Digging for your Authentic Self: Seeing Obstacles

All kinds of things can pull you in the wrong direction. Before we can navigate those obstacles in the path to our authentic self, we have to see what they are. These obstacles are like knots because they tie us up and obstruct our freedom. There are six different types of obstacles: desire/craving, aversion/anger, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, doubt, and delusion.

“Don’t carry your mistakes around with you.  Instead, place them under your feet and use them as stepping stones to rise above them.” Anonymous

If you prefer to listen

All kinds of things can pull you in the wrong direction. Before we can navigate those obstacles in the path to our authentic self, we have to see what they are. These obstacles are like knots because they tie us up and obstruct our freedom. There are six different types of obstacles: desire/craving, aversion/anger, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, doubt, and delusion.

Let’s consider the example the Buddha used, a pool of clear water that reflects our image. He said:

When desire is present in the mind, it is as if the pool were suffused with the colored dye. Desire colors our perceptions. When aversion is present, it is like boiling water. We can’t see clearly. When we’re heated up by anger, we’re in the state of turbulence. Sloth and torpor are like the pool overgrown with algae. There is a stagnation of mind to prevents us from seeing clearly. Restlessness and worry are like water when it is stirred up by the wind. The mind is tossed about by agitation. And doubt is like muddy water, where we can’t see to the bottom, and everything is obscured.” 

We often think we see clearly, but our perceptions are distorted by who we think we are. So even when we want to change, we hold onto that image and unconsciously work against the changes we want to make in our lives. It is pretty easy for us to fall into unconscious patterns to soothe ourselves, even when we know those habits are pulling us off the path to our authentic self.

Let’s take a look at the obstacles that derail us to become more aware of their arising. The quicker we become aware of the barrier arising, the better chance of making skillful choices before our prefrontal cortex goes offline. When the prefrontal cortex goes offline, we fall back on habits that have not worked for us in years. Instead of blindly reacting in habitual ways, we want to look at the routine to see if it is getting us what we thought it would.

Desire, the Wanting Mind

There are two types of desire: a longing that is meaningful and healthy; and a longing that ties us up in a knot. Desires that take the edge off our suffering by distracting us are often not healthy. The first thing we want to notice is whether the desire is healthy or ties us up in knots. With healthy desires, we can hold them lightly.  With unhealthy desire, we get rope burn. And if the desire is powerful, we become addicted. We are not pushing the desire away; we are trying to get beneath the story to understand it.

 A craving comes out of the stress of unmet needs.  We have fewer dopamine receptors, so we seek rewards from substitutes.  To lessen the strength of the craving, we need to look deeply.  I used to have powerful cravings for Diet Pepsi.  The urge was so strong to have one at lunch that I would, even though I knew I would be dying to go to the bathroom before my next meeting ended.  Trying to resist the craving just made it more robust.  Instead of turning away and trying to ignore the urge, I turned toward it.  I asked the question, what desire is being fulfilled by this craving.  The desire was a sense of belonging.  When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a “big kid” who could stay up and have pop. 

Then I started being mindful when I did drink Diet Pepsi.  I noticed that the first sip or two tasted delicious and was refreshing.  But after that, I would think about how it was not good for me.  And sometimes, after the first few drinks, it did not taste that great.  Soon I found I could replace the Diet Pepsi with a V8 or an ice tea.  Once I started doing that, the cravings reduced themselves so that I only had a craving for a Diet Pepsi less than once a week.  Now I don’t have any desire for Diet Pepsi as I’m not too fond of the taste or the way my stomach feels after drinking one. When I stayed with the uncomfortable, unpleasant, or difficult feelings, I weakened the hold that the craving had over me.

Pleasant experiences trick us because the anticipation looks so much better than the actual experience.  We fall into the trap of “if only” mind: “If only I could have this,” or “If only I had the right job,” or “If only I could find the right relationship,” or “If only I had the right clothes,” or “If only I had the right personality, then I would be happy.” We always want something more.

Aversion, the Not Wanting Mind

Habits of aversion manifest as frustration, annoyance, impatience, anger, or judgment. We feel as if we’re defending ourselves, resisting a threat, or protecting ourselves from something that will harm us. Often, we’ll feel tightness, tension, contraction, agitation, heat, or other “fight-or-flight” sensations. The accompanying thoughts or beliefs in our minds may urge us to act in a way that will change this unpleasant situation or experience.

When we experience aversion, we strike against the experience, pushing it away and rejecting it. Most of us add to the pain or disappointment by repeatedly telling ourselves the “woe is me” story. At this point, it is not the disappointment or pain that is making us unhappy that is in the past.  It is the story we are repeating and the judgments we are making in the present moment.

