We live in a culture that beckons us to constant productivity, consumption, and stimulation. In the face of this momentum, the idea of taking time away from work, shopping, or entertainment seems like a total waste of time. This shows up very clearly if we try to do something like meditate. It’s common to quickly get bored, restless, or impatient with what might seems to be “doing nothing.” What’s the point of this? What am I getting out of it? I could be doing something productive!
Yet what if boredom, restlessness, and impatience signal something deeper, something important to acknowledge and deal with? What if, instead of being prompted to rush off to more feats of economic prowess, accumulation, and stimulation, we use these feelings as indicators to dive deeper?
What if boredom, restlessness, and impatience arise when we are ready to make changes, especially inner changes that ask us to step beyond our current comfort zones?
Let’s begin with a short story that demonstrates what might lie beneath restlessness.
Restless Legs, Restless Thoughts
This story comes from “Meditation: An In-Depth Guide” by Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson. They describe a meditation student John, who had restless legs and equally restless thoughts. (p.114, MAIG)
John was a very active guy, who loved sports and being in the gym. He had a “go get ‘um” mentality and came to an 8-week meditation class ready to “master meditation.” “However, he found it very difficult to even sit still; he had a nervous habit of constantly jiggling his legs up and down, a common form of restlessness. The movement of his thoughts matched his restless legs.
After two sessions John came to Paul and told him he wanted to drop out of the class, saying, ‘I just can’t do it-it’s impossible for me to sit still!'” (p.114, MAIG)
Paul advised John to see if he could just notice the restless feelings with a gentle curiosity. Instead of seeing them as a problem, was it possible to just pay attention to them in a non-judgmental way? Could he refrain from self-criticism, from thinking he was failing at meditation, and just witness what was arising in his mind, without buying into it?
Would it be possible to be present with the thoughts “I can’t do this, it’s too hard” and “This is stupid and I’m not getting anywhere!” and “If only these thoughts would go away, then I could meditate!” (p.115, MAIG) without taking them seriously and without believing them?
For John, who was a proactive, take care of things, make things happen type of guy, this was a novel strategy-yet it worked! In just a few more sessions, he was able to just “sit with his feelings” and he became much more at ease with himself. As a result, he began to experience more of the inner peace he was looking for.
Sometimes that’s all it takes to tame your restless mind-a little self-observation followed by a little self-acceptance-until a new state of being arises naturally. This state is hidden by the way you are looking at life and your feelings of boredom can prompt you to dig deeper to discover it. This is a good first strategy to deal with boredom and impatience in meditation and in life-recognize them, accept them, be present with them-and soon they resolve to reveal a new insight or way of being.
Yet, what about times when this strategy doesn’t work? What about restlessness that cycles stronger and sucks you in deeper? This can signal a deeper defense you are ready to dismantle.
Identifying Your Deeper Defenses
When simple observation, acceptance, and presence don’t free you from boredom and impatience, try to go a step farther. Your mind may be signaling you to become more conscious of a deeper defense, so you can release it to move forward to new possibilities.
Three steps can help: Label the thoughts related to your feeling of boredom and impatience, identify the beliefs behind them, and notice the consequences of this way of thinking. These three steps bring your defenses to light, dissolve their subconscious hold on your attention, and enable you to make new choices.
Step One: Label the type of thought
Thoughts can be categorized according to what they are doing. For example, you could be planning, worrying, lamenting, judging, criticizing, blaming, and so on…
In Step One, you simply name the type of thought you’re having when you feel bored and impatient by giving a one-word label describing what the thought is doing.
Step Two: Identify the Belief behind the Thought
Beliefs are thoughts you invest with emotional significance. They are thoughts you strongly identify with. These are not just thoughts you think are true, they are thoughts you think are “you.” At some level, consciously or subconsciously, you define “who you are” by these beliefs. Therefore, these thoughts become identified with your very existence, safety, and well-being.
Behind repetitive thoughts you can’t seem to shake are deeply ingrained beliefs that originate from experiences of deep hurt. You don’t want to experience those hurts again, so you learn thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that keep you from harm. These hurts and the accompanying beliefs are deeply defended in your subconscious.
For example, you might think: “If I just keep quiet and don’t make waves, I’ll be safe.” Or, “If I don’t make a big effort or commitment, I won’t be disappointed.” Or “If I don’t express my true feelings, I won’t get hurt.”
Yet, these defensive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors also keep you from peace, joy, love, vitality, growth, learning, passion, and purpose you long for. They keep your body in a defensive mode that limits you from doing what you truly desire and from connecting deeply with others. That’s why it’s important to consciously recognize and release them.
In Step Two, you see if you can identify the defensive belief that is behind the thoughts that are cycling through your mind.
You can recognize these defensive beliefs in a couple simple ways:
-They tend to be strong judgments signaled by words such as “should, have to, ought to, can’t, must.”
-They tend to catastrophize, making everything seem bigger and more dangerous than it really is. They make everything feel huge and overwhelming and often come with the words “Always” or “Never.”
Putting these together you get beliefs such as “You should never rock the boat,” “I should always keep quiet,” “You just can’t show your weakness, ever!” “I’m never going to make it,” “I’m never enough,” and so on… Defensive beliefs aren’t always phrased so strongly, but the underlying feeling about them is strong.
In Step Two, you seek the underlying belief that gives rise to the type of thinking you’re mind is engaging in. You can recognize these by the strong emotional charge behind these inner statements. You can get at these beliefs by asking:
What belief am I using to protect myself, to keep myself in a safe comfort zone?
Step Three: Notice the Consequences of these Beliefs
The original purpose of defensive beliefs is to keep you safe. They keep you in a “comfort zone.” Defensive beliefs have two primary consequences. They either make you “rigid,” in “fight or freeze mode,” or “retreat,” in “flight mode.” As life-long strategies, defensive beliefs are severely limiting.
Life is always asking you to learn, heal, and grow. Defensive beliefs cause you to resist growth, to guard against, to fight it-or to retreat in the face of the pressure. In other words, they put you in a state of distress. In fact, defensive beliefs make your life into a series of stressful events.
You can identify the consequences of your beliefs by asking two questions:
What is this belief accomplishing? What is it preventing?
When you consciously and clearly see the consequences of maintaining defensive beliefs, you naturally want to be free from the stress they cause. You want to be free from that suffering. You also see how they are holding you back. With those twin insights, you may naturally become more willing to investigate other possibilities.
You become more open to doing something different. When limiting beliefs have worn out their usefulness, when you are ready to grow beyond them, you feel bored and impatient.
A Two-Fold Strategy
So, when boredom and impatience arise, see if you can pay attention with curiosity and acceptance. See if you can let go of self-judgment and simply sit with these feelings. Notice if something shifts as you mindfully pay attention.
If boredom and impatience persist, investigate them more deeply using three steps:
1) Label the thoughts that accompany boredom and impatience by noticing what they are doing-planning, worrying, lamenting, criticizing, blaming…
2) Identify the beliefs underneath these thoughts.
3) Notice the consequences of thinking this way. Notice what this way of thinking is accomplishing and what it is preventing.
Are you satisfied with the way you are living?
If not, you can consciously choose to let those thoughts and beliefs go and pay attention to the deeper inspirations calling from the Core of your being. Ask yourself, “What is Life calling me to do in this moment?”
Kevin Schoeninger is a writer and teacher of Mind-Body training, including Mindfulness, Meditation, Qigong, and Reiki. He is the author of the book “Clear Quiet Mind” and numerous guided meditations and programs in the field of personal empowerment and spiritual growth.