Stillness is often named and described as a key feature of meditation; physical and mental stillness. In a previous blog essay titled ‘What is Meditation’ I described meditation as “just sitting … Just sit, and then sit some more for a while”, as Zen teachers often do. Yet a reality of many people’s meditation sitting, much of the time, is lots of interruptions to stillness. Body sensations of wanting to move due to itching, aching, general restlessness and more is a frequent complaint I hear from people attempting to develop a meditation practice. This is accompanied by the near universal complaint of a very active mind, constantly thinking.

Taking the physical movement issue here – is it okay to slump and straighten again many times, or to scratch, twitch, stretch, twist