After writing more generally on the hindrances, the negative mind states that crop up in contemplative practice, I’d like to write more specifically on them and how to work with them. After Bhante Bodhidhamma, I like to look at them in sets of two, since each pair are two sides of one coin. First up is restlessness vs. dullness.
The general advice applies always: the hindrances are not, ultimately, something you want to ‘get rid of’. Direct attempts to do so will increase their severity. Trying to manipulate your experience is the opposite of insight practice. They are called the hindrances because they are particularly unpleasant mind states that lead to beginners throwing in the towel: they are hindrances to practicing, not to being a ‘good meditator’. Mindstates are the material that we have to work with in practice. If all you have are crap mindstates, then they are the material that you must work with. Eventually straw turns into gold as the relationship to the hindrances changes from one of aversion to an objectivity, and they tend to reduce due to the relaxation of the mind around the ‘issue’ of having them.
To recap, I’ve not really found the traditional Buddhist advice of ‘rub your earlobes’ or ‘imagine a light’ very useful, when instead what is required is process thinking. The hindrances come in sets of two, like seesaws: when one sinks down and recedes, the other one often comes back up. The trick is to notice the underlying pattern, which is of avoidance. Practicing on retreat makes this the most obvious, because there are few distractions. If you are worrying endlessly about whether your dog is okay, though you have left your faithful mutt with a reliable friend, then the pattern to be discerned is that of thoughts taking you away from the present.
Specifically, restlessness can be twinned with dullness; being wired alternating with being dozy. Restlessness is the urge to move on the cushion when you’re not comfortable, the jumping of the mind from topic to topic. The wish to leave the retreat and fix your life is the subtle near enemy of right effort that is actually restlessness, as it is a superficially good reason to avoid the good work you need to do right here and now. In its worst or exacerbated form (when you’ve tried your hardest to push it out of your head and made it worse) it is agitation, even panic.
Dullness is dullness of mind, dullness of awareness. It superficially comes across as tiredness but is all in the head: when you get up off the cushion, it goes away. It can be daydreaming, reverie, fogginess, a being half-asleep. It is a near enemy of relaxation because it lacks the effort required to attend to the now, and tells you that you absolutely must just tune out and become oblivious for just a few seconds… which spirals down into complete torpor. At its worst it is a mind blank: when I have put in too much effort (often to try and suppress restlessness), the brain just takes the path of least resistance and switches off to internal and external stimuli. It can also be caused by bad posture, as keeping the spine straight wakes you up.
The two seesaw, being opposites. You can go from dull to restless in nanoseconds and back again, if you have the mindfulness to note the speed at which they are swapping (which is an interesting and informative exercise, but not one I’d recommend any more as a core practice). Ajahn Chah used the story of the jackal with fleas to illustrate this movement: it runs around to distract itself, it jumps in a pool of water to try and soothe the bites, then it rolls around on the floor. None of these actually gets rid of the fleas; it’s just exhausting. In the same way, being restless or being dull can be seen as reactions of the bodymind to sitting down with no distractions and suddenly looking suffering full in the face; or even, the habit of anticipating suffering and so being unable to rest even in pleasant states for very long, in those of us who are especially wired and anxious (and probably everyone at some point). The bodymind does what it can to entice, persuade or force the Watcher to stop watching.
It is worth noting before I go any further: I used to be very macho about dullness. If I was dull, it was definitely just my crap meditator’s mind that hadn’t been sufficiently purified yet, and not physical tiredness. However, these days, I recognise just how tired I can be, and I recognise when I start nodding very hard on the cushion that I have basically not been looking after myself very well. If it is mental dullness, I instead stay upright (after years of sitting that have accustomed me to that position) and I just go fuzzy. Lots of things can contribute to tiredness, and so it becomes part of the virtue training to look after the body so that it can meditate reasonably well. More experienced practitioners can practice in tougher conditions as their level of craving and aversion lessens: for example, while I am no master, I can practice with pain in my legs, and don’t go off into a rage when some newcomer behind me can’t sit still for a moment in the shrine room. However, restlessness and dullness remain a real bugger for me and so I am being careful to set up good conditions in my life so that they are not exacerbated by, for example, lack of sleep or stress that makes me want to just switch off. Similarly, dullness of the mental variety (as opposed to tiredness as above) could be a response to your life having such stress in it that you really don’t want to face it at a really deep level. While of course you can’t just choose not to have stress, there are things in my life that I am choosing to step away from as they just seem to cause me too much worry for not much gain, such as trying to achieve more than I can comfortably do in a day or taking risks that have little payback. This is also a reason for people having mental health difficulties not to really hammer at insight practice, but to be ultra sensible and kind to themselves in a way that is a gift, and is also a compassion training.
So, after doing training in virtue to get a little bit more stable (and preferably, carrying on doing it as you go along), there are ways to practice with severe restlesness and dullness. Noting, I reckon, is really perfect for this, and can be chucked into whatever practice you may be doing, whether it is prayer or anapanasati or whatever. Instead of fighting not to have a dull mind as it starts to sink, be aware of the flavour of dullness. Note ‘dull’ or ‘sinking’ and notice how the mind can weirdly be aware of its own dulling awareness. Often this will actually wake up the mind, as it is an injection of investigation into the process that gets the brain going a bit more. After all, one of the big reasons for dullness is boredom in practice, and investigation is also translated as interest from Buddhist texts. Get engaged with your dullness, get familiar, rather than refusing to look at it; if you want to have ecstatic insights, get humble and start looking at what is in front of you rather than trying to force insight.
A little reflection on your aims is a good start with restlessness. Are you here to worry about your overdraft? No. You are here to investigate the fabric of your experience. If the worry seems genuine, resolve to note it in your mind to work on when you get off the cushion. If you are of a prayerful nature, and the worry seems to massive to bear, then don’t bear it- humbly leave it in God’s hands, asking to surrender to His will, whatever he may choose to do with the situation. This is folding hindrances back into practice with a bit of wise reflexivity. You can also pick your meditation object carefully. I find sitting with physical unpleasantness, even quite severe pain, quite tolerable for some reason, so I go into the body when I experience restlessness. I can have a wide focus that takes in the whole of the body, and notices the dance of restlessness throughout parts that are otherwise reassuringly solid. I can focus in on a source of pain and watch how the body reacts to that area. I find sitting with very stressful thoughts much less tolerable, but I know that ‘the thoughts don’t hurt’ as Kenneth Folk says it, and the dukkha can be investigated more plainly through the body. The mind’s nasty thoughts have a bodily response, and so I can experience this. I can then also reflect at the end of a sit that thirty minutes of restlessness did not kill me: the bark was worse than the bite, and I even learned a few things about myself in the process.
When the two flip flop back and forth very quickly, it’s for one reason: you’re putting in the wrong effort. Relax. Resolve to stop hunting for successes in meditation and even consider switching to a form of practice that emphasises surrender over goals. The kind of effort you want is minimal: this is not laziness, or being miserly, but like adding the most subtle glaze to a piece of food, or the thinnest coat of paint to a detailed model. If you are just getting one of the two solidly, then it’s a huge lesson for you, should you choose to take it as such- that’s a success not a failure!