There are many causes of restlessness. The fact that you choose to sit during a time when you are feeling restless is coincidental. It's just that you become acutely aware of restlessness during meditation. So first, lets look at the causes of restlessness and what can be done about them before meditation. Then, let's look at what we can do about restlessness during meditation.
Causes of Restlessness and Some Possible Remedies
We all have days when we have more energy than usual. This can be physical or mental energy. Generally, we like to have positive energy. It helps us be productive at work, have fun at play, and makes us feel alive! Positive mental and physical energy is a result of a balanced, healthy and wholesome lifestyle. When we eat fresh, wholesome, nutritious food, get enough daily exercise, have a good daily routine, don't subject ourselves to unnecessary stress, have a practice that helps us manage stress, and get sufficient sleep, chances are we will have considerably more energy that we would if our lifestyle was not so healthy. If you are the type that wakes up and feels like jogging, sitting in meditation might be a bit of a struggle at that time. This is why yogis traditionally did yogasanas before meditating, to improve fitness, circulation, mindfulness, and lower excessive energy. They also did mindful breathing exercises after yogasanas to reduce inertia and dullness just before meditating. By the time the yogi sits to meditate, her energy is balanced, her mind is well oxygenated and clear, and she begins meditation in an optimal state. Even at Chan retreats at DDRC, we do walking meditation, yogasanas and forms of "moving meditation" to balance the practice of sitting meditation. So, if you have high energy, you might do the Eight Forms Moving Meditation, walking meditation, or yogasanas before sitting meditation (a little pranayama wouldn't hurt either).
Eight Forms Moving Meditation
Sometimes, maybe too often, restlessness can occur because of energy of a more negative quality.This can happen because we are eating foods or drinking beverages that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind. It can happen because we are worrying, which causes restlessness but can also lead to dullness. Or, we can be restless because we feel uncomfortable about something we have done or said. Restlessness is a natural byproduct of worry, aversion, fear, anger, and hatred on the one hand, and craving, selfishness, greed, and lust on the other. This is why, especially in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, yogis are first taught Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pali), or virtue and moral discipline. You can learn to meditate, but from a practical standpoint if you are doing things that go against the fundamental precepts you are sure to have restlessness in your meditation. The Five Precepts are:
- Refraining from killing.
- Refraining from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
- Refraining from sexual misconduct.
- Refraining from lying or deceiving.
- Refraining from intoxicants.
We are also taught to be aware of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance, and be mindful of the Noble Eightfold Path.
This all makes sense on a very practical level. If we are not acting in such a way that we are creating conflict and discord, the environment in which we live will be more pleasant, less stressful and our mind will naturally be more settled.
Practicing mindfulness is particularly beneficial because it help us become aware of excessive worrying and put our awareness back on what is at hand. Cultivating mindfulness over a period of time helps us to become calmer and more balanced. We may still get surprised, disappointed, and upset, but these feelings are shorter and shorter lived. We don't harbor ill feelings in our hearts and naturally begin each new day with a blank slate. Ill feeling harbored in our hearts act like a computer virus in a computer. Mindfulness is like an anti-virus program that detects and fixes worrisome, fearful, aggressive, or hurtful thoughts.
What to Do about Restlessness During Meditation
Ok, so now you are living a good, wholesome, healthy, virtuous life. How come there is still restlessness. First of all, it is the nature of the mind to think thoughts. There is nothing unnatural about it. In some forms of meditation, the meditator simply acknowledges the thought that has arisen and then gently redirects the focus back to the method. So if you are following the breath and the mind has drifted to a thought, you simply let go of the thought, relax, and go back to mindfulness of breathing.
If thoughts still arise and lead to other thoughts, you may need to gently put a bit more effort into staying with the breath. There are some ways of doing this that seem to work for some people and other ways that work better for others. One way is to count each exhalation until you get to ten exhalations, and then start all over at one again (count the breaths). Another way that is to more actively participate in the experience of breathing. For example, be aware of how the breath begins, the duration, how it ends without controlling the breath. One that I like is to feel appreciation for the life-giving inhalation and the purifying and relaxing exhalation. My personal favorite is to focus on totally relaxing into each breath, to fully rest in the breath, totally letting go with each new inhalation and exhalation. This tends to very quickly settle both the mind and body and can lead to a very relaxed, alert state from which it is good to start practicing Silent Illumination.
Silent Illumination can be difficult to practice if you don't have good methods of dealing with restlessness. Because you are putting your awareness on the entire body at once, it can be elusive and more difficult to stay with that the breath. In that case, you might go back to following the breath using one of the techniques I mentioned above to focus and settle the mind. When the mind is less scattered and more unified, and you are fully present in each breath, then shift the focus to full awareness of the body just sitting. This will very quickly lead to a state where the boundaries of the body and environment begin to blur and then disappear and you can just be aware of the environment "just sitting". By this time, the mind will be very settled and you'll be able to continue effortlessly.
Everyone moves through periods of restlessness and drowsiness and everyone learns to deal with them in their own way. Sometimes one way is more effective and sometimes another. This is part of the skill of meditating that can only be developed over time. I still feel very much like a beginner and still have days that seem more problematic than others. My wife and I separated on April 13th and then on May 7th I was laid off and still haven't found a job. I'm now going through a divorce. These kinds of things can be unsettling. Practice Metta, Loving Kindness, and Karuna, Compassion, on yourself and on those that are being disagreeable in your life and this will go a long way to making each new day a great new day for practice!