But there’s a world of difference between the wisdom of discernment and the aversion of judgment. Discernment tells us, ‘When I insist on having things my way, my partner withdraws and becomes cold and distant.’ Judgment says, ‘Wanting things my own way means I’m selfish—a bad person.'” Tara Brach

Aversion struggles to get rid of something while letting go of the story allows it to fade into the background. We only pretend we let go of things we push away.   If we don’t accept that this is reality and feel it fully, we cannot let it go. Even when our anger is justified, we can let go if we can accept it and feel it. By letting go, we don’t let anger consume us. Sometimes this is hard because the anger feels good in the short run.

When we are angry, frustrated, or annoyed, our aversion contracts us and puts blinders on us so we don’t see all the skillful choices we could make. We can spend countless hours imagining what we’re going to say the next time we see that so-and-so. The angrier we are, the more likely we are to either shut down or bulldoze ahead, shutting down any opposing views.

You may get angry very easily. Because the seed of anger has been watered too often in the past. When you begin to cultivate the energy of mindfulness, the first insight we have is that the main course of our suffering, of our misery, is not the other person. It is the seed of anger in us.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Restlessness & Worry

Sometimes we feel like we have ants in our pants.  With this restlessness, there is agitation, nervousness, anxiety, and worry. We are worried about the future, fretting over the past, or constantly searching for things to do. When we have that feeling of agitation, we bounce around from one thing to the next. We start lots of things but don’t finish them because something else looks more attractive. We are always looking for the next best thing.

When we are restless, we distract ourselves. We space out watching TV, surfing the Internet, or getting lost in doing. We feel that something terrible will happen if we don’t keep moving and getting things done. But actually, what will happen is that we will feel something that we have pushed away.

Sloth & Torpor

I love the words sloth and torpor as they so clearly spell out the physical or mental dullness or sluggishness that we feel.  We have all experienced that feeling of boredom and low energy.

For many people, the pandemic brought feelings of sloth and torpor. All of a sudden, we lacked the constant stimulation that we are used to. When this happens, we feel lazy, dull, foggy, or sleepy. Our minds become unworkable and cloudy.

Sometimes sloth and torpor are due to physical causes such as sleep deprivation, exhaustion, or postprandial coma. If that is not the case, it is due to exhausting ourselves by pushing away unpleasant feelings, beliefs, or thoughts.


There are two kinds of doubt: helpful doubt, where you scrutinize things; and unhelpful doubt, where you are wavering, second-guessing, and getting paralyzed by indecision. With helpful doubt, we use wise discernment to see what is true and make a skillful decision.  With unhelpful doubt, we get on a merry-go-round of excessive skepticism and indecision. With unhelpful doubt, we don’t know which path to take at the crossroads. Thus, we are stuck.

Human beings love certainty.  We would rather have bad news than no news at all.  So, doubt can paralyze us.


Delusion is not seeing reality as it is. Sometimes what we see and hear is distorted by our beliefs and biases.  Other times we have selective perception: we see what we want to see and listen to what we want to hear.  Based on faulty or selective perceptions, we think we see the whole picture when we only see part of it. We often think we can control things that we can’t. We may think pleasant or unpleasant experiences will last forever. When we are delusional, we try to change things from rough or tangled to steady or buoyant.

All you need to do with delusions is see them. To get rid of darkness, flip on the light switch. You don’t have to get rid of darkness.  You will know if it is a delusion because your mind will react with greed or aversion. When we peel off the delusion layers, we find the goodness and love that are always there.

Neutral thinking strips away the bull and the biases, both external and internal. There are more biases in this world than there are fruit flies and gnats combined. They’re everywhere you look, many of them buzzing around your psyche right now. Confirmation bias, selection bias, negativity bias, recency bias, gender bias, optimism bias, pessimism bias— it’s hard to clearly perceive reality when your subconscious is busily prejudging it.” Trevor Moawad

The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau had a name for this state – he called it slumbering through life. As he saw it, we get so caught up in the shams and delusions of the mind that we miss reality – what is happening now and here.

We all experience all of these obstacles at some point in our lives. But some end up on our top ten list of thoughts more often.  Take a few minutes to reflect on which of these are more likely to pull you away from your North Star. Next session, we will discuss how to navigate around these obstacles.

  1. Discovering What’s Important
  2. Charting Your North Star
  3. Mapping Your Route
  4. Seeing Obstacles
  5. Navigating Obstacles