Writer: Erin Lee
Have you ever tried to sit still for a meditation session, and within 30 seconds you find yourself fidgeting and feeling the urge to move or change your posture?
Staying still in meditation supports us in settling the mind and seeing things with clarity - a condition for insight and wisdom to arise, but it can often feel like quite a feat.
Sometimes the more still we hope to be, the more tensed and fidgety the body becomes. The physical restlessness may trigger thoughts about wanting to relax and emotions of agitation or frustration. This mental discomfort then fuels even more fidgeting and restlessness within the body.
Before we know it, we are struggling against the experience with all our might, and wishing for the torture to come to an end.
When we finally decide to give in to our urges and move the body, we get a temporary sense of relief, but within moments of coming back to stillness, the restlessness returns (sometimes with a vengeance), and the cycle of struggling continues.
Why do we experience restlessness in meditation?
Perhaps modern life has conditioned us to feel the need for constant activity and stimulation. Being still suggests that we are not being useful or productive with our time. Not having anything to do makes us feel bored and uncomfortable. Discomfort brings tension, and the desire to relieve ourselves of this tension.
Fundamentally, restlessness stems from a place of uneasiness towards what we are experiencing. We don't like what is happening, and we want it to go away.
We become restless when we are not able to stay with how things are.
So a foundation of mindfulness practice is to learn to rest with each moment of our experience as it is, and not as we want it to be.
Overcoming restlessness, which is actually a common obstacle to meditation, requires a mindful approach that invites curiosity and kindness to ourselves from moment to moment.
I have found this four-step framework to be helpful in overcoming restlessness during a meditation practice:
1. Know that it is okay.
Restlessness does not imply failure in our practice; it is simply a reflection of our state of mind and conditioning.
See if you can let go of the expectation that you have to keep still all the time during meditation, and accept that this restlessness is the reality of your experience right now. If it helps, silently acknowledge to yourself - Ah, restlessness is here.
2. Turn inward and investigate.
Attend to what is happening in the experience from moment to moment, and invite curiosity to where the physical sensations of restlessness are showing up in the body. Is there tension or tightness in those parts of the body?
Notice the thoughts, emotions, and impulses that come along with the felt sense of the restlessness. Are there unkind, judgemental thoughts about not being able to keep yourself still? Do you feel the urge to change your posture or stop the practice?
3. Try and stay.
Explore the possibility of not giving in to the restlessness in the first instance of its arising. Try to stay with the attending of the experience, even though it may (and it will) feel difficult.
With each moment of staying still and just observing what is happening without having to do anything, you are training the mind not to give in to reactive impulses, and as a result you are cultivating mental and physical composure.
Even one moment of attempting to stay still and delaying an impulse makes a significant difference in eventually changing our habitual tendencies.
4. But move if you must.
It is also helpful to know that the practice of being still in meditation does not mean that we have to subject ourselves to torture and misery.
While stillness is necessary for slowing down and settling the mind, there may be times when we feel like we have to physically move or change our posture.
When this need arrives, allow the moving to happen, but slow down your movements and maintain full awareness of every moment of the transition. For example, if you are stretching your legs, slow down the movement of extending the legs and pay close attention to how the body is feeling through the whole process of stretching. At the same time, invite kindness and compassion to yourself, in case thoughts and feelings of judgement arise.
By slowing down, we make sure we are not mindlessly moving out of impulse or reactivity, and by sustaining our awareness throughout the movements we are ensuring continuity of practice.
Learning to work with restlessness in meditation paves the way for overcoming restlessness and uneasiness in day-to-day life. Overtime, we tend observe in ourselves a larger window of tolerance towards difficult experiences, and the ability to maintain a more equanimous state of mind.