also about Buddhism and self-mastery - based on an CNBC interview conducted with the Headmaster of the Shaolin Temple Europe.


One of the most important teachings of the Shaolin martial arts culture and philosphy are the “five hindrances of self-mastery.”

"These [five hindrances of self-mastery] are the core mental states that prevent us from seeing clearly, making smart decisions, achieving our goals and living a happier, more harmonious life."

Sensual desire...

Sensual desire is intertwined with pleasure, and it arises when we have a deep craving for something that stimulates one or more of our five senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste). 

What's interesting about this is the fact that there are people who can learn and focus better if they listen to music or a podcast or something that occupies their aural senses. For some the combination of studying maths and listening to classical music works, others enjoy nature sounds while reading and others find focus and a sense of flow in listening to heavy metal.

In most cases, however, the risk of giving in to a sensual desire leads to less useful activities occupying the time that we planned to use on something else. One thing I do is scrolling through social media before sleeping and using up time that's been blocked for reading...

One way of fighting this temptation is to think deeply and carefully about the eventual consequences of succumbing to a sensual desire. The next time it emerges, ask yourself: Will this help or hurt me in the long run? And in what ways?

Ill will...

Ill will is the opposite of sensual desire. It’s the mental state of not wanting something, because of a strong dislike or rejection towards it. It might involve an activity, situation or person. Negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger, frustration) are a natural part of life. But dwelling on them prevents us from moving forward; we just stay stuck in that emotional state.

No matter how much I try to stay positive and have a positive attitude towards the people around me, activities that I don't really like, etc. - I am getting angry and ill-tempered. But I never really ask myself why. There are a few classic excuses like "I didn't sleep well last night" or "I'm hungry and therefore grumpy". These things only feed into the mood, they don't fully explain them.

So instead of ignoring my ill wills, I should rather investigate the roots of it. If you dislike confrontations, ask yourself why. Maybe it’s because you’ve never had success finding solutions to conflicts. Think back to past experiences: What went wrong? What could have been done differently? See this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself by letting go of old ways and trying new ones...

Sloth and torpor...

A state of inaction leads to sloth and torpor - aka laziness and dullness. It’s a result of having low energy and a lack of motivation. Sloth and torpor can also come in the form of defeat, self-pity, thoughts of futility, complacency or even depression.

In Buddhism, it is often described as a form of imprisonment. The more you allow it to control your mind and body, the faster the walls will close in on you. Maybe you’re experiencing it in your career, because you feel unmotivated by the work you do, or you don’t think you’re good enough or don't deserve the position you're in (imposter syndrome).

There's this imminent risk that - if we are not careful with what we chose to do - we are not acting because we want to but because we're told so. However, the need to achieve something and doing something purposeful is deeply embedded in all of us. If we lack motivation or feel exhausted it is not because of what we do but mostly because of what we do NOT do.

If this leads to cognitive hindrances - like the above mentioned feelings of dullness, laziness, self-pity, defeat, etc. - we must identify what led to this mental state. Then we need to remind ourselves of the goals we set out to achieve and what inspired them in the first place.

Start taking steps to push through these "walls of imprisonment"; they can be as small and simple as finding moments to breach out of routines and doing what we want to, reaching out to a mentor or a friend to talk things over or finding moments of mindfulness and meditation.


Restlessness is the result of an unsettled mind. This often happens to people who are constantly worried or anxious about the future, or who judge themselves (or others) for their actions. During times of restlessness, we become more vulnerable to whims and may act in ways that we later regret, thus fueling the hindrance even more. 

I know this all too well. I am the type of person that constantly worries about the future and what I have to do to prevent negative things that could happen... sometimes without even thinking about how low the probabilities are that it ACTUALLY CAN happen. The what-ifs have been a very important part of my professional career. Unlearning this behavior of overthinking is tough, but necessary to find rest and a state of mind that allows for reflection and positivity.

We need to observe your restlessness as it is happening. Our minds might be stirring with frustration over something we regret doing the week before - or something that might or might not happen in the near future. The best way to deal with it is acknowledging that feeling, understanding it - and then letting it go!

Skeptical doubt...

Skeptical doubt leads to uncontrollable hesitation and questioning. You might question your abilities: “Am I capable of doing this?” - “What if I fail?”, or overthink another person's opinion: “He’s not experienced enough.” - “He can't know this.”, or doubt the decisions we make: “Am I doing the right thing?” "What if something bad happens?”. Sometimes these doubts go hand in hand with restlessness.

However, a healthy amount of doubt can actually be quite helpful. It might exist as a sign that you need to take step back to reconsider your options, or it might indicate that something (e.g., a decision or given task) is a violation of your values.

Doubting might lead you to reconsider your actions - from the overall trajectory of your professional or private life down to the very tasks you do and habits you follow on a daily basis. Questions like "Is this necessary?" - "Does it support my goal?" - "Where does this lead me?" - "Am I this type of person?" can be asked to express doubt regarding the bigger picture but also whether or not the extra cup of coffee or another pair of shoes is really a necessary purchase.

However, you should also challenge the doubt in itself: "Does the reasoning behind my doubt make sense?" - "Is there logic to it?"- or is it really just disconnecting you from your goals?


There is no rocket science behind these "five hindrances of self-mastery" - but because they are quite simple, they can be very powerful. Spending a few minutes per day thinking about what we desire and how we can control it, our ill will towards people or activities, the sources of dullness and inaction, the reasons for restlessness and doubt can help to find smaller and bigger things that hold us back from achieving goals we set out to achieve on the way to a happier, healthier and more balanced life.

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