The Fourth Hindrance: Restlessness and Worry: Q & A with Michael Liebenson Grady
As soon as I’m in one place, or with one person, I want to be somewhere else, or with someone else. How can I learn to be satisfied with my current situation?
We are conditioned to seek happiness outside of ourselves. If only we could be in a different place, or with a different person, then we would be happy—or so we think. This conditioning generates a lot of restless minds interacting with one another, which in turn creates enormous disconnection. We need to be mindful of the state of mind that is driving our restlessness.
As soon we begin to feel even a little bit bored, many of us react by distracting ourselves with activity—any activity, however mindless: we turn on the television, call a friend, do the dishes. We may also feel we’re missing out on something better than whatever it is we’re doing. Both of these reactions ultimately stem from either aversion or greed. We need to learn to recognize our insatiable craving for new experiences. Being ashamed of our cravings doesn’t help, but justifying or denying them doesn’t help, either. Instead, we should learn to be with our situation as it is rather than moving away from it.
Acknowledging the feeling of boredom and then paying attention to our discomfort help bring the mind back to what is happening now. No doubt it can be difficult to be content with the present moment. But when we learn to open to the feelings that underlie restlessness, then meaningful connection with ourselves and others becomes possible.
Even though the circumstances of my outer life appear stable, inside I’m always second-guessing my decisions, worrying about what I’ve done in the past and what I should do in the future. Sitting practice brings me temporarily into the present moment, but as soon as I’m off the cushion, the worries flood back in. What can I do to prevent this?
To begin with, we should cultivate a friendlier relationship toward our worrying mind, rather than making an enemy of it. The nonjudgmental quality of mindfulness practice allows us to open to painful mind states such as anxiety without rejecting these energies or rushing in to try and fix them. With this attitude, we can then ask ourselves, “How can I work with this worry energy in a skillful way that will allow me to understand its nature?”
Our awareness that the mind is getting caught up in worrying indicates that we are on the right track. But it’s important not to stop at this level of awareness. Do we feel aversion to worry? Do we react by getting caught up in the other hindrances of discouragement, impatience, or self-doubt? With practice—both on and off the cushion—we can begin to taste the inner freedom that comes when we let go of our habitual reactions of clinging to pleasure and avoiding pain.
Sometimes, though, we are so caught up in our reactions to worry that we can’t seem to find the mental space to observe it. At these times, we can use skillful means to bring attention to the first foundation of mindfulness: the body. During sitting practice, focus your awareness on the sensations that arise from contact with the seat or floor. This will help bring the mind back into the present, and produce calm and inner balance. This practice sounds so simple—and it is! And yet, bringing awareness to the body at the times when we’re experiencing difficult emotions is often the last thing that we would think to do. With practice, working with the touch points becomes a very accessible and reliable resource for allowing us to be more present wherever we are and under any conditions.
Michael Liebman Grady has been practicing Vipassana mediatation since 1973. He is a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.