Once we have developed some skill in following the five precepts, the next step is to continue to progress on the path by learning how to deal with the five mental obstacles and their relationship to concentration and meditation.
What are the Five Obstacles? Let's start with an analogy:
"There are five impurities of weathered gold by which it is not soft and workable, dull, brittle, and cannot be worked well. What are these five impurities? Iron, copper, tin, lead and silver.
But if the gold has been freed from these five impurities, then it will be smooth and workable, radiant and firm, and can be worked well. Whatever ornaments one wishes to make of it, be it a tiara, earrings, necklace or gold chain, it will serve the purpose.
Likewise, there are five impaired impurities of the mind whereby the mind is not supple and manageable, lacks radiant lucidity and firmness, and cannot concentrate well on eradicating defilements (asava). What are these five impurities? They are: sensual desire, ill will, laziness and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and skeptical doubt.
But if the mind is freed from these five impurities, it will be supple and manageable, will have radiant lucidity and firmness, and will concentrate well on eradicating defilements. Whatever state attainable by the higher mental faculties to which one can direct the mind, one will in each case acquire the capacity for realization, if the (other) conditions are fulfilled. — AN 5:23
Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera, in his booklet The five mental obstacles and their conquest: Selected texts from the Pali canon and commentaries (1994 Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, Wheel Series 26), begins in its introduction with a few words that will sound familiar to us:
Steadfast deliverance of the mind is the highest goal of the Buddha's doctrine. Here deliverance means the release of the mind from all limitations, shackles and ties that bind it to the wheel of suffering, the circle of rebirth. It means the cleansing of the mind from all the defilements that taint its purity; the removal of all the obstacles that block its progression from the banal (lokiya) to the supramundane consciousness (lokuttara citta) ─ i.e. to the state of arahat.
Many are the obstacles which stand in the way of spiritual progress, but there are five in particular which, under the name of obstacles (nivarana), are often mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures.
The five mental barriers are:
1. Sensual Desire
2. Ill will
3. Laziness and torpor
4. Agitation and remorse
5. Skeptical Doubt
They are called obstacles because they hinder and obscure the development of the mind (bhavana). They can hinder proper concentration so that the mind remains bound to the mundane state and prevented from accessing supermundane states. The mind that asks for sustenance based on chains to worldly states will thus be bound with attachments and it will be difficult to be delivered from them.
Regarding food, Ven. Nyanaponika says, again quoting the texts:
Just like monks, this body lives on food, lives dependent on food, does not live without food – in the same way, monks, the five obstacles live on food, depends on food, does not live without food. (SN 46:2)
Regarding the nourishment of sensual desire, the text says:
“There are beautiful objects; frequently giving them reckless attention – this is food for the arising of sensual desire which has not arisen and food for the increase and strengthening of sensual desire which has already arisen. (SN 46:51)
Regarding the nourishment of ill will, the text says:
“There are objects causing aversion; give them frequent attention – this is food for the arising of ill will which has not yet arisen, and for the increase and strengthening of ill will which has not yet arisen . (SN 46:55)
Regarding the food of laziness and torpor, the text says:
“Appears apathy, lassitude, stretching of the body, drowsiness after meals, mental laziness; with frequent careless attention to it – it is the food for the arising of sloth and torpor which have not arisen and for the increase and strengthening of sloth and torpor which have already arisen. (SN 46:51)
Regarding restlessness and remorse, the text says:
“There is mental restlessness; to pay reckless attention to it frequently – it is the food for the arising of restlessness and remorse that has not yet arisen and the strengthening of restlessness and remorse that has already arisen. (SN 46:51)
Regarding the feeding of doubt, the text says:
“There are things that make you doubt; frequently paying attention to them is the nourishment of the appearance of a doubt which has not yet arisen and the reinforcement of a doubt which has already arisen. (SN 46:51)
We all know sensual desire, ill will, laziness and torpor, restlessness and restlessness, and skeptical doubt of our own experience. For most of us, they appear daily as bad companions who hang around and don't go away. This is one of the worst manifestations of ignorance, and if we don't want to be ignorant in this way – ignorant simply because we don't know – there is a proven way to remove each obstacle in turn.
The conquest of the five mental obstacles can be achieved by starving them – giving them nothing to eat – thanks to what Ven. Nyanaponika calls “malnutrition”: depriving the obstacle of energy to nourish itself.
“He whose heart is overwhelmed with ill will. . . out of laziness and torpor. . . by restlessness and remorse. . . by doubt the skeptic will do what he should not do and neglect what he should do. And through this, his good name and happiness will be ruined.
But if a noble disciple has seen these five as defilements of the spirit, he will abandon them. And in doing so, he is seen as someone of great wisdom, abundant wisdom, clairvoyant, well endowed with wisdom. This is called the “wisdom endowment”. — A 4:61
A final observation is that it is a good thing that we have the Five Precepts to help balance the Five Obstacles, if not, without them, who knows what potentially destructive energies might be unleashed and wreak havoc in our minds.