Why is it so hard to be good?

Posted by

sketch of face by stephanie nobleAs a world community, we have well-established rules of non-harming, most of which conform to some version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet we just can’t seem to help ourselves from causing harm to ourselves and others, knowingly or unknowingly.


Once again, as we did when exploring Generosity, we can use the Five Hindrances (in bold face below) to discover why we stumble when it comes to behaving in an ethical manner, as laid out in the Five Precepts, the Buddhist rules of non-harming we discussed in the previous post. (Quick Review of 5P’s: Don’t kill or maim, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t miuse your sexuality and don’t get intoxicated.)

Sensory desire, the first of the Five Hindrances, can trip us up in all of the Five Precepts.

When we lust after something we may become single-minded in our pursuit of it. We might mindlessly or ruthlessly harm someone, especially if they look delicious, or are keeping us from the object of our desire.

In that state of desire we might take what is not freely given. And we might lie to get it.

Lust obviously can lead to misuse our sexuality. In that moment, the hormones are all fired up and the voice of reason is like a whisper in the background, easily ignored.

Intoxication is sensory. If we like how it makes us feel, we will have a sensory desire to get high.

Aversion and hatred could cause us to feel justified in killing, harming, stealing, lying, misusing sexuality, and to treating that difficult feeling with drugs or alcohol.

Restlessness and worry prompt harmful behavior in different ways. But both of them cause a distortion in our thinking that might lead to harmful behavior.

Feeling restless might push us to seek out risky behavior that puts ourselves and others in harm’s way. Worry might prompt us to lash out in fear at one extreme, or just drive those around us crazy and cause ourselves ill health.

Worry about finances could lead to lying to ourselves that it’s okay to cheat on taxes, take from a ‘faceless’ corporation or even steal from an employer or family member who trust us with their finances.

That would certainly lead to lying to others to cover up our misdeeds. Restlessness could take to lying just for the fun of fabricating alternate realities. If not identified as creative story-telling, then it’s just lying.

Restlessness could lead to using our sexuality in a careless casual way that is harmful to others and ultimately ourselves.

Both restlessness and worry could cause us to seek intoxication, to settle ourselves or forget our concerns.

Sloth and torpor are states that make any action unlikely, ethical or unethical. But the states themselves are harmful to our well being and that of people who live or rely on us.

In the fog of those states it would be difficult to discern ethical action. It would be easy to make false excuses to cover up our behavior, and perhaps alluring to further lose oneself through drugs or alcohol.

Doubt might make us question whether these principles of non-harming are worth following.

Or we might doubt whether we have the fortitude to follow them or whether we are are intrinsically unethical, given our past actions.

Doubt sabotages our intention and commitment, so it sets us up for unethical behavior of all kinds.


Using the Hindrances to look at areas of behavior, we can become clearer on where we need to develop stronger intention around non-harming. We can learn from our mistakes. For example, if you are driving and you feel aggrevated by the traffic or some other driver’s behavior, notice how aversion arises. Notice how that aversion might cause you to do something potentially harmful, purposely not letting them into your lane or tailgating at a dangerous distance. Have you ever been in a heated argument and felt so angry that you jumped in your car to get away? Yes these Hindrances can really cause us to use incredibly poor judgment and put ourselves and others in harm’s way. We can so easily forget that we are at the helm of a heavy duty killing machine.

If you don’t notice dangerous driving in yourself, I am quite sure you’ve noticed others driving irresponsibly. Next time you might wonder if that person driving too fast is restless, worried they’ll be late or lusting after the sense of speed and power? Going too slow? Sloth, torpor, worry, aversion, doubt? Can you develop some compassion for them? They could be going through something very difficult in their lives right now. Send them metta, infinite loving-kindness, and steer clear of them, of course.

Remember that the Hindrances are not personality traits. They are obstacles to mindfulness that arise in our experience and cloud our judgment. Don’t get attached to any of them. Don’t claim them as your own. They descend on us all from time to time, some more than others maybe, but they are just a part of being human. Even if a parent or teacher described you as ‘lazy’ or your spouse calls you ‘a worry wort’, these are not who you are.

Knowing this makes it easier to see the Hindrance when it is present. Then give yourself some loving-kindness and set an intention to cultivate spaciousness to see the obstacle in perspective. We’re not pushing anything away. We are learning how to see and hold all that arises in our experience with clarity and compassion. Through the regular practice of meditation, your ability to see clearly and compassionately will strengthen. It won’t make the Hindrances disappear. But when you can see them at play, that clarity reduces their impact. Mindful in every moment, the wise intention to do no harm can more easily become wise action.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s