Maintaining balance in the mind is an interesting discipline.
Often, we seem to be naturally off-balance, always going somewhere.
Trying to meditate can put us face to face with this desire to be always going somewhere. All you are asking your mind to do is be quiet, to sit still, to be content. But the mind replies ‘Yes, that’s all very well, but this, but that…’ The mind wants to go off on a story, a journey. It wants to investigate something, to resolve something.
We are naturally restless. I don’t think that an animal who was born, and then did nothing, would survive very long. Watch most newborn creatures, and you will see how hard they work to assimilate the world around them. Probably, the ancestors who survived were the ones who rooted for food, fought their enemies, itched to explore the next place for resources.
If that is true, then we may be naturally inclined to pursue, to gather, to investigate.
How does that sit with our frequent wish to be able to sit still, our hatred of worry, our allergy to anxiety? Why does a species that is naturally restless, also find it so agonising to exist with that same restlessness?
THE ROLE OF DISCOMFORT IN NATURE
One of the answers may lie in the role of discomfort. You may have noticed that one way to persuade an animal (including a human) to do something, is to make life uncomfortable for them if they don’t do it.
It may be that evolution has often developed via that same system. Consider two members of a species, being A and being B. Being A gets very uncomfortable when they sit still. So the move around a lot. Being B is always comfortable, and so chills a lot in the same place. Now, if I tell you that this species has recently had trouble with a predator that specialises in catching animals too lazy to move, then you may see what I mean. Being A is more likely to live. Being B is more likely to die. The species may therefore develop with an inherent tendency to be uncomfortable sitting still.
In this way, animals may develop with a natural tendency to avoid discomfort by being restless.
THE ROLE OF COMFORT IN NATURE
Equally, another way of persuading an animal to do something, is to make life pleasant or comfortable for them if they do it.
Evolution has, no doubt, developed species via this system too. Being A may love to move around, and being B may love to sit still. In this way, a species may develop to be comfortable moving.
Over time, therefore, animals may develop with a natural tendency to be attracted to movement by finding it comfortable.
(Equally, some animals have evolved to stay still. I’m only focusing on restlessness because it’s relevant to meditation.)
THE ROLE OF TIME-CYCLES IN CAUSING TEMPORARY PREFERENCES
Just to make things more complicated, all this depends on time.
The examples above assume beings with fairly permanent traits.
However, complex beings have the ability to develop different preferences at different times, depending on evolved priorities.
An example of this is ageing. Watch a young puppy, and you will see it has a preference to run and jump. Watch an old dog, and you will see it has a preference to chill out a lot.
Another example is shorter time-cycles. Watch an animal through its usual day, and you will notice its bodily responses and preferences change as the day progresses. We have day-cycles, month-cycles, mood-cycles… our preferences vary according to the complex interactions of these time cycles.
BACK TO NATURAL RESTLESSNESS
Now let’s come back to our natural restlessness. We feel it. Just when we think we should feel peaceful, something upsets our peace. It seems that we are naturally disinclined to be peaceful.
We have investigated a few of the reasons for this, and have discovered that, as evolved beings, we are a set of bodily responses with ever-shifting dynamic preferences.
Given our natures, we should not be surprised when we experience our own restlessness, our ever-changing preferences.
MEDITATION AND ACHIEVING PEACE
How does this affect our approach to meditation?
Well, it means that we should be realistic about what kind of body and mind we are training.
When you sit down to meditate, your aim may be to achieve peace.
When your body is sat down to meditate, it already has an evolved tendency to itch, to respond to the senses, to follow up stories in the mind.
Your mission, therefore, is to persuade your body that millions of years of evolution are giving the wrong messages, and that it can, in fact, relax now.
A tall order.
SOME TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE MEDITATION
Empathise with your natural restlessness. If you were on a walk with a restless child, then you would be kind and understanding, and try to soothe the child into enjoying the environment. You might distract it by pointing out flying birds, or big trees. In the same way, soothe your natural restlessness. Understand it, but encourage it to be distracted by healthy thoughts.
Don’t expect perfection from moment one. Given that you are dealing with an evolved body, give it time to adjust. Introduce your body to meditation time. Give it physical clues, such as a particular environment or position. Make it feel safe and comfortable. Help it to feel protected. Above all, treat meditation as an act of gentle persuasion, not some kind of enforced torture.
Be forgiving with yourself. If a meditation is difficult, then simply be aware of that, and gently examine the reasons why. Allow for the possibilities. Are you at a particular place in a time-cycle? Does that mean you need extra help or understanding?
Have a sense of humour with yourself. Although finding peace is in some ways a serious business, in other ways we should laugh at what we are trying to do. We are trying to persuade a restless fool to be peaceful. That’s amusing.
Learn from nature. If you watch nature – the whole universe – then you will see an infinite variety of ways in which beings and objects exist. Some are quiet for years. Some are exploding. Some are young. Some are old. Some old things are young by a different timescale. Watching the universe in this way will teach you that you take your own cycles far too seriously. But it may also teach you ways to understand your own context, and to be patient with your particular place in a universe of such variety.
When we try to meditate, we often find our bodies are restless and uncooperative.
At such times, we can remember that humans have evolved with a fair degree of built-in restlessness.
We can be kind to ourselves, and understanding. We can choose not to expect immediate perfection. We can be forgiving with ourselves. We can have a sense of humour about ourselves. And we can reflect that the universe has infinite variety, and we are only one being in it.
These reflection may not help us achieve instant perfect peace. But they may make it easier for us to be at peace with our imperfect attempts at meditation!