Restlessness is all too prevalent in our society. We are encouraged to be busy from the moment we wake up. We move, move, move without giving ourselves little time to pause or rest. Bathed in constant stimulation of screaming televisions, blaring music, the ring of the cell phone, the beep of email messages coming through, many of us don't know what being still or rest really is. Often, when we are so conditioned by restlessness, entering stillness and quiet may feel unpleasant. However, no one can survive remaining totally restless.
Restlessness actually feels unpleasant, and we often push away from this unpleasant feeling by becoming more restless. It is much like a rock rolling down a hill, gaining momentum as it rolls. Restlessness affects both the body and the mind, causing thoughts to race faster, and the body to become tense and fidgety.
Restlessness is a form of alienation from oneself. This alienation feels unnatural and uncomfortable, and in seeking a solution to this discomfort, we look outward for answers. We get busy, which creates more restlessness and, because we aren't able to see the initial cause of the restlessness, more alienation.
Restlessness can manifest in many different ways: worry, planning, agitation, self-criticism, regret, anxiety, remorse, impatience, etc.. What all these forms of restlessness share is a preoccupation with the past or the future. Restlessness is a shifting away from presence.
What can you do when caught up by Restlessness?
1. Find a quiet place
A place that is calm, still and quiet is must easier to induce a calm, still and quiet body and mind. The best solution is to sit in stillness and reconnect to full presence. Focusing on the breath induces a calm state. If you are able to just observe the restlessness as it expresses itself in your body and mind, using the breath or a sound as an anchor, you will allow the energy to dissipate. Often the body just needs to unwind continuing with restlessness only winds the body up tighter. Think of a glass of dirty water. If it is continually agitated the water stays dirty. But if it is left to rest, eventually the dirt sinks to the body and the water becomes clear and still. Remember, getting and staying busy and trying to distract yourself is often just a way to fuel restlessness.
Smiling can go a long way toward calm. Smiling evokes a sense of satisfaction and contentment. Smiling during practice will keep practice gentle and supportive. Smiling when you catch yourself caught up in restlessness, can help you to pause long enough to shift you back to presence.
When you are able to sit in stillness, allowing restlessness to have space, explore it. Investigate and understand the cause. Is it fear? Insecurity? unpleasantness? anger?
4. Take short breaks
When very busy and it is difficult to fully stop and sit with the energy, try to work in frequent short breaks to help break up long stretches of busyness and keep it from shifting into restlessness. Sometimes, it is just too difficult to stay with strong restlessness. In this case, it is not compassionate to force yourself to endure it and muscle through. Instead, use wise and skillful breaks. You can tell yourself, "I will focus on some calming breathes for the next three minutes." Then go take a walk, or have a cup of tea, and then go back for another three minutes or so. Here, being a little busy can be beneficial. Just be careful that you don't get too busy and turn it back into more restlessness. Remember, overall, self-compassion is key to keeping the heart open and relaxing the body.
5. Practice compassion
Lovingkindness meditation practice can be helpful when thoughts are caught up in self-criticism, judgements or regret. A mind that is at peace is not restless. Try repeating phrases, such as:
May I be happy.
May I be at peace.
May I be well.
May I be safe.
Such compassionate statements directed toward yourself help focus the mind and open the heart, easing the mind toward peace and acceptance.
6. Slow down and simplify
If you are able to recognize when you're caught up in Restlessness, you'l learn how to stop becoming victims of it. Beginning by finding ways to slow down. Try cutting back on unnecessary activities, and learning to experience calm and stillness as pleasant and necessary. It can be challenging at first to avoid getting caught by Restlessness--especially when so many around us are unwitting slaves to it. Regular meditation practice is the best preventative medicine, as it allows you to experience how Restlessness manifests in the body and mind without fueling it. Over time meditation will help free you from the habit energy of Restlessness.
We are all touched by aversion--which includes: anger, ill-will and fear. Aversion is wanting a situation or feeling to be different than it is and expending energy to push away.
How does aversion interfere with practice?
Aversion creates energy that fuels itself. We shift into habitual patterns and act without mindfulness, which often creates more aversion. When acting out of habit energy, it becomes very difficult to sit and meditate. Should aversion arise while meditating, it can be difficult to keep the mind and body from responding and becoming hooked by whatever form of aversion may be arising. When we look carefully into the states that pull us away from presence we will find fear.
Fear comes from a limbic response to losing life, however, when we are caught up in fear, we lose life. Our body contracts, mind contracts, heart contracts. We take on a body of fear. Our world shrinks. We lose our sense of belonging: belonging to the moment, to each other, to the earth, to awareness.
If we are able to pause, we can shift from the limbic fight/flight/freeze response to the attend/befriend prefrontal cortex response. This shift from primitive to higher brain function is the very action of the evolution of consciousness. We cannot prevent something from going wrong by worrying or ruminating on it. Instead, if we shift to what is here, right now: the smells, the sights the sensations, etc., we become aware of what is happening and we can effect change.
When we open up we don’t suffer because we are activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
We suffer when we are locked in the sympathetic nervous system fight/flight/freeze reactive state.
So why is Aversion so strong?
Rather than react to aversion, we need to learn how to respond to it and free ourselves from the habitat response.
How do we stop aversion from taking us over and keeping us from practicing?
We come back to our breath! By re-connecting to the breath, we have the opportunity to step out of the habit energy pattern and stay present. In presence, we have access to wisdom and are able to actually know what is happening right that moment. This allows us to make better choices and cut the self-perpetuating cycle of aversion.
Learn how to attend and befriend:
One way to address aversion is to practice the STOP Technique. A useful and effective way to bring you back to your breath and into presence. It can be utilized anywhere and only takes a minute or two to practice. You can read about how to put this into practice to help with aversion by reading the blog post: STOP Technique.
When addressing desire as a resistance to practice it is important first to realize that desire itself is not bad. Desire is a natural survival mechanism. Desire is what gets us to eat, to sleep, to find shelter; it gets us doing what we need to do to survive and thrive. It is desire that fuels our passions, moves us to be creative, and to find pleasure in life. If someone is fully at peace with theirself, there is no need to grasp for things.
Desire becomes a problem when it becomes wanting and shifts us out the present moment. When we are full of fear, disconnected from ourself, we search outward for more and more….If we are acting without presence of mind it’s easier to get caught by wanting and become lost in a never ending cycle of un-satisfaction. Take notice when “if/only” thinking, arises, like: “If only I made X amount of money, then I would be successful.”, "If only I wasn't sick, then I would be happy." such thinking is where wanting or clinging often arises. Most of our ideas of what we need or want in order to be happy are wrong. This is because these “solutions” are almost always external.
Happiness or contentment is never dependent on external factors. If we are shifting our attention outward for satisfaction, we are actually pushing ourselves away from the very thing that can provide the peace and contentment that we are seeking.
When desire becomes a hindrance to meditation, the best solution is to give it mindful and compassionate attention. If the desire is strong or particularly difficult to face, you can work with it using the RAIN technique.
Through the practice of meditation we can develop a sense of how wanting-desire creates tension and takes us into suffering. The stronger the wanting-desire, the less mindful we are. Often the experience of wanting something can feel unpleasant, but suffering because of it is optional. We are taught that when we feel uncomfortable we should go do something about it, rather than observe the source of the discomfort. If we face the thoughts and emotions with openness and presence, we shift away from the small wanting self to our more expansive awareness. When we sit with desire and investigate the nature of it, in the moment we are experiencing it, no matter how difficult it may be, we allow ourselves to be freed from the clinging grasp of desire.
Instead of disliking how you feel or being unhappy about the experience you are having, accept what is rising. Instead of becoming caught in the never ending chase to satisfy a want that will most likely never be fully satisfied, let it have full presence and move through you. Often times the clinging as a result of wanting-desire goes unnoticed. It is like we become zombies blindly chasing after the object of our desire. But if we give it presence and recognize the energy around it, the wanting-desire often weakens and fades away.
If you find it too difficult to sit with the desire then try just slowing down. When we introduce a pause between the want and the action of chasing after the want, we are more able to make a better choice.
We continue to give away our power to others when we need others to get us, to understand us, in order for us to be ok, to be free. As long as we want other to respond to us in a particular way, we give away our power. If our well-being is dependent on another’s response, then we are not free. We have given up our power and have become enslaved.
Remember always be kind and compassionate with yourself, don't judge or criticize yourself. Recognize that there is usually an unmet need that is driving the wanting-desire. Explore the connection of this want in your body. You don’t have do anything about it. Just noticed it. Just feel what you feel. There is no wrong or right way to feel what you are feeling.
Even though we find it difficult to just let go, we remain aware of our resistance to let go. This holding on and being continually aware of ourselves and our attachments, however, will lead us to seeing that chasing or grasping for our desires is not the path. Instead, we recognize that the thing we are holding onto , and just be seeing what it is, we let go a little.
This process is activating our neural network, beginning the change to the particular neural pathway that keeps us holding. This takes practice, and each time we touch it with awareness, even if it is for a millisecond, this pause, allows for a new neural pathway to be formed. This pause breaks the chain of habit energy and reactivity.
I am Do'an Prajna, a bhikṣu (fully ordained Zen Buddhist monk) and zen teacher. Here I share my thoughts and observations about living a life of compassion, attention and gratitude.