Restless During Meditation (embrace your mess)
“What word comes to you when you think about meditation?”
Steve and his daughter, Aoife, pause. Steve says, “Peace.” Aoife follows, “Calmness.”
They sit with me for a one-hour private meditation class at our sanctuary. Steve has tried meditation using a YouTube instructional video. “I was frustrated,” he recalls. “My mind was busy. I kept thinking and couldn’t relax.” Aoife has participated in a meditation class at her school. “It was discouraging. Instead of feeling calm, I got annoyed because I couldn’t stop my mind’s chatter.”
I had the same conversation with many other participants in my past meditation classes. They associated meditation with peace and calmness, like a clear, tranquil lake. It was frustrating and disappointing when meditation highlighted their restlessness, like showing choppy water flowing with debris.
Many of us live in busy, multitasking mode. When we sit still, our mental activities could speed up as if our minds protest the silence. A thought arises, one after another, like a toddler frantically trying to get her mom’s attention. She would get more agitated if the mother scolds or tries to stop her. The best response is to acknowledge her agitation but not focus on it.
Thoughts are not the only distraction in meditation. When you give yourself permission to slow down and pause, emotions you are not in touch with could surface. You sit in meditation trying to attain peace but may find yourself shedding tears or frowning with anger.
Such emotional reactions are part of meditation and valuable opportunities to discover what is happening in your inner world. Acknowledge your emotion without judgment and let it freely express itself, but don't start a conversation with your mind about the experience.
Recalling an incident that triggered the feeling, blaming someone for it, pitying yourself, looking for a solution — any thoughts about your emotion will feed it and keep you in the emotional loop. Instead, just acknowledge the emotion and observe it as a physical sensation (heat in the heart, tightness in the throat, heaviness in the body, etc.).
Hold space for the sensation and see how it slowly softens and passes*. You will feel the trace of it and the sense of getting through the emotion and arriving on the other side. With repeated practice, you will learn your feelings, just like your thoughts, come and go if you don’t engage in a dialogue with your mind.
Meditation is a journey where a reward is not only reaching the destination but also savoring the messy process of getting there.
You will become more intimate with your inner world through regular meditation practice and gradually understand you are much more than your mind. As a mother wholeheartedly accepts her child in good and bad moods, you will be able to embrace your mind in times of calm and restlessness.
The Wisdom Self will slowly rise from deep within and help you expand your capacity to gently hold thoughts and emotions instead of getting controlled by them.
*Seek professional help such as psychotherapy and counseling if you suffer from intense emotion caused by a life-changing event, trauma, or unresolved past issue. It will be tough to attain peace without reconciliation and healing brought by deep inner work.