What to do with restlessness & thinking during formal meditation?
Updated: 4 days ago
There's a difference between these two.
*Thinking is part of mental formation.
Not all formations have restlessness. There are many types of formations, which I will not get into at this stage of practice.
What is needed at the stage of developing mindfulness and concentration is to develop detachment from it. Why? Because thinking clouds the mind, hides realities and disconnect from direct experience. Whenever there's thinking, mind is not anchored to realities. Therefore, won’t perceive Nature (Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta), by direct experience.
So how do you develop detachment from thinking?
Simply, by bringing out mindfulness (awareness) of it.
In time, as your practice deepens, you'll perceive and clearly know of it as merely mind-made, i.e. thinking is mental fabrication, not the ultimate realities. Don't worry about not understanding or getting it. More importantly, please don't confuse yourself by thinking some more.
What is important for practice now, is to develop mindfulness of the Four Foundations as this will develop the perception of what are ultimate realities clearly. For e.g. anchoring the mind to the body-elements, feelings, mind and Dhamma (realities), and here, aware of thinking, as merely thinking (without getting into what you're thinking about/be absorbed into it). Detach. Let it go. Remember, whatever you are thinking about (mind-made) is not the object of Wisdom Meditation. The presence of *mental formation (thinking) is. As mindfulness is brought towards it, note it and let it go. Cling to nothing.
For now, focus on bringing out mindfulness = become aware of the presence of thinking, when there's thinking during formal Wisdom Meditation. If mindfulness is strong, you'll notice the thinking stops. Mindfulness always arises with detachment. Therefore, whenever there's mindfulness (of it), it will naturally (automatically) disengage the thinking. If not, work at repeatedly bringing out mindfulness of it during formal meditation.
**But if it doesn’t stop even after many tries, that means mindfulness is still weak. The mind is not strong enough, mindfulness and detachment are undeveloped to handle this object (mental formation). In this case, go back to the breathing / rise and fall (change to a suitable object for developing mindfulness). Ignoring it, don’t give thinking any more attention. That means, letting it go, abandoning it completely, like making a U-turn, directing the mind towards another object.
If you don't do this, you'll find the mind gets very disturbed, terribly affected or sucked into deeper hallucinations if these thinking are of unskilful/unwholesome nature. **This is an important point that meditators are strongly advised to follow in Wisdom Meditation. Focus on developing and strengthening the wholesome minds first (prioritise this purpose) before tackling tricky objects. Choosing to do this, is practising clear comprehension with regard to suitability (of purpose and object).
If it’s the instance where thinking isn’t clear or not strong, then choose to develop mindfulness through the body foundation -breathing/ rise fall movements.
For an overview of practice instruction, please refer to page 65-69 of this Meditation Handbook.
Restlessness is a state of mind. It's there with greed mind. It's there with hate/aversion mind. It can be felt very strongly with aversion. But it can also arise with just the delusion mind (without greed or aversion).
In practice, this is typically felt as the mind moving. It just can't stay still (thought appears to be brief, 'incomplete' and unclear) and keeps moving like a monkey swinging from tree to tree (thought to another thought). There are some days when this is experienced very strongly.
So what can you do?
Certainly, not give up. This is your chance to practise mindfulness of (this type of) mind (scattered/restless mind). How?
Instead of fighting it, disliking it or wanting something other than what is (restless)
Become mindful of it = become aware of its presence
Here and now, is a scattered mind
Again, note the scattered mind
Noticing its scattered-ness (its nature)
Note/observe (=strong mindfulness) its intensity/frequency
How scattered /how 'much' of these arise and pass away?
(not literally counting them, not following its direction, not being pulled into it, not denying or rejecting it, but simply observing its intensity
Noticing longer 'gaps/space' as each one passes before the next one arises
(this is likely to be happening very fast, just watch with detachment)
Noticing this gap getting longer as the restlessness slows down
(Noticing passing away/absence)
Watching/observing (strong mindfulness) these restless minds with detachment
Until the gap gets long enough and the mind is able to be redirected to the breathing or rise/fall movement again - to continue to develop mindfulness,
from being aware of the mind back to the body foundation, rise and fall again.
And, continue to develop that continuous flow of mindfulness, mind anchored to the four foundations. Switching to another foundation, such as feeling and other reality object, only when it is strong/clear and provided they are suitable for the purpose.
Sustaining a continuous flow of mindfulness on the four foundations develops and deepens concentration necessary for insights.
When being mindful of restlessness as an object during formal practice, I personally have found it helpful to first become aware and letting go of any mental resistance. In doing this, the mind is able to acknowledge rather than wanting something different and become aware of the restlessness that's happening. Simply, watching with an attitude of non-resisting, detached and with 'interest' (Dhammavicaya).
If you're able to be mindful of the restless mind, you'll find the mind develops concentration and calmness just as much as you can with breathing. It's the continuity of mindfulness that develops concentration in Wisdom Meditation.
When strong restlessness passes away, other types of mind are usually not clear to most meditators and hence to continue to be mindful of mind will not be suitable. For this reason, meditators are advised to redirect mindfulness to a clearer object such as rise/fall (or feeling if that is clear and strong) to continue to develop a continuous flow of mindfulness, and deepening the concentration during that process.
Try once, try again and again.
With each try and each practice, Mindfulness, Detachment and Knowing is being developed with various reality-objects.
Dhamma comes alive through practice