The fourth in the usual list of five hindrances to meditation (and much else) is restlessness and worry, sometimes “restlessness and remorse”. This is approximately the opposite of lethargy/drowsiness, a mindstate which is like checking out of life. With restlessness/worry we become hyper-sensitive, agitated, and reactive.
At this point we should note that the hindrances exist on a continuum of normal transitory moods. Sometimes we have a moment of low or high energy that passes quickly. It wouldn’t help to make too much of these, even during meditation. When one of the hindrances lasts long enough to obstruct our meditation or interfere with a reasonably peaceful life, then it’s time to address it directly.
Restlessness and worry can shade into a common modern problem, anxiety. Anxiety that makes normal functioning difficult can’t be remedied by mindfulness alone; it needs to be treated by medical and/or psychological professionals. With restlessness and worry we’re talking about normal concerns that sometimes obsess our minds. The causes could be fear, doubt, lack of stimulation, too much effort, or something else. The “remorse” aspect of this hindrance refers to the fact that if our actions are unethical, we are prone to guilt and regret, and these feelings interfere with mindfulness. If we are being nagged by the memory of our hurting someone’s feelings or letting someone down, meditation can be difficult or impossible. Keeping the precepts and maintaining an intention to live in a way that does no harm create the context for a peaceful heart.
I’d like to interject here that my mother, a good Lutheran, once said to me, “Worry is a kind of prayer I understand”, and this one form of the hindrance. Some of us are simply more comfortable if we are in a state of agitation about what may or may not happen, but this state makes a calm mind unlikely.
When restlessness/worry interferes with our meditation or with our sleep, what can we do? We can turn our attention towards it as an object of interest and curiosity. Where in our bodies does it register? How does it move? Does its intensity fluctuate? How does it affect our breathing? What words or images are associated with this instance of restlessness/worry? Can we identify a specific cause? Are we aware of its ephemeral nature?
Often before a long trip or a challenging event our minds are over-busy trying to remember details of preparation or imagining what could go wrong. This is a type of restlessness we can expect and plan for; we can incorporate it into our mindfulness practice, bringing ourselves back to the present again and again.
Good things are impermanent; bad things are impermanent. Why give them so much significance? If the mind is agitated, then look at that. If it’s peaceful, then look at that. In this way, you allow wisdom to arise. Agitation is a natural expression of the mind. Just don’t get caught up with it. (Ajahn Chah quoted in Stillness Flowing by Ajahn Jayasaro, p. 344)