Remedies for Restless Minds

Five Hindrances
Lord Buddha identified five hindrances (nivaarana) to mental development: lust, anger, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt. There are many synonyms for these hindrances and other commentators may use different words. A keen student who is not familiar with these five hindrances would do well to study them further. Essentially these five hindrances are symptoms of a lack of mindfulness and concentration. Once a yogi develops persistent mindfulness and profound concentration, the hindrances will disappear, the mind will be bright and pliant, ready to apply for worthy purposes.

When the hindrances dominate the mind the yogi may not be aware of the need to apply a remedy. Some people may consider hindrances as normal and not wish to avoid them. So the first step is to be motivated to avoid hindrances and this requires the right view that a hindrance dominated mind leads to suffering, the right view that hindrances cause suffering, the right view that the ending of hindrances is ultimately worthy, and a certain degree of confidence in the benefits of a hindrance-free mind, confidence in the yogi’s capacity to develop a hindrance-free mind and confidence that there are practical techniques that can be applied for developing a hindrance-free mind.

Lord Buddha recommended a virtuous life style that is blame free and promotes social and personal happiness. A lot of restlessness arises due to harmful speech, behaviour and thought which cause remorse and regret. Some restlessness arises due to ignorance and wrong views. We misunderstand reality and assign blame here or there for the wrong reasons and this confusion creates restlessness. Associating with wise and compassionate people who model the virtuous behaviour and who can give yogis a “reality check” during confusing times is of incalculable benefit.

Mindfulness

The more we practice, the easier it is to note hindrances such as restlessness. We can develop a base level of mindfulness and right view to remind ourselves that the mind is beginning to be dominated by hindrances. Lord Buddha provided a vast amount of helpful advice for overcoming hindrances. The Aanaapanasati Sutta (the discourse on mindfulness of breathing) is a one of many discourses. Another is the Satipathaana Sutta (the discourse on establishing mindfulness). Frequent reading of these and other discourses is highly rewarding.

Mindfulness of breathing is an excellent technique for calming the restless mind. Whether the yogi chooses to note the touch of the breath on the upper lip or the rising and falling of the abdomen, noting the breath is a sure way to subdue the restless mind and has no ill effects on body or mind.

Yogis can know the mind and phenomena that arises, persists and passes. It is as it is. Whatever arises, focus on it and note what ever it is. If yogis note many objects and find it difficult to keep pace or can’t find a label for the Dhamma or mental state yogis may note “knowing, knowing, knowing…” while rapidly following each objects as they arise and pass.

Mindfulness of breathing and the four establishments of mindfulness are the ultimate in virtuous behaviour, speech and thought. Done correctly, these techniques will lead to peace and liberation.

Slow Deliberate Movements
One way to overcome a restless mind is to practice noting slow deliberate movements in daily life and during periods of meditation practice. If a yogi has dedicated a day for practice, then it is possible to do all movements very very slowly. Get out of bed slowly, go to toilet slowly, brush teeth slowly and so on. Note each discrete movement. For example, from a reclining position, note the intention to move, note the intention to move a particular limb, move the limb slowly, noting the change in sensation of weight or the touch of an insect on the skin or the pain or other sensation in the joints and muscles as the limb moves. Note the hardness or softness of the surfaces which the body contacts.

Walking Meditation
Slow motion walking meditation helps to focus the mind and builds energy for sitting practice.

A useful alternative to walking meditation for people who can’t walk is noting slow hand and arm movements. The yogi very very slowly moves hands and arms through a repetitive series of movements that have been studied prior or have been taught by a teacher.

Slow Prostrations
The late Ven. Ajahn Kao (Titawano from Wat Bunsimunikorn) taught yogis to deepen mindfulness by prostrating very slowly. According to Ven. Ajahn Kao many people do prostrations fast and sloppily. He advised yogis to prostrate in slow motion while noting each bodily movement one at a time. One prostration might take 30 seconds or more. Some people may need to change the way they bow down to make it more convenient for slow motion bowing and to facilitate one movement at a time.

I would like to post a video or series of photos to show how to prostrate slowly. Start from the kneeling position and have hands together in front like the Anjaali position.

  1. Note the mental intention to bow.
  2. Note them mental intention to move the right hand/arm downwards.
  3. Move the hard/arm downwards very slowly.
  4. Note the intention to bend forward slightly at the hips.
  5. Note the intention to move the hand/arm more and so on with the left hand/arm and so on … note the touching of the ground, the hardness, softness of the ground with each hand separately and so on.
  6. Do the same going back up again after touching your head on the ground.

Painful Sensations Cause Restlessness and Anger
When yogis sit for a while painful sensations arise in various parts of the body including the knees. When mindfulness and concentration are relatively weak yogis may struggle to sit through painful sensations. The intense pain can cause restlessness and doubt to arise. The remedy is to focus the mind on the painful spot. This can be difficult for beginning yogis who may become angry or fearful of the pain. So in addition to the hindrance of restlessness, another hindrance of anger arises to further cloud the mind and weaken the remedies of mindfulness and concentration. If mindfulness and concentration are insufficient the painful physical sensation and restless angry mind will become intolerable, forcing the yogi to change position. The remedy is to develop strong mindfulness and strong concentration prior to the arising of painful sensations. With strong mindfulness and strong concentration, the mind may observe apparently painful sensations with equanimity and thereby gain profound insights.

Developing Right View and Confidence
A lot of restlessness is caused by confusion about what is real and this can lead to a lack of confidence in either the remedy or the yogi’s ability to successfully apply the remedy. An inspiring and knowledgeable teacher may help the beginner.

Initially yogis can put their difficult experiences in perspective. When feeling discouraged a yogi could try recalling the successes as well as set backs. By focusing mostly on the set backs the yogi may become impatient and suffer. Yogis can reflect on their virtues, remembering that they have kept five, eight or more precepts for a long period. They can also focus on their generous behaviour, how they have donated to worthy causes and helped people. Lord Buddha taught that virtuous conduct and generosity lead to a happy rebirth possibly in a heavenly realm or a fortunate human existence. These recollections can help overcome self-doubt and low self-esteem.

Remember that all those revered teachers including Lord Buddha overcame the hindrances. Remembering the virtues of Lord Buddha and other advanced teachers can inspire yogis and build confidence to continue the practice.

Remember the teaching of Lord Buddha, read discourses and reflect on the meaning of the words. Reflecting on the Dhamma helps to overcome doubts and confusion as well as arousing inspiration and energy for practice.

Many yogis experience joy or rapture while reading Dhamma. Joy and rapture is useful for sitting practice though it must be balanced with the calming factors of tranquillity and concentration else the yogi may be over stimulated and become restless again.