Obstacles to the Development of Mindfulness

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Obstacles to the Development of Mindfulness

by Paul Garrigan

The topic at a glance

  • The five obstacles (aka 5 hindrances) to the development of mindfulness are: restlessness, mental dullness, doubt, desire, and ill-will.

  • The obstacles to meditation can be our greatest teachers. In fact, we make progress by learning to deal with these obstacles.

  • The goal is not to push the hindrances away but to learn not to identify with them.

Don’t Expect Instant Bliss When You Take Up Meditation

The popular image of meditation is it involves sitting cross-legged in a state of bliss. It is therefore usually a disappointment to discover our mind is more like a raging storm than a tranquil pool when we take up the practice.

Our failure to ‘find our bliss’ right away may lead us to assume we are no good meditation. In fact, what is happening is perfectly normal. The purpose of meditation is to illuminate the mind in order to actually see what is going on in there – this is how we gain insight.

It can seem as if our mind is becoming more turbulent due to meditation, but it is actually a sign that we are developing our ability to see more clearly. As we continue with the practice, the mental storm will start to wane, but before it does, it offers the perfect opportunity to gain a better understanding about our relationship with thinking. We start to see how little control we have over thoughts, and how much of our thinking is counterproductive or useless (this is an important insight).

The key to working with this drifting off into compulsive thinking is not to fight it – this will just make things worse. All we have to do is gently (do it with a smile) bring ourselves back to the object of meditation (e.g. the breath) when we notice we have become distracted. It is a mistake to get angry about drifting off into thinking – by noticing that we have become distracted, the brain is doing exactly what we want it to do.

As well as the inability to remain focused, there are also a number of other challenges we are sure to face when we being meditating. These are known as the five hindrances or obstacles to meditation, and they include:

  • Restlessness.

  • Mental Dulness.

  • Ill-will.

  • Desire.

  • Doubt.

We make progress in meditation by learning how to deal with these obstacles.


Our brains are used to being busy and distracted, and there can be a great deal of resistance to just sitting in meditation. In order to escape this ‘dreadful silence’ we can begin to focus on our pet worries or suddenly it seems vital that we put our book collection into alphabetical order.

Restlessness is something we become better at dealing with as we develop insight. The important thing in the beginning is not to fight it. All we need to do is just gently keep on bringing our attention back to the meditation object. If you just find you are just unable to settle during a particular meditation session, you may find it better to switch to walking meditation for that day.


You have had your desires fulfilled millions of times (e.g. if you desire a cookie, you can probably just go to your kitchen and get one) – how is that working out for you? Fulfilling our desires is like being on a never-ending hamster wheel, but it takes a lot of insight to be willing to give up the chase. This is why one of the ways our thinking brain can try to regain our full attention during meditation is by waving some desires at us. The way to deal with these desires is to see what the brain is doing – once you understand the trick, you are far less likely to be fooled by it.

Sleepiness/Mental Dullness

Most of us are sleep-deprived so it is hardly surprising that we drift off almost as soon as our eyes are shut – the key to this is to get sufficient sleep. The sleepiness we are talking about here is of a different variety though and may be better describe as mental dullness. If you have been startled by a noise while meditating, this is a sign you have fallen into mental dullness.

Mental dullness can occur because of our improved ability to deal with restlessness. This is why it is usually more of a problem for intermediate meditators than beginner meditators (the exception to this is people recovering from drug abuse – see below). By now we have developed the ability to calm the mind, but our brain associates this calmness with going to sleep so it begins to shut down.

Mental dullness can be hard to deal with because it can feel kind of nice – we may even decide that this is the ‘bliss’ we expected to find in meditation. The fact that we are so close to sleep can mean we start to hallucinate, and we may take this as a further sign of our progress. The reality is that so long as the mental dullness remains, we are more or less dead in the water.

Although mental dullness is mostly associated with intermediate meditators, it is also a common problem for those who learn to meditate in early recovery from addiction. This is because their brains are still suffering the effects of the drug abuse is this is often experienced as a type of dullness.

The key to overcoming mental dullness is to increase our attention on the meditation object – i.e. focus on it in more detail. It also helps to remain loosely aware of our surroundings as this gives the brain more to do.


Ill-will is probably the most common reason we fail to reach the deepest states of concentration where we can develop insight. This negativity can be towards ourselves, other people, our meditation practice, and the world in general (often all four). To develop in this practice, we need an open-hearted attitude to life – otherwise, we will keep getting stuck due to our mistrust, resentments, and fears.


One of the nice things about the Hope Mindfulness program is it is experiential and self-confirming. You are not being asked to believe anything. I even warn clients not to trust me but to check for themselves to see if there is any practical value in the things I suggest. Believing in mindfulness or the ‘power of meditation’ probably isn’t going to help you much – it is only doing the practice that can benefit you. I encourage open-minded skepticism as this was a key component of my own journey.

While skepticism is a great attitude, doubt can also prevent us from making progress in meditation. This is because it is one of the ways our brain tries to maintain the status quo, and it is the ability to push through this doubt that allows us to reach the next level.

If you were to launch a new business tomorrow, you would surely have days when you were full of doubt. In order to succeed, you need to push through these doubts.

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