We all know restlessness, that feeling of unease. It sneaks up on you like a thief in the night and before you know it, has permeated everywhere. One moment you are cheerful, flowing with life. The next moment, that harmonious spirit is running amok, this way and that. Tables are toppled in disarray, the papers are scattered, black is white and white is yellow. Gnawing at the edges, restlessness sticks its nose in all the nooks and crannies, stirring up irrational anxieties that stay suspended in air like dark, heavy clouds.
At such times, the instinct is to distract. Go for a movie, clean the house, hang out with friends, as if we can drown it out with raucous noise and fervent activity. This works, to some extent. It provides some distance from the uncomfortable feeling, which can help give a perspective to wrestle with it.
That’s all distraction does, though. The best antidote to restlessness, I’ve found, is to sit with it.
Sitting is a common Zen practice. It’s literally what it says, to sit, nothing more or less. Simple, but not easy. Sitting with restlessness means staying with the emotions, looking them in the face. Confronting the unease, which can often feel like fear. Sitting means there’s nowhere else you can go. You’re right there and staring at your fear is the only recourse.
To be sure, distracting thoughts will loom and it is tempting to chase after them. They dissipate soon. The restlessness is still there, waiting for your attention.
The nose itches. You scratch it and feel the relief. That sensation dies down, and you’re left with restlessness.
Try as you might, when you sit, there is no way to escape the confrontation. And that’s such a good thing.
Scary as it may seem, in my experience, once I actually settle down to face whatever is troubling me, it isn’t so scary after all. I stop shielding my face away and give in. I let all the thoughts and fears tumble to the fore, expecting a horde of them to jumble up my sense of sanity. In fact, they don’t. They stand respectfully in front of me, and we gaze at each other. As I look at them, and they look back at me, they don’t seem so fearful. I get curious, and I begin to explore what they are, their edges. At some point, I am so immersed in the exercise that fear is no longer on the scene. Instead, it is beset with calm and interest, the way it is when we make friends with strangers.
Zen writings talk about making friends with your fears. I didn’t quite understand what this meant at first or how to go about it. Sitting is the way to do it. Nowhere to go and nothing else to do, I get to know what my fears are, and as I spend time with them, they lose their fearsome quality. I guess that’s what it means to make friends.
I see a lot around me that can trigger restlessness these days, and I fall prey to it often. I see others around me also struggling with the confusing, fear-inducing elements that have come to define our volatile, unpredictable world. Sitting is the fastest and most effective antidote, for immediate relief and as a vaccination for the future.