Digging for your Authentic Self: Identifying Your Obstacles

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.

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.”  The Buddha

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 will not make a skillful choice. 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.

Which is what I have kind of been doing with chocolate.  When I feel blah, like I need something, I go for chocolate. I have been paying attention: enjoying the chocolate while I eat it, savoring it because it is so good.  I don’t eat it while I am reading because I may not be aware of tasting it. Then I notice how I feel afterward to see if the chocolate really made a change to how I feel. Until I see that chocolate did not make a difference, I am not going to change it. I have 60+ years of strengthening the neuropathway: “Don’t feel good, eat chocolate.” It will take some time to build up the neuropathway of digging to see what I really need instead of covering my discomfort up with chocolate.

Desire, the Wanting Mind

There are two types of desire: a longing that is meaningful and healthy – wanting to grow in love, understanding and compassion, wanting connection. The other type of desire is not so healthy because it is a longing or craving that ties us up in a knot. These desires that take the edge off our suffering by distracting us are often not healthy. They cover up our discomfort. They don’t really make us happy. If we focused on the meaningful and healthy desires, we would not have the need for the not so healthy desires. It is unrealistic to think that all our desires will be healthy in the near future. So we have these other desires that make us feel good in the moment. At breakfast, I have been saying, “ May I not use food to cover up boredom, loneliness or emptiness.” Hopefully if I keep saying that to myself, I will start paying attending when those feelings arise, and not reach for food.

The first thing we want to notice is whether the desire is healthy or tying us up in knots. Going out into nature is probably healthy. But if you are neglecting your responsibilities to spend all your time in nature, it is not so healthy. So it is not  the desire itself that is healthy or unhealthy. It is our reaction to the desire. Is that tying us up in knots? Are we feeling our body tense? Are we thinking I really need this? Or is it a desire that is more open and spacious?

With healthy desires, we can hold them lightly.  I don’t feel like I have to rush out and do something right this minute. With unhealthy desire, we get rope burn. We are trying to hang on so tight. And if the desire is powerful, we become dependent: binge watching shows, doom scrolling, reading, shopping, being busy. Or we become addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, etc. When you feel that I have to, that is the unhealthy desire.  That desire is simply to cover up your discomfort.

When you feel that desire, you don’t want to push it away because it will just pop up another time and you will be playing whack-a mole. What you want to do is get beneath the story to understand it. What is the story, what am I feeling? What am I believing? What is making me uncomfortable that I want to cover up? I have been asking myself that in my sits lately because I have not wanted to sit. I’ve been asking myself “What is it that I don’t want to be with?’ We don’t push the desire away. We sit with it and look underneath it so we understand what is going on that is causing me to desire this.

We practice the same way we change a habit according to Judson Brewer. Look at what the trigger is, what the behavior is, and what the reward that you are really getting is. Over time, I will see whether I am really getting a reward  from chocolate. When I see what is get from chocolate is not what I need, then I will have the motivation to dig down to see what I really need.

Men are not free when they’re doing just what they like. Men are only free when they’re doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.” DH Lawrence

 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 to see what is this craving trying to cover up. Instead of turning away from the uncomfortable feeling and trying to ignore it, you turn toward it and be with it. What desire is being fulfilled by this craving? And is it really working?

Pleasant experiences trick us because the anticipation looks so much better than the actual experience.  We want to savor pleasant experiences, but not cling to them. 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. We put our defneses up. 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 we think 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. And then we remember the twenty-five other times we didn’t get that we wanted. At this point, it is not the disappointment or pain that is making us unhappy that is in the past.  It is the story of never getting what we wanted that we are repeating over and over. Or the pain of the judgments we are making in the present moment.

Sometimes you have a picture in your mind of how a dinner or a party will be. When you get there it is not like you had imagined. Instead of enjoying it as is, you spend your time trying to make it into something else.

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 . If we just let go of the story allows it to fade into the background. When we have aversion we runinate with all our coulda, shoulda, wouldas.No matter how many coulda, shoulda, wouldas we do, we can’t change the past. We sometimes pretend we let go of things and say everything is OK.

A number of people use the expression “Iit’s all good.” When no, it is not all good. There is some bad and some good. When we say “It’s all good.” We are lying to ourselves. If we are honest, we would say, “There are some things I don’t like, but I can live with it.”  

If we don’t accept that this is reality and feel it fully, we cannot let it go. Many of us cannot accept the reality that we are aging. And if we don’t accept the reality of aging, we can’t let go of the desire to be like we were when we were twenty. We are not twenty anymore, and we will never be twenty again.

Even when our anger is justified, we can let go if we can accept it and feel it. We have talked about that when we talked about RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nuture). I like Admit for the A. Admit that this is your reality in the moment.  If we can admit it and feel it it isnot so scary and it loses its power over us. By letting go, we don’t let anger consume us. Holding onto your anger is like holding on to a hot coal.  You are the one who is getting burned. Sometimes this is hard because the anger feels good in the short run. When you are angry at someone and you yell at them, it feels good in the moment. It feels strong. If you are mindful afterwards, you often experience regret.

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, ignoring 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. We need to get rid of some of this pent up energy we have.  We could lengthen our exhale and exhale some of that restlessness. We think we have to do, do, 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.

Sometimes in life we start to do something that we know would be good for us, but then we stop because something else looks better to do. Instead of meditating, I should go for a walk or I should exercise, or I should read this book on mindfulness. We find all these other things that  look attractice, but we never get any farther because we are all wound up. 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 below the line.

Sloth & Torpor

Sloth and torpor are not enough energy so we can increase the length of our inhale to bring in more energy. 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 the postprandial coma that comes with overeating. If that is not the case, it may be due to exhausting ourselves by pushing away unpleasant feelings, beliefs, or thoughts. When you keep pushing them down, it takes a lot of energy.


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. We ask ourself should I meditate now or would it be better to meditate this afternoon. Since we don’t make a decision, we don’t meditate.  We have actually made a decision by not making a decision. With unhelpful doubt, we don’t know which path to take at the crossroads. Thus, we are stuck, we are paralyzed.

Human beings love certainty.  We would rather have bad news than no news at all.  Sometimes if I don’t know if I am going in the right direction, I don’t want to take a step in that direction because I hate being wrong. So, doubt can paralyze us. If you are doubting that you are on the right path, then you are not going to do it.

Stop and see, this is doubt. It is keeping me from doing something. I should just take  a step in one direction and see how it feels. I can always turn around and begin again.


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. The biggest problem with delusion is that we think we can control things that we can’t. If I could just make my partner/ friend change. We may think that a pleasant experience will last forever so we cling to it. Or an unpleasant experiences will last forever so we feel we can’t handle it (it is never going to be over, it is always going to be awful). When we are delusional, we try to change things that we really have no control over.

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 con’t have to get rid of all the negative things in you, all you have to do is see the delusions. 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 deep down inside of us. That is that digging that DH Lawrence talks about.

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.