Updated: May 12, 2021
Pursuing a life of mastery, whatever the craft, is a long and tedious journey. I’ve discussed this previously in describing the various stages on a path to mastery, but what’s often not explored is the various challenges encountered along the way and how to handle them. If you so choose to step onto a path of mastery, you must understand that there are no shortcuts. You will face many challenges and obstacles and you best come prepared.
The mastery path can be likened to climbing a mountain. But these mountains are not made of rock and ice. The mountains we climb are mountains of the mind. Because of this we must find our own unique way of conquering the mountain, and not depend on other people to show us the way. After all, we must never mistake the knowledge of something, for the experience of it. By stepping onto the peak of your own mountain, you gain all the clarity you need.
These mountains are not made of rock and ice. The mountains we climb are mountains of the mind
However, there are some wise masters who have been on the top of the mountain who are worth paying attention to, so that they may guide us on our journey. These masters are not meant to point us in the right direction, but rather share the various techniques and strategies that aided in the climb. One such master is Shaolin Master Shi Heng Yi who blew me away in a recent TEDx talk he gave, describing the 5 hindrances to self-mastery. These hindrances are things that all of us will encounter at some point along the way and can stall our progress if not dealt with appropriately. To bring meaning and value to your life you need to learn to master yourself, and not let anything hinder your journey.
These 5 hindrances are Sensual Desire, Ill Will/Aversion, Dullness/Heaviness, Restlessness, and Skeptical Doubt. Let’s discuss them in some detail.
The first hindrance refers to the pursuit of pleasure and immediate gratification. We live in an age of abundance which comes with some negative consequences. As Herbert A. Simon says: “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. We can get easily lost in doing things just because they feel good; Netflix, take out, shopping, etc. Sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t so good after all. Keeping our vices in check will keep ourselves focused. This is not to say we should deprive ourselves of life's pleasures, but just understand when it's appropriate to do so, and when it’s time to continue on your way up the mountain.
Psychologists call this experiential avoidance, or actively trying to avoid a certain experience you are having, such as a bad mood, negative thought, or even external danger (such as a pandemic).
Master Shi Heng Yi puts it this way:
“You are climbing the mountain, and it starts to rain. But you don't like rain. You discover the roads are bumpy, but you don't like bumpy roads. In order to cross the river you need to swim. But you don't like swimming. Whatever it is you dislike, it won't make it a pleasant journey”
In order to move forward and stick to your values, sometimes you’re going to have to do things you don’t like doing. It is what it is. As the Navy SEAL’s would say, Embrace the suck.
Dullness of mind, heaviness of body. This is typical when we have amotivation and even depression. We can’t think straight, and we just don’t feel like moving. It's a common occurrence in a pursuit such as this. We are going to get down on ourselves from time to time, and that’s ok. But we must eventually get ourselves out. It is an imprisonment of the mind and it is up to you to break free of its shackles.
It starts with the little things. Just be 1% better each day, whatever that means to you. Eventually it adds up to something great through cumulative growth. When you feel burned out, learn to rest, not quit.
Restless means unsettled. In most cases it means an unsettled mind. In order to cease the endless chatter you need to settle your mind on the present moment. Zen philosophy describes this as the monkey mind. To quiet down the inner monkey, it helps to give it something to focus on. The more we try to resist and change our thoughts and experiences the more agitated our mind becomes. As philosopher Alan Watts put it:
“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone”.
Worriers are people who think about all the variables beyond their control. Alan Watts calls this a “mental wobbling”. They are always in a state of doubt whether they are doing the right thing. They are stuck in a cognitive loop of “can I do this”, “am I ok?”, or “what will everyone else say?”.
This is very similar to the dunning-kruger effect discussed in this previous post on mastery. At some point you must trust your own intuition that you are on the right path. Through this trusting of oneself you gain a sense of self confidence and are able to connect with the goals you set for yourself.
MAKE IT RAIN
How do I deal with these hindrances you might ask. Well, we need to come prepared for battle with proper mental strategies to deal with adversity. Master Shi Heng Yi tells us to make it RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-Identify.
Which of the hindrances are keeping me from moving forward? Do I spend too much time on social media (sensual desire) which is a way to avoid studying (aversion)? Or do you just simply overthink things (restlessness) which leads you to not trust in your ability (skeptical doubt)? Recognize what is currently a barrier for you and start to reduce the noise. The very act of being aware of, and challenging some of your thinking allows you to create some space in which to operate.
This too shall pass. Accept whatever comes up, good or bad. If the situation sucks, no amount of overthinking and worrying will actually aid in moving on and meeting the demands of the challenge. Having a mindfulness practice has tremendously impacted my ability to accept and move on.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Investigate your mental patterns with non-judgement and curiosity. If we keep beating the hammer on things that don’t require that sort of response, we get stuck. You might realize that what you needed was a screwdriver instead!
It's worthwhile to sometimes challenge and question some of our thinking. Why did this particular thought come up? What is going to be the consequence if I remain in this state? Most often if we shine some light on a particular thought or mood and pull on its thread we realize it's unwarranted, and if there is some truth to it, it can be used as a starting point for change.
Why did this particular thought come up? What is going to be the consequence if I remain in this state?
Master Shi Heny Yi suggests you practise this phrase whenever you get lost in one of the 5 hindrances: “I am not the body. I am not the mind. I am not my emotion”. Identifying yourself with a particular thought or emotion can be a trap. Just see them for what they are, just thoughts, just emotions.
We will all face these hindrances at some point during our life and performance. But equipped with the right mental toolbox to deal with adversity we ensure that we keep on climbing to our peak. With this ancient strategy you can navigate the toughest of times. In the wise words of Sir Edmund Hilary who was the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest:
“Its not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”.
Although I have expanded upon, and viewed them through my own lens, these ideas are not mine, but spoken by Shaolin Master Shi Heng Yi. Shaolin is one of the oldest, largest, and most famous styles of wushu or kung fu, blending Zen philosophy and martial arts. Master Shi Heng Yi studies and practices this interaction between mind and body. He has an academic background but he prefers to practice this ancient philosophy. Check out his amazing TEDx talk where he describes the 5 hindrances in more detail.
PS. For a deeper dive into topics like this, be sure to check out my new book - Mind without Mind. Click the image below.