Barriers in the Way of an Ethical Life

Ethics is a practice, but certain mental habits interfere with it. Overcoming them take effort, but is worth it.

Ethics isn’t just something we know and understand, it’s something we do. As I wrote last week, the ethical life is a practice, aimed at changing our perspective about the world and ourselves so that we can be more accepting of their impermanence and inevitable change, and so more contented and likely to cause harm to ourselves and others.

But this practice is challenging, both because it requires putting in time and effort and because it means giving up habits and values we’re likely quite attached to. Our minds, while capable of extraordinary things, possesse ingrained tendencies that can create a constant undercurrent of unease and obscure our potential for clarity and contentment. Let's examine five of the most persistent and disruptive that interfere with the practices and changed perspectives necessary for achieving an ethical life.

Sensual Craving: This isn't merely pursuing enjoyment, but a grasping for intense pleasurable experiences through sight, sound, taste, smell, and physical sensation. Our attention becomes fixated on external sources of stimulation. The fleeting nature of these experiences breeds a craving for more, leading to perpetual dissatisfaction.

Aversion: An immediate resistance to any experience labeled as unwanted, painful, irritating, or unfamiliar. This internal opposition manifests as anger, frustration, or a subtle mental withdrawal. It narrows our field of perception and makes us reactive.

Lethargy: A heaviness of both body and mind. It clouds our thinking, dampens motivation, and creates an aversion to effort. It feels as if we must push through a haze, making it difficult to remain engaged and alert.

Restlessness: A constant feeling of unease, preventing us from being truly present. The mind flits from thought to thought, seeking distractions or becoming preoccupied with worries and anxieties. We have the urge to be occupied or entertained, unable to find satisfaction with the present moment.

Doubt: This pervasive uncertainty can take many forms: fear of making wrong choices, a gnawing lack of self-trust, or an overly critical questioning that undermines our potential and sense of direction. The constant second-guessing drains our mental energy.

These hindrances don’t operate in isolation, but instead feed into and reinforce each other, combining to pull us away from ethical practice. When under the influence of a hindrance, our viewpoint becomes distorted. We might misinterpret passing emotions as fundamental truths, overreact due to dislike, or miss opportunities because of mental sluggishness. Additionally, our mental and emotional resources are continuously sapped by either indulging in hindrances or fighting against them. This leaves us weary and depletes our reserves for living with intention.

Together, these construct a barrier to cultivating the insight necessary for an ethical perspective. Deeper self-understanding arises from the capacity for sustained, non-judgmental observation of our experiences. The hindrances prevent this necessary inner clarity and limit the possibility of transformative wisdom.

The good news is that these hindrances are learned habits of mind, and so they can be unlearned. This isn’t easy, of course, and requires effort, but there are readily available methods for achieving it.

Mindful Observation: Cultivating the ability to recognize these tendencies when they arise, without condemnation, observing how they color our thoughts and behavior.

Cultivating Discernment: Gaining insight into the transient and conditioned nature of hindrances. We learn to view them not as fixed aspects of ourselves, but as reactive mental and emotional patterns.

Developing Wholesome Counterparts: Actively strengthening qualities that directly oppose the hindrances. Qualities like contentment, non-reactivity, focus, inner tranquility, and well-founded confidence support our efforts to work with these difficult mental states.

The ethical path isn’t valuable merely because it’s important to treat others morally. It’s valuable, as well, because it’s how we can lead happy lives, free—if not entirely, then at least significantly more than most of us are day to day—of the stress, dis-ease, and dissatisfaction that is a background feature of much of the human condition. Thus putting in the work to overcome these hindrances is more than worth the effort.

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