So far in my look at the hindrances I’ve worked through sense desire (meditation 7), ill-will (meditation 9) and sloth and torpor (meditation 11). So now I reach the fourth hindrance, restlessness and anxiety. This might be especially timely, given that we’re approaching the time of year when many students face the anxiety of examinations.
Restlessness and anxiety is the biggest hindrance for me, and, I suspect, for many other people. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that our age is sometimes described as the ‘age of anxiety’. As Steven Pinker documents, in most of the developed world outward conflict has declined. The long-term trend is for less violent crime and fewer deaths in war. But perhaps that sense of safety has been purchased at the expense of anxiety, which is a sign of inner conflict. There is constant pressure on us to meet social expectations in a rather unpredictable environment, whether that’s through examinations, the market, sexual expectations, responsibility for vulnerable children, or the whims of powerful bosses. Our social environment is increasingly fluid, but also increasingly competitive, and competition breeds anxiety.
So, it’s not surprising that when we sit down (or even stand up) to meditate, anxiety is one of the things that readily surfaces. The distinction between restlessness and anxiety is an incremental one, resting on whether it’s more of a physical twitchiness or more of a mental rumination. The way I experience restlessness is just a sense that it’s impossible to stay on the cushion. Sometimes I even get up without reflection. Anxiety, on the other hand, is likely to take the form of a list of things to be done, or things that ought to be said, or other expectations that need to be met, all of which pile into your awareness, and make it apparently impossible to gain the basic stillness needed to settle into a meditation practice.
In my experience there is only one way of tackling this hindrance that has any chance of working, and that is physical awareness. The thing that can unify your divided, speedy, unreflective thoughts is simply the fact that you have a body, and that this body has sensations. Particularly, the centre of your experience in the lower middle of your body can act as a focal point for physical awareness. This might be aided by scanning all the parts of your body systematically and noting your sensations, or by focusing on the movements of your diaphragm as you breathe.
A good posture can really help this sort of awareness. Assuming that you are doing a sitting meditation, your sense of secure seatedness can also be given an edge of positive energy by aligning your spine in an upright but not rigid posture, and allowing energy to rise up your spine. In my experience, that energy by itself can begin to calm anxiety.
If you’re a bit more of a greed-type and less of a hate-type than I am, you might also find it helpful to reflect on something that inspires you. Rather than scrappy little ruminations that just reflect group pressure on your life, think about something that you really want and that nourishes you in the longer-term. It might be inspiring ideas, inspiring people, great works of art, awe-inspiring landscapes. If you realise that you’re anxious before you start meditating, reading a poem beforehand, or listening to exactly the right sort of calming music, might help you get into the right frame of mind.
Each reasonably successful meditation, where you find a centre, makes it slightly less likely that you will be quite so anxious next time round. But there are always still pressures of anxiety in our lives that make it likely that it will return. A lasting answer to anxiety requires heroic persistence and commitment.
Picture by Nervous Ned (Wikimedia Commons) – Creative Commons licence