Dennis Bradford

389 Posts



Whence restlessness? What does it mean?  How can it be cured?

Do you suffer from it?

If so, you are not alone. It’s very common. In fact, it’s so common that, when you notice it in others, you may think there’s nothing wrong with it. (It’s even easier to notice it in others than in yourself.)

It’s especially easy to notice when others are sitting. Notice how many people are almost incessantly swinging one of their legs or jiggling their feet. Of course, people in rocking chairs are almost always in motion. Notice how few people actually sit still.

I myself have often exhibited it. In fact, it was so common in my own family that I used to think it was genetic! There were similarities and differences in the way it was manifested in myself, my siblings, and my parents, but it was so common that I used to think it was normal.

Ask yourself, “Which age group exhibits the most restlessness?” I don’t know, but my guess is that it is most characteristic of late adolescence. If not foolishness, it at least always signals immaturity.

Notice how, even in stable settings such as a classroom or a meeting, so many sets of eyes are looking around. It’s as if they are asking, “What else is there?”

Contrast that with other animals. What would you think if your dog or cat, instead of lying placidly at your feet, was in constant motion? Might you not take it to a vet? What if you visited a zoo and saw polar bears or tigers incessantly jiggling or wiggling? Might you not wish that they could be returned to life outside a cage?

However normal for humans, restlessness is not a good sign.

It’s certainly not attractive. Dating guru David DeAngelo [aka Eben Pagan] advises men who want to attract women to notice and eliminate all signs of behavioral restlessness.

Notice, too, how, when people are fully engaged and focused on a task, they exhibit no signs of restlessness. The same person who always seems to be restless sitting around the living room never exhibits any signs of it while playing hockey or having sex or reading an enthralling novel.

Restlessness signals dissatisfaction.

Behavioral manifestations of it always indicate a desire for something else, for something more, for something different. “I want more” is the implicit, fundamental judgment behind it. It’s a sign that the present moment, whatever is going on here and now, is less than wholly satisfactory. Such agitation signals life being lived poorly.

Let us agree to use “sage” to refer to someone who lives well. Think of sages you have either known personally or read about. Would you say they are restless? Do you think of them as jiggling or wiggling or agitated when they are just sitting around?

Surely not. When they are sitting, they are just sitting. They are still, calm, peaceful. They are at home in the present moment, living deeply and satisfactorily in the here and now. Sages are sages. They neither suffer from dissatisfaction nor signal restlessness.

Sages lack a future orientation. They do not use the present to try to live in the future. They are not wanting the next moment to be better than the present moment.

Wanting to gain more than is available in the present is foolish, not wise. The reason is simple: when the future does appear, it is always present. The future never appears as future; it can only appear as present.

The future is a set of thoughts. It’s nothing but a set of imaginings. It’s unreal. Therefore, trying to live in the future is attempting to live in unreality!

The immature, of whatever age, seem not yet to have understood this. The boredom of teenagers hanging around a mall is a symptom of immaturity, a failure to live an examined life. The root cause is the same even if we are instead thinking of bored oldsters in a nursing home.

Age does not automatically cure it because it does not automatically cure dissatisfaction.

What cures restlessness? That which cures dissatisfaction.  No dissatisfaction, no restlessness.

Since dissatisfaction always comes from separation, overcoming separation cures dissatisfaction.

So what cures dissatisfaction? The release from incessant conceptualization.

Concepts are principles of classification. To conceptualize, to use concepts, is to think discursively; it always involves separating (sorting, categorizing, classifying). However useful it can be, to conceptualize is to divide into two groups, namely, one group of objects (forms, things) to which the concept is thought to be applicable and another group to which it is not thought to be applicable.

If you are always conceptualizing, you must miss the satisfaction (peace, bliss, joy, harmony) that comes from awareness of unity.

Sages since at least the time of the Buddha have been saying this. For example, Sengcan, the third patriarch in ancient China, wrote in the oldest zen document: “Remaining in duality, / you’ll never know of unity.” [Rochester Zen Center translation.]

To experience unity directly is automatically to cure dissatisfaction. To cure dissatisfaction is automatically to cure restlessness.

How do you experience unity directly? Even for a moment, just stop conceptualizing. It’s not easy, but it’s that simple.

Sages say that living as we normally do, in other words, incessantly conceptualizing, is like dreaming. If we were to stop incessantly conceptualizing, we’d stop dreaming. Sengcan: “When you no longer are asleep, / all dreams will vanish by themselves.”

What we typically miss is experiencing the unity or essential interconnectedness of all objects. Lost, we exhibit restlessness because we haven’t yet found an object or set of objects that works satisfactorily as a self. The fundamental error is that we are looking in the wrong place: there is no self among objects. As long as we keep looking among objects for a self, our quest will be unsuccessful.

Gaining isn’t necessary. The key is to stop even trying to accumulate more and more.

The reason we try to gain is because we think there is something we lack. All desire comes from the fundamental, usually implicit judgment that there is something else that we need to live better. There isn’t.

Sengcan: “If mind does not discriminate, / all things are as they are, as One.”

Stop discriminating, even for a moment, and you’ll realize there is nothing else that we need to live better. Living well is available in the present moment, right here right now.  Living well is living in unity.

Curing restlessness is not easy, but it’s simple.

Sadly, this explains why restlessness is so common: sages are uncommon.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be this way.


As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this, please pass it along.

Some related posts: Learning from Nature, Surrendering, The Future, Time Consciousness

Related resource: Eckhart Tolle’s “Realizing the Power of Now” [6 CD set].

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