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I'm too Restless to Meditate

In every sitting practice a different landscape of emotions, thoughts and sensations arise. How much do you let that energy decide the fate of your meditation?



Have you ever set the timer to meditate and feel like you've been exerting a ton of effort to sit still? You might check the timer, only to see that that 2 minutes have passed, or 3 or 5. You want to get up, to get to your next task - and yet you know meditating will help you focus and be in your day with more ease and openness.


The urge to move, to scratch, to check something off your to do list is palpable. Your mind isn't quiet, you're breath might be hiding from you and you feel frustrated about the absence of relaxation or ease. This experience of feeling unable to rest or relax or just let things be is common. And it is not a problem. It is the reality of some moments of our life. Can you practice opening to it? Can you bring curiosity to what it feels like to be restless? Can you open to your experience just as it is (without the evaluation playing in the background - or foreground - of your mind)?


It is quite common for restlessness to arise as we sit in meditation. Restlessness is any quality of feeling, sensation or thought that contributes to you having a hard time sitting still and concentrating. Restlessness evades awareness. It is often challenging to notice it is here. Often it shows up simply as "I don't want to be doing this."


Restless happens as we practice meditation. Learning how to open to it and work with it skillfully can help turn a two-minute meditation into a more sustained practice.


How to meet restlessness with mindfulness:


- Identify it. Name it. Practice labeling without the commentary that so often accompanies thinking. Instead of "ug, I can't sit still, this is awful, I just have to get up" what if you apply mindfulness and try "oh, sitting still is hard today, my mind is busy, I'll practice coming back to the breath" with a matter-of-fact attitude.


- Don't judge yourself for feeling restless. It happens. Bring self-compassion forward instead. Sending yourself some compassionate words like, "I'm having a hard time meditating today, this is frustrating, we all experience this, I'm going to try a few minutes more" can help.


- Try switching anchors. Every meditation is different. Embrace that. If you typically rely on your breath as a tether to presence, maybe try using sound as your anchor instead. Play with different anchors, experiment and see what works best right now.


- Get curious about the micro-experiences of restlessness. Where does it live in the body? How does it show up in the mind? What does the breath do when restlessness is here? Approach this inquiry with a quality of beginner's mindset rather than a fixing mindset.


- Make a commitment to wait until the strong urge to leave the meditation comes at least three times. Sometimes we simply need a concrete guideline to help us meet a goal. Counting the urges, noticing if you want to get up and deciding to stay is the very thing you're likely trying to learn through mindfulness: how to be with an experience with clarity and make a wise decision.


In Mindfulness in Plain English Bhante Gunaratana writes:

“Seeking bliss from meditation introduces tension into the process, which blows the whole chain of events”

Instead, try simply opening to what is here. Practicing being with the reality of the moment will teach you to be mindful more than any peace-seeking meditation will. Being able to meditate through the experience of restlessness is a powerful training in mindfulness.