While we all continue to deal with the uncertainty that the current situation brings Dan, our Primary Counsellor, returns to the blog with some thoughts on restlessness and worry.
Restlessness and worry are especially prevalent in modernity and in so-called ‘developed’ countries. We feel the urge to fill our time with endless distractions or achievements and are driven to a perfecting of an image of ourselves, whether by improving our LinkedIn profile or Instagram portfolio, driving our children to their next achievement or by seeking that next personal milestone. Much is naturally accomplished through restlessness, especially as it’s become something of a cultural norm and underlying bio-rhythm to modern life. But the balance between activity and non-activity has shifted profoundly askew and the natural value of rest or reverie is somewhat chronically marginalised. The desire for calm amid the pervasive uncertainty and anxiety of this prolonged pandemic season has only served to highlight the global struggle to escape our collective unease and agitation.Earnest students of meditation, suffering clients of psychotherapy, or the deeply religious amongst us know well that, despite a desire for calm, none of us is free of restlessness.
It’s the human condition.
In meditation, deliberate rest or in boredom, we often notice that energy is bouncing around, doing it’s own thing. In that sense, a meditation or mindful ‘practice’ is simply to notice and enter-into the restlessness and to observe where the ping-pong ball of energy is bouncing - where did it originate (what am I restless about?) and where it bounces to (what patterns are active in me right now?).
In other words, what story am I telling myself today (and is it familiar)?
A key aspect of restlessness is worry. We concern ourselves endlessly with imagined futures, potential failures, possible damage to ourselves or self-image. We feel threatened by guilt, shame, regret and the inevitable messiness of our emotional lives.
It’s the human condition.
We try to put our worry aside so we can get on, or (often unconsciously) defend ourselves in a myriad of complex ways from worry. We might even be successful for a short time - we will usually be the last to know when we’re not so successful - but it will have its say in the end. Whether in an irritable mood, sudden sense of panic or physical symptoms associated with stress; the communications of the subtle body let us know that we cannot fool ourselves for too long.
The ancient concept of the subtle body refers to experiences that can be designated as neither physical nor mental but partake of both realms. It’s the wisdom behind the perennial fascination upon the links between mind and body. Moreover, the subtle body concept is inseparably linked to the use of the imagination (in an alchemical sense) which was viewed as having both a psychic and material nature. If there’s one core truth I’ve discovered over the years listening to others, of the human impact of anxiety, worry, restlessness and trauma upon our human capacities, it’s that our capacity to imagine is often acutely affected. It’s like a dent in the soul. But if we cannot protect ourselves wholly from worry or restlessness, we need not neither fear that we’ll be left irreparably depleted by it; It is, in fact, our exhaustion from defending ourselves too tightly against restlessness and worry that treads the path towards inevitable fatigue.
But there is another way. We can open up to our worry, feel it physically, watch its movements in the (subtle) body, and observe what triggers it.
It’s patient, counter-cultural (even within much modern psychology) inner work, but don’t let that put you off.
When worry is present, our practice needs to be more about letting go than about striving. If we criticize our practice or meditation, we are just creating something else to fret about. The wonderfully ironic Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, questioned the wisdom of coping with the worry-waves of the mind by adding more waves (of thought, effort or theories about worry). Letting our meditation or inner work be what it is is vital; It is our very life in the moment even if not what we want it to be.
A wise enough Buddhist psychotherapist friend once told me not to ‘bolt the front door of your mind closed to worry’. He urged instead to have both the front door and back door of the mind wide open to whatever arrives, moment to moment. Take a deep breath and imagine that for a moment. In that way, we don’t waste time feebly (at the front door of the mind) resisting the unexpected visitors (or crowds of them) of thought and emotion. Instead we use that spare psychic energy to hold the back door open, so that whatever visitor has befallen us can flow through the houses of our minds quickly. Just don’t invite them to stay for lunch!
As we get more used to deliberately meeting our worry and restlessness at the front door of our minds and sweeping them through with a smile towards the open back door, we might also notice the moments, however brief, that worry is not present. Take those moments into your heart and your whole being. Make a note of them or sketch them. Keep the reminders close to your home or working environment. It’s a little like meeting yourself in an inner psychotherapy of your own soul. In my experience as a psychotherapist and as a client before that, the heart of psychotherapy is in being with someone who repeatedly invites you to slow down and listen at the feeling level to what you just said. Otherwise, we’re always skimming over the surface of the depths of our own life, whether out of fear or habit.
It’s also why a journal, making or ‘seeing’ art, or a contemplative reading practice is useful. You can’t really skim-read the mystics, quickly exhaust the emotion of a painting, or glance at your own heartfelt words. You have to read, paint or observe slowly enough in order to understand the deeper level of things. And in a way, that’s the pedagogy of meditative, artistic or contemplative practice. You have to slow things a little enough to be touched by the nearness and heart of what’s being alluded to, moment to moment. And then you might learn to live there. Even if it’s a bit icky.
There’s something about a childlike, humble sincerity of settling into where we are with an attentive heart that we begin to sense an intimacy between our worry, restlessness and our desire to be good enough. One common way, I think, is to become aware of how caught up we are in the complexities and demands of the day. We realize that what it’s asking about is like dragging us down the road, bumping our heads on the kerbside of our own tiredness. And somehow we lose ourselves along the way. We can unintentionally be so busy to never really look at our own child or children. Our son or daughter says, “Will you read me a good night story?” and we miss the deep rooted simplicity and naive wisdom behind the child’s question of being-with each other imaginally before relaxing into sleep. We suffer then, not only because of the torrent of guilty feelings that drown us in the middle of the night when we suddenly catch hold of their disappointment in our half-wakefulness, but because we needed it too.
In marriages, it can happen this way too. People realize, often some way down the road to exhaustion... “You’re busy. I’m busy. We’re kind of losing our way here. And if we don’t stop and set aside time where there’s an agenda of being with ourselves and each other alone, we might lose this; We can lose this. Have we lost it already?”
So, we pause to freely choose, like the inner freedom of a hiatus from constant momentum, or just a quiet rendezvous with ourselves, a long sweet breath just to be honest, vulnerable, and present. We might discover that letting go is at first frustratingly subtle and hard to hold on to because a mobile phone goes off, a notification pings. We’re distracted. But in time and with patience, we might begin to sink the taproot of our heart in that momentary awareness of the flow of the inner visiting guests of restlessness and worry, passing through the swept pathways of our inner homes.
Knowing what we know, the swiftness of change right now, and what we don’t - the miles of uncertainty ahead - how do we live then without restlessness and worry?
Well, there’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.
The rope is a leaning in love into the human condition, restlessness, worry and all.
Author: Dan Lawrence, Primary Counsellor