Arresting Restlessness (Part II)
Stop Feeding the Monster
Once you have recognized restlessness for what it is, try very hard not to give in to the urges or impulses that accompany it. If you give in you will only feed the monster, i.e., cultivate additional restlessness—not a good idea.
You can strengthen your ability to resist restless impulses by avoiding behaviors like these during your day-to-day life:
- Checking your email whenever the thought crosses your mind (e.g., 30 times a day)
- Picking up the phone and calling a friend just to allay boredom
- Eating a treat purely for stimulation
- Racing out the door to escape a case of cabin fever
During meditation practice you can also practice tolerating restlessness. One of the hardest things to do during a bout of restlessness is to continue meditating. But this is exactly what will strengthen you.
So resist quitting, getting up, or changing positions. Do your best to keep your body still. (If you’re in physical pain, by all means move; otherwise, try not to move needlessly.) And when the restless mind manufactures one dramatic story after another, don’t buy in to the story line. In other words, don’t necessarily believe your own mind!
In mindfulness terminology, restlessness is considered a “hindrance” of the mind. It is a hindrance that challenges everyone from time to time, but it doesn’t need to sabotage your practice or your life. In fact, with regular practice, you can use restlessness as an opportunity to hone your mindfulness.
Working with Restlessness
Now that you have recognized restlessness and chosen not to give in to its distractive impulses, how do you proceed?
1. Do not judge restlessness as bad, wrong, or unwanted.
Restlessness is nothing more than a habitual tendency of your mind and body. It’s just another habit to break. It could well be that your psyche developed this habit to distract and protect you from having to experience even deeper emotional pain.
When you label restlessness as bad or unwanted, you actually strengthen it. Instead, accept restlessness as nothing more than your present experience, and try to greet it as you would a good friend at your front door.
2. Let go of restlessness gently without trying to push it away.
Let restlessness go just as you might release a helium balloon into the air to watch it float away. Sometimes restlessness simply dissipates after you let it go. But if its intensity is so great that it remains with you, try the next step:
3. Make the restlessness itself your object of meditative inquiry.
Explore restlessness as if you were a scientist inspecting some new organism under a microscope. Ask yourself questions like these:
- What is this restlessness?
- How does it feel in my body?
- Where and how is it affecting my body?
- Does it have a color? Texture? Storyline?
- How is it affecting my heart? My mind?
- Do I feel anything else? Angry? Impatient? Sad? Open? Closed off?
After posing these questions, try the following:
- Allow yourself to feel all the emotions that come up.
- Explore beneath the restlessness. Can you sense any feelings fear, incompleteness, or isolation?
- Notice if the restlessness morphs into something else.
- Note the temporary nature of restlessness. Eventually, it simply rises and passes away.
- As restlessness dissipates, allow yourself to enjoy the peace left in its wake.
If your sense of restlessness is accompanied by high anxiety that feels too hard to bear—let alone explore—engage in some relaxing activity until you’re calmer. You could try doing one of these activities:
- Take a bath.
- Have a cup of tea.
- Sit outside in the sun.
- Bird watch.
- Read something uplifting.
- Listen to music and sing along.
- Lose yourself in an engaging hobby.
After your restlessness has settled into a calmer state, return to exploring it.
When I first started my mindfulness practice, restlessness and anxiety were my natural states. Needless to say, I got a lot of practice working with this uncomfortable hindrance. But once I started opening up to and exploring the restlessness, I unearthed a huge pool of fear— fear that was at the root of my restlessness.
I dealt with the fear by opening up to it, allowing it to be present, and exploring how it felt in my body, heart, and mind. Over time the fear dissipated into an infinite pool of peaceful energy and presence.
Open up to restlessness; allow it; explore it. Eventually the restlessness itself will become the doorway to your true nature—peace.