Conquer the Five Hindrances to Self-Mastery with Modern-Day Zen Stories

Jordan Gross

According to Master Shi Heng Yi.

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Many people choose to build their bodies. Only a select few choose to build their minds. “If any of you chooses to climb the path to clarity, I will be happy to meet you at the peak.” To the sound of soothing background music, Master Shi Heng Yi glided onto the TEDx Vitosha stage and relayed this phrase, among many other teachings, to the audience. He equated our search for self-mastery — mastery of our minds and bodies — to that of climbing up a mountain. On our way up this mountain, we’d be forced to overcome some serious obstacles.

Yi introduced these obstacles as the five hindrances to self-mastery, first discussed in the Buddhist practice by the Buddha himself. These hindrances include sensual desire, ill will and aversion, dullness and heaviness, restlessness and an unsettled mind, and finally skeptical doubt.

Yi offers a general and engaging solution to these hindrances in the form of the acronym RAIN. He suggests first recognizing (R) your current state of mind. Then accept (A) who or how you are. Next, investigate (I) about who and how you can become, and finally non-identify (N) by realizing you are not the mind, body, or emotions.

While this recommendation is a plausible start, I would like to address each hindrance and face it head-on. I love to learn by interpreting stories, so I have created a few modern-day zen stories to share with you in order to overcome these five hindrances to self-mastery.

A Grandfather, a Granddaughter, and Two Sick Birds

A grandfather and his granddaughter are walking in the park when they hear the cries of two small birds. They trot over to the birds quickly and are relieved to see they’re not in serious danger. But both birds have injured their wings.

“I know! I’ll take a picture of the bird and post it on Twitter so that somebody will be able to help it. The story is also guaranteed to get a ton of likes!” The little girl said.

“Be patient my dear. I can nurse both birds back to health in due time,” the grandfather said.

“They need help though now!” The girl snapped a photo, and within a few hours handed the bird over to a local vet who responded to her tweet. Her grandfather, however, took the bird home with him.

A week later, the girl followed up to see how the bird was doing. When she arrived at the vet, she was saddened to see that the bird still could not fly. There were too many other animals to get to before fixing the bird.

The little girl’s grandfather on the other hand invited his granddaughter over later that day to see the bird he’d been nursing. But as soon as she arrived at the house, the bird flew away.

The first hindrance to self-mastery is sensual desire, which most often comes in the form of instant gratification. To overcome this, we must focus on patience and delayed gratification. The little girl had good intentions wanting to help the bird as quickly as possible, but sometimes that comes at a cost. Too many people are seeking instant gratification, crowding that space, just like it crowded the vet with animals.

But, with a bit of extra patience and a commitment to delayed gratification, it’s clear that her grandfather was able to heal the bird in the same week the other bird was waiting to be healed. Your sensual desires can often cloud your judgment. Realize that delayed gratification is more meaningful for the mind.

Choosing a Post Work Activity

Jed and Ted were colleagues at a media agency in Chicago, Illinois. They were also roommates. They were both in their 20’s and they were looking to find nice girls to date in the city. Their office offered social activities every Friday, and the two finally decided to partake.

Jed wished to go to the after-hours office beer pong tournament. He urged Ted to come with him too. They were both drinkers in college, they were good at beer pong, and it’d be a good way to find girls who were into the same sort of thing as them. Plus, the alcohol would make them more comfortable talking to people.

Ted, however, wished to go to the pottery-making class. Jed thought he was crazy for wanting to do something he had never done before. He thought he’d make a fool of himself for being an amateur. The boys decided to go their separate ways.

On that Friday evening, Jed had a great time with his work friends at the beer pong tournament. He called Ted after it ended to see where he was, but he got no answer. An hour later, upon stumbling through their front door, alone, Jed was shocked to find Ted talking and laughing with a girl on their couch.

The second hindrance to self-mastery is ill will/aversion, which Jed suffers from in the story. He is quick to seek comfort, and this leads him to stay stagnant in his dating life. Ted however does something outside of his comfort zone and ultimately sees a different result than his friend. By embracing new experiences this risk-averse mindset can be easily conquered.

The Defiant Sloth

Every morning a sloth would wake up with his family to the sounds of fresh fruit dropping on the ground. Each day, he’d plead with his parents to leave their tree and go and get the fruit, but they’d never be up for it. All they wanted to do was hang on by their branches, sleep, and eat whatever was closest to them.

But one day, the sloth woke up early and made his way down to grab the fruit. When his family woke up, they were overjoyed to see all of the new food they had to eat.

Dullness/heaviness or sloth/torpor is the third hindrance. Master Yi describes it as laziness, only counteracted by raising your energy levels. Being a slow-moving sloth is challenging, and it gets extra challenging when the sloths around you don’t have the same attitude as you. But by defying this lifestyle, the sloth was able to get what he desired and help his loved ones in the process. This mindset will only lead to normalcy, and you deserve to live more than a normal life.

The Doomed Fate of the Jumping Jellybean

Two jellybeans loved to jump. One was red and one was blue. The red one jumped only when it felt like the right time to jump. The blue jellybean jumped all the time. They were sitting on a kitchen table jumping when a young girl came over and sat down. The blue jellybean jumped as it always did, and into the girl's mouth, it went. The red jellybean stayed grounded.

Master Yi recommends that the solution to the fourth hindrance, referred to as restlessness or the unsettled mind, is mindfulness and grounding activities. The red jellybean knew when to be mindful of its surroundings. But the blue jellybean was restless, always wanting to continue jumping. The red jellybean displayed the monk mind, while the blue fell victim to the monkey mind. Try to use your monk mind as much as possible to overcome impulses and save yourself from reactive decision making.

The Makings of the Pen and Pencil

A pen and a pencil sat in a room filled with canvases, paint, paintbrushes, clay, and every other art material you could get your hands on. They stood upright, practically floating, with their points just inches from a piece of paper. The pencil was nervous to hit the paper, but the pen was always confident. They spoke just before making their mark.

“I am too afraid to go on. I am never going to make a creation as beautiful as those around us,” the pencil uttered in dismay.

“Just see what happens when you hit the paper, everything is going to be okay,” the pen answered back. And then within seconds, it created a beautiful figure on the sheet in front of it.

The pencil tried its best to hold back, but it too marked the paper. “It’s awful,” the pencil thought. But then, the pencil was flipped upside down, the mark was removed, and the lead point hit the paper to try once more.

The pen and the pencil represent the fifth hindrance, which is skeptical doubt and indecisiveness, versus taking action. Here, the pencil is skeptical of what it can create, but the pen is eager to try. The pen portrays how to overcome the fifth hindrance, by simply being willing to take action. When you take action, as demonstrated by the pencil, you have an opportunity to make mistakes, try again, learn, and grow.

Final Remarks

Master Shi Heng Yi concludes his speech by saying that

“All of our lives are too unique to copy from someone else.”

In order to find more meaning and value, you must heighten your sense of self and understand how to push through what’s holding you back. Once you can do that, you’ll be on your way to the top of the mountain.

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