Obstacles to Mindfulness

“Two thoughts cannot coexist at the same time: if the clear light of mindfulness is present, there is no room for mental twilight.” – Nyanaponika There

Most people who are interested in learning how to live mindfully experience obstacles to mindfulness from time to time.  The five basic obstacles to mindfulness are: (1) desire, (2) aversion, (3) sleepiness, (4) restlessness, and (5) doubt.  We all experience these sensations at different points during the day, week, or month.

Experiencing these common obstacles to mindfulness does not mean that you are “bad” at being mindful.  What it does mean is that you are being confronted with a common block to mindfulness that is an opportunity to improve your mindfulness practice if you will allow it.  It is only when we experience temporary blocks/obstacles and give up or get frustrated that we are really losing.  Setbacks are opportunities if only you will use them.

Obstacles to Mindfulness

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook discusses specific strategies for working with each basic block to mindfulness:

(1) Desire

Remember that no matter how much or how often you get what you desire, you are often left wanting “more.”  Use this powerful wisdom to empower you to make different choices in the moment.  Recognize this basic truth and use your experience of desire as an opportunity to resist temptation and learn something instead.  Continue to mindfully notice, observe, and name your desire without acting upon it.  Remember: feelings/urges do not require action.

(2) Aversion

Recognize that anger and resentment towards others are a few of your strongest teachers. There is much to be learned through honest examination of your negative feelings towards others; it says much about you.  Begin coming back to a place of mindfulness through noticing any hostile or aversive feelings that you may have without judgment.  Try replacing those hostile feelings with kindness, forgiveness, or compassion.  The next time you have an aversive thought, such as “He is so selfish” turn this same thought around and ask yourself, “In what ways am I selfish?”

(3) Sleepiness

Notice that sleepiness is a powerful state of being that demands your complete attention.  If the sensation of extreme drowsiness is blocking you from being fully present in the moment when you would like to be, counteract the sensation of sleepiness by straightening your posture and splashing water on your face.  Try taking a short break to do something where you will feel active and also mindful, like walking meditation.

(4) Restlessness

We often experience this block to mindfulness when our attention feels scattered.  Focus your concentration, perhaps by significantly narrowing your focus.  We can only devote our full attention to one thing at a time. Practice some basic mindfulness exercises, including mindful breathing.

(5) Doubt

When you notice that your mind is racing everywhere, it is helpful to focus your attention in the present moment with deliberate intention.  At other times, the sensation of doubt as it relates to mindfulness can be addressed through discussing your experience (and struggles) with practicing mindfulness with a close friend/partner.  Reading books about living a mindful life can also help to dissuade common feelings of doubt.

Which of these common blocks to mindfulness are most common in your day-to-day experience?  We all have our own personal patterns and tendencies.  For some, sleepiness is a common obstacle to mindfulness, where sleeping too much or not enough interferes with being fully present.  For others, desires to give in to sensory temptations may be a common block to mindfulness, where using substances (e.g., drugs/alcohol) to cloud awareness get in the way of living a mindful life.  Begin to come up with your own personal “plan” for how you will handle your next obstacle to mindfulness.

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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Floral Auras by qthomasbower / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on June 20, 2011 at 11:55 am

    “feelings/urges do not require action.” That is so helpful! Thank you.

  2. Laura on June 23, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Mary – I’m glad that idea was helpful to you. It is easy to forget that we do not “have to” act on every feeling or urge that we experience. It is often wise to allow “space” between our feelings/urges and actions. When we provide some distance between what we feel and what we do, we are able to be more mindful/observant of ourselves in the moment, and then make a deliberate choice about how we would like to respond (rather than “react”).

  3. Mary Ross on June 23, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Thank you so much!

    I love to hold the thought of “responding, rather than reacting”!
    Being “mindful” is helping me in my work as well.

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