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A Shaolin kung fu master shares the 5 mental states that hold us back in life—and how to fight them

Pictured: Shi Heng Yi, Headmaster of the Shaolin Temple Europe
(Credit: Shaolin Temple Europe)

Our journey to fully understanding our purpose and value in life — or achieving "self-mastery" — begins the second we are born. It requires a commitment to building patience, discipline and self-awareness.

In my journey to becoming Shaolin master, I spent nearly 30 years studying and practicing the interaction between mind and body. This is an essential part of the Shaolin martial arts culture and philosophy, dating back to more than 1,500 years.

One of the most important teachings is the "five hindrances of self-mastery." These are the core mental states that prevent us from seeing clearly, making smart decisions, achieving our goals and living a happier, more harmonious life.

1. Sensual desire

Sensual desire is intertwined pleasure, and it arises when we have a deep craving for something that stimulates one or more of our five senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste). 

Imagine you've been spending the past week practicing for a half-marathon. But on the second week, you are interrupted by a smartphone begging for your attention.

You give in and end up scrolling through your social media feeds for hours. The time you had set aside for practicing are now wasted. You've lost track.

Sensual desires aren't always bad. The idea is that any desire (healthy or unhealthy) can easily turn into an obsession or addiction that distracts us from our goals.

Practice overcoming self desire: The only way to truly fight a temptation is to think deeply and carefully about the eventual consequences of succumbing to it. The next time a sensual desire emerges, ask yourself: Will this help or hurt me in the long run? In what ways?

2. Ill will

Ill will is the opposite of sensual desire. It's the mental state of not wanting something, because of a strong dislike or rejection towards it. It might involve an activity, situation or person.

In order to repair a relationship with a friend, for example, you need to sit down and talk about the issues affecting your relationship. But since you hate confrontations, even non-aggressive ones, you avoid having a conversation altogether. And you might continue to do the same with other relationships, too.

Negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger, frustration) are a natural part of life. But dwelling on them prevents us from moving forward; we just stay stuck in that emotional state.

Practice overcoming ill will: Instead of ignoring your ill wills, investigate the roots of it. If you dislike confrontations, ask yourself why. Maybe it's because you've never had success finding solutions to conflicts. Think back to past experiences: What went wrong? What could have been done differently?

See this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself by letting go of old ways and trying new ones.

3. Sloth and torpor

A state of inaction leads to sloth and torpor. It's a result of having low energy and a lack of motivation. Sloth and torpor can also come in the form of defeat, self-pity, thoughts of futility, complacency or even depression.

Maybe you're experiencing it in your career, because you feel unmotivated by the work you do, or you don't think you're good enough.

In Buddhism, it is often described as imprisonment. The more you allow it to control your mind and body, the faster the walls will close in on you. 

Practice overcoming sloth and torpor: As with all hindrances, you must identify what led you to this mental state. Then remind yourself of your goals and what inspired them in the first place. Start taking steps to push through the walls; they can be as small and simple as reaching out to a mentor or doing a walking meditation.

4. Restlessness

Restlessness is the result of an unsettled mind. This often happens to people who are constantly worried or anxious about the future, or who judge themselves (or others) for their actions.

In Buddhism, restlessness is referred to as having a "monkey mind": Constantly jumping from one branch to another, unable to stay focused.

During times of restlessness, we become more vulnerable to whims and may act in ways that we later regret, thus fueling the hindrance even more. 

Practice overcoming restlessness: Observe your restlessness as it is happening. Your mind might be stirring with frustration over something you regret doing the week before. Acknowledge that feeling, understand it, then let it go.

Meditation is one of the most effective ways to overcome restlessness. The point is to clear your mind of compulsive clutter, so that you can find peace and quiet in the present.

5. Skeptical doubt

Skeptical doubt leads to uncontrollable hesitation and questioning. This hindrance can be likened to a tub of water stirred with mud, and placed in a dark room. The lack of light and cloudiness makes it hard to see clearly.

You might question your abilities ("Am I capable of doing this?" "What if I fail?"), or a mentor's advice ("He's not experienced enough." "I know more than he does."), or your decisions ("Am I doing the right thing?" What if something bad happens?").

Practice overcoming skeptical doubt: Doubt can actually be your friend. It might exist as a sign that you need to take step back to reconsider your options, or it might indicate that something (e.g., a decision or given task) is a violation of your values.

The key is to challenge your doubts. Ask yourself: Does the reasoning behind my doubt make sense? Is there logic to it? Or is it really just disconnecting me from my goals?

Shi Heng Yi belongs to the 35th Generation of Shaolin Masters. He is the headmaster of the Shaolin Temple, where he teaches kung fu martial arts and methods to develop unity of the body and mind.

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