5 habits of mind that tend to make life harder
Not a day goes by without encountering disappointment or frustration.
A small example: You just put the pen down and you can’t find it.
A less than minor example: Your computer is crashing.
A major example: Due to poor health, you cannot travel to meet a new grandchild.
The five obstacles
In Buddhist philosophy, there are five clumsy reactions to life’s challenges. They’re called obstacles because they get in the way of your ability to see clearly how to act so you don’t make things worse for yourself or others. Whenever you feel stressed and uneasy, it’s usually because you’re caught in the web of one or more of these obstacles. They often become habits of mind, which means that each time you react in one of these five ways, the obstacle becomes stronger and you are more likely to react that way in the future.
I will use a crashing computer as an example of obstacles in action. Here are five ways to respond to this adverse event.
1. Seek solace in sensual pleasure
This obstacle refers to any sensual pleasure you engage in in the mistaken belief that it will make you happy by allowing you to forget about your difficulties. And so, you avoid your computer problem by turning to something enjoyable, like eating ice cream or putting on reruns of your favorite TV show. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having fun this way. They only become a problem when that behavior avoids something that needs to be fixed, in this case, your computer.
2. Get angry
Anger arises when you believe that people or things should be other than they are. You feel like the world is treating you unfairly because your computer shouldn’t be giving you trouble. But computers sometimes do, regardless of your IQ. Anger ranges from mild irritation to such rage that you throw your computer against the wall, ensuring that it will stay “broken”.
3. Become apathetic
This obstacle is often called torpor or lethargy. You tell yourself that it’s too much effort to take care of a computer that doesn’t work. This obstacle is another way to avoid what you know you have to do. So you’re like, “Forget it; I just go back to bed. Unfortunately, when you get up, your computer will still be “asleep”.
4. Feeling uncomfortable and worried
This obstacle includes the tendency to spin out worst-case scenarios, even if you don’t have the facts to back them up: “My computer is beyond repair”; “I will never recover my data”; “My partner will call me incompetent because my computer broke down.”
Worst-case scenarios are unlikely to occur. Maybe all your computer needs is a reboot (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Unfortunately, you are so busy planning a future full of computer misfortune that it never crosses your mind to try a number of simple solutions.
This obstacle manifests as a lack of confidence in your ability to solve life’s challenges. You feel as if you are not competent to deal with any computer problem. You blame yourself for crushing it in the first place. This type of thinking keeps you from focusing on how you might fix your computer, something everyone needs to do from time to time.
The attack of multiple hindrances
You may have recognized your own reactive tendencies in one or more of these five obstacles. People tend to “specialize” in one, depending on the habits they have formed over their lifetime.
It’s also not uncommon for more than one obstacle to arise in response to things not going your way. Buddhist teachers lightly call this a “multi-hindered attack.” You may be swallowing this ice cream to avoid fixing your computer and be angry with yourself and worry about what will happen with it and doubting your ability to solve any problem in life. Lo and behold, four of the five obstacles are working together, making you more and more miserable.
Respond skillfully to obstacles
The first step to changing these habitual reactions to things that don’t go your way is to realize that they happened. This is a mindfulness practice. For me, it is useful to keep in mind a list of five obstacles. Identifying which obstacle has appeared helps because it prevents it from escalating. In fact, bringing it back to consciousness can dispel it completely because, for example, you will see that neither anger nor worry will fix this computer.
The second step is to disidentify from the obstacle. By this I mean that you can lessen his hold on you by seeing him as a temporary (albeit unwelcome) visitor in your mind, as opposed to a permanent resident. Remember that these are simply mental states that come and go in response to not being successful. For example, try reframing how you’re feeling like, “My computer crashed, I’m angry and worried, but these reactions won’t help me solve the problem.”
The third step is to treat yourself kindly by acknowledging that these reactions do you no good. When life is not in line with your desires, what is needed is self-compassion, not blame. Cultivating self-compassion tells you that you care about your suffering, and it calms your mind so you can see more clearly what steps you could take to make things better.
Not a day goes by that we don’t feel frustrated at not succeeding. i call it want/don’t want spirit. I to want find that pen I just put down; I do not want to my computer crashes. The thing is… life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. When this happens, it helps to recognize which of these five unskillful reactions have occurred, and then counter them with mindfulness and self-compassion.
You might also find this helpful: “Complaining constantly: does it serve us well?”
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