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.
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.