Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness – The Five Hindrances

If you have been practicing the first three Foundations — being mindful of physical sensation and our relationship to the body; noting feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and noting mental phenomena (thoughts and emotions) as they arise and fall away — then you are ready to incorporate the Fourth Foundation, the dhammas, into your practice. The dhammas are described as ‘categories of phenomena which highlight how the different elements of the mind are functioning.’

If you haven’t had a chance to practice, then the following is just information to have available. The Buddha taught these four Foundations in a particular order for a reason. But the teachings are of value no matter what door you enter, and it’s possible that something in this exploration will inspire you to investigate the previous foundations and begin your practice in earnest.

The first of the dhammas is called the Five Hindrances. A hindrance is an obstacle to mindfulness. What gets in our way of seeing clearly, of being fully present?

The Buddha offers one analogy that fits very nicely with our jungle/garden theme from last week’s talk. He talks about a bowl of water, but we can just as easily see it as a pond we come upon in the garden of our mind — a reflection pool that, when mind-garden conditions are calm, is pure and clear. In this state, all is visible: The fish swimming in the pond, the rocks at the bottom of the pond, the reflections of the trees. It is like my husband Will Noble’s painting Reflection, where everything is visible. Look at the painting and see if you see all of what is going on. For more detailed view where you can scroll around, click here. (This won’t work on Apple products.) The painting makes an excellent focus of meditation. Not surprising since it came out of a meditative experience and was drawn and painted with meditative attention over a period of eight months.

Reflection, a watercolor painting by Will Noble


Now the Buddha has us imagine what if into this pond a dye was poured. It would color our view of what is happening, shifting our understanding of current reality. This is how the Buddha described what happens when the first hindrance of sensual desire is present.

Sensual desire might be sexual in nature, but it could be any craving for something we experience with our senses. For example, our eyes might have a sense desire to be surrounded by only the most beautiful things. Our sense of taste might be addicted to sweet, salt or fatty foods. Our sense of touch might want every creature comfort, to be cushioned and cozy and warm. Our ears might crave only the most delightful sounds and be distressed at sounds that seem discordant to our ears.

When noticing sensual desire in ourselves, in whatever form it takes, we might recognize a quality of mindlessness, as if we are being led by something so powerful we forget ourselves. We disempower ourselves through our desires, because we are so limited in what we can tolerate. The ultimate effect is that we enjoy so little of this experience of life!

Stop now and think of a sense desire that is a challenge for you. Find some recent instance of experiencing that sense desire. If nothing comes to mind, delve into the past and remember what it felt like to crave something so strongly. Oh come on, there was at least that overwhelming teenage crush! And remember how the thought of ‘him’ or ‘her’ colored everything in your experience? The desire is usually more painful than pleasurable when the wanting gets so powerful. Everything is interpreted through whether it fulfills our craving or not. All else falls away and we get out of balance. Life has a driven quality, shot through with desperation, helplessness, and sometimes self-loathing.

It is said that much of literature is based on this hindrance. Think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example. Here’s a wonderful quote from that tale of runaway desire:  “Vronsky meanwhile, inspite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.”

“No more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.” Whoa! Now that’s a cautionary tale — one that we have all told ourselves over and over again in our own lives after each experience of craving, consuming and then sitting with the resulting emotions and thoughts. Being mindful, being present to savor each moment as it is, helps us to actually learn it!

For the second hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool boiling. This bubbling boiling quality represents aversion, often experienced as anger or hatred. You can physically feel the boiling quality of being really angry.

In this mind state, when the water is boiling, can we see anything else but the bubbles?  No. We can’t see the rocks, the fish, or the reflections that are present in the calm pool. We are just focused on the bubbles, the aversion, the anger, the hatred. It is all consuming. It is the only thing that exists.

For the third hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool filled with algae, stagnant and without movement. This hindrance is sloth and torpor. What great words to describe a sluggish mental state, but the experience of them is debilitating. If we spend long enough on the couch, the easy chair or the bed, there will be insufficient oxygenation to be healthy. Our mind and body shuts down. Life is too much bother. Nothing excites us. The Buddha would no doubt ascribe this state to anyone suffering from depression.

For the fourth hindrance the Buddha has us imagine wind on the water, creating a lot of ripples and obscuring whatever is beneath and making it impossible to see any reflection. This is the hindrance of restlessness and worry. When we feel restless or worried we can’t be mindful of the present moment. We are glued to the future time of our imagination, eager or dreading.

For the fifth hindrance the Buddha asks us to imagine the water being muddy, obscuring our view. This represents doubt. We stir up the silt of the pond with our doubt. In relation to the practice of meditation, we might doubt our ability to do this. Everyone else seems so into it, but our mind is all over the place. Or we might doubt the teacher’s ability to teach or the teachings themselves. This is not just healthy questioning and exploration, but a habituated state of doubt, muddying up our minds. We might also see where in our life we are stymied by doubting our self-worth or our ability to do something that everyone else has told us we are quite qualified to do.

In our analogy of the jungle-garden, we can ponder this pond. As we do we might recognize one or more of the Five Hindrances that keep us from being fully present in the moment, fully mindful. When we become mindful for even a moment, we can check in and notice our mind state. We can think of the quality of that mind state and recognize how it is obscuring our view of things.

We might notice the one, or ones, that come up most often for us: Sensual desire, Aversion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Worry, or Doubt. This is not to label ourselves or get attached to yet another aspect of identity. It is a way to help us to recognize tendencies so that we can see them as they arise. Just as we learn where in our body we have a tendency to carry tension so that we can go there and release it as needed.

If we recognize these mind states, we are being mindful. That’s cause for celebration, not for judging ourselves for having a mind state that is universally experienced by all of us at one time or another, to one degree or another. Mindfulness is that radiant light that has the capacity to dissolve obstructions.


A silent retreat is ideal for creating the opportunity to notice all of what goes on in the mind with few distractions and responsibilities. If we set the intention to be present, anchored by physical sensation, and the paired intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others, then we create conditions to notice these hindrances. At that point we do not try to banish the hindrance, because that just creates more turmoil in the pond of our mind. Instead we just note it, simply recognize it.

Recognition without judgment is key. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, he was able to deflect the tempter Mara by saying with compassionate awareness, “I see you, Mara. I know you.’ We too are able to see and know these hindrances for what they are. We can say, ‘Ah desire, I know you.’ or ‘Ah aversion, I know you.’ or ‘Ah sloth and torpor, I know you.’ or ‘Ah restlessness and worry, I know you.’ or ‘Ah, doubt, I know you.’ That recognition is mindfulness in action! It is the bright light of awareness that is all that is required to dissolve all suffering and nurture all joy.

One thought on “Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness – The Five Hindrances

  1. Pingback: There’s an app for that! | STEPHANIE NOBLE

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