The fourth hindrance: restlessness and remorse

Last week we looked at the hindrance of lethargy and drowsiness. This week the list of hindrances comes to its opposite: the state of the mind being unable to settle due to being busy and active. The analogy with water for this hindrance is a lake being ruffled by the wind – the still surface is constantly disrupted and agitated. One metaphor for meditation is that the calm mind reflects wisdom in the way a still lake reflects the moon. When the mind is agitated it cannot rest into this calm state.

The second element of remorse refers to memories of things one has done which cause upset or disappointment. These would be any unskilful activities that have resulted in causing harm to oneself or others. It is for this reason that ethical conduct is emphasised as being one of the three elements of the Buddhist path of practice: morality, meditation and wisdom are said to be all needed. Meditation grows out of living an ethical life in which we do not have anything to cause us remorse. Wisdom grows out of meditation. Buddhist morality is similar to that of many other religions, except there is no concept of a judging external force as there is no god in Buddhism. Instead an impersonal process called karma. The basic description of this process is that “actions have consequences”.

Karma is like a wind that is constantly blowing back at us, picking up whatever we have thrown out into the world and returning it to us. Act in a way that is skilful – kind, generous, concerned for the welfare of others – and what will blow back is rose petals and a pleasing scent. Act in a way that is unskilful – cruel, selfish and with no regard for the welfare of others –  and what blows back is sand and grit. Obviously we do not get rose petals or sand in our actual life, generally, but as a poetic image it suggests the quality of the events that will return to us as a consequence of our actions and mental states. It also helps before any action to consider, how will it feel to have this blow back in my face?

As we meditate if we have been cruel, vindictive or acted in ways that are unskilful it will be much harder to experience a peaceful and joyful mind. An extreme example of this is given in the Buddhist texts in the story of a prince who murdered his father in order to gain the throne. One day after the regicide the new King came to listen to the Buddha teach. The 500 monks were all siting in silence and the young King had a mind so full of anxiety that he was worried that there might be an ambush about to happen as he could not believe so many men could sit so quietly. As a result he hardly heard any of what the Buddha said. After the King left, the Buddha told the monks that had the young man not killed his father he would have gained insight that day listening to the teaching, but as it was his mind was now too troubled for him to hear. 

A more mundane example might be my experience before Christmas, when I allowed myself to be taken in by a story in my mind about a friend who was not replying to texts. The story was one of being abandoned and not appreciated. In hindsight and after writhing about the attachment types I can see that what followed was a classic example of anxious attachment triggering. I went into protest behaviour, where I tried to get my friend’s attention by becoming annoyed and trying to get a response by acting out on that annoyance. I wrote an angry text to him asking what was going on with this nonsense of not replying…. but in more harsh words than that! His reply showed that he was hurt by this and that he decided to have a little distance for a while before we would talk again.

As a result of this I sat with a feeling of remorse in my meditation, a sense of disappointment for not having lived true to my ideals of kindly speech. It also created the very thing I had been wanting to avoid – distance and lack of contact. When we did speak recently it transpired he had been going through a hard time with some difficult circumstances and my text came at at time when he couldn’t take on any other difficulty. It was a classic example of “actions have consequences”. Luckily we have a strong enough friendship that it has been talked about and is being resolved. But other actions are not so easy to simply say sorry for or let go of. Also my practice is strong enough now that I can let go of any recriminations against myself. I can see that I was suffering in my own way and that my actions grew out of that. I acted as I did, and that place of fear and loneliness needs to be held with kindness. I can also reflect that in a future situation sending the first text that comes into my head may not be the most skilful act!! 



To avoid remorse one can seek to live as kind a life as is possible. As the Dali Lama once said “my religion is kindness”. To support this one may choose to follow a set of precepts. Although these are from the Buddhist tradition, they are similar to other religions and also form a set of principles one could follow as a humanist or atheist following no religion.

The five precepts are:
1. Avoiding killing any living creature.
2. Avoiding taking anything that is not given (stealing, but can also be more subtle – such as taking someone’s time when it is not willingly given)
3. Avoiding sexual misconduct (rape, adultery – anything that causes another harm through pursuing our sexual gratification)
4. Avoiding false speech – saying anything we know not to be true with the intent to deceive the other or benefit in some way from the untruth
5. Avoiding intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to a loss of mindfulness and the possibility of breaking one of the previous four precepts. 

The positive counterparts to these are
1. Respect for life
2. Generosity
3. Contentment
4. Truthful speech
5. Clarity of mind. 

Restlessness in the body may be a result of growing up with the sense of needing to be active. There can be a belief that ‘naval gazing’ is unproductive and may even make us weak or inactive. As we sit in meditation if our conditioning is a belief “I need to be active to be validated/good”, it will be very hard to allow ourselves to simply be for the period of the meditation. Instead the body will twitch, we will shuffle our feet and there will be an urge to get up and get active. 

It is said that restlessness is only fully resolved at the moment of full awakening. So we can give ourselves some slack the it arises if we are not yet fully Enlightened! That feeling in a meditation of wanting to get up, move, stop the meditation and do something. All we can do is sit with this agitation and allow it to be, noting that it passes if we continue to sit and that what seemed like an urgent need to get up and be active soon fades and can in turn be replaced with a feeling of relaxed ease as we sit. 

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