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  • Thomas Bien

Restlessness and Worry

I have been writing about the hindrances that arise in meditation, as well as whenever we are trying to practice mindfulness. I have described the first three—desire, aversion, and sloth and torpor—and what may be done to work with them. In this blog, I will say something about the fourth hindrance, restlessness and worry.

If sloth and torpor are about too little energy, restlessness and worry are the opposite problem. There is too much energy for the available level of concentration. This can happen in gross or subtle ways. In the former, it is very clear that we are restless and worried. We have that feeling of wanting to jump out of our skin. This is clearly unpleasant. In more subtle forms, however, thoughts may be coming and going very quickly through the mind, none of them lingering long enough to be obviously unpleasant, but still leaving us vaguely ill at ease, or at least, not happy and peaceful.

This can arise for many reasons. We may be practicing what the Buddha called unwise attention. For example, the news, while often disturbing, is more so for many of us nowadays. If we focus on it too much, we can feel worried. We may also be attending too much to past regrets, things we said or did that cannot be unsaid or undone. Sometimes restlessness and worry can arise simply from too much talking. When we talk a lot, even if the conversation is relatively pleasant, we may find our minds continuing the conversation with the person we were talking too, with a kind of overexcitement. Or if the conversation is unpleasant, we may have a feeling of unfinished business. “I should have told him such and such. I should have given her what for.”

For many today, restlessness and worry can arise as a function of the many things we have to do and remember. In this case, don’t forget the obvious answer of writing it down and prioritizing. Sometimes the simplest things are best.

The problem with restlessness and worry is that energy is high but concentration is too weak. So to take care of these matters, we can see about strengthening the quality of our mindfulness, making it more precise. We can tell ourselves, “this is what the worried mind is like,” and use this thought as an invitation to observe this state more closely. We might open the eyes if they are closed, so we are less lost in obsessive thinking. Sometimes it helps to move the body. Get up and practice walking meditation with careful concentration, walking and slowly and noting, “lifting, moving, placing” for example. Or if we are preoccupied with disturbing news, bring wisdom to bear on it. Do I need to cut back on my exposure to these matters? Is there something I can do about this situation?

Held with sufficient mindfulness, worry need not worry you. Remember that in recognizing this state, some degree of mindfulness is already present.

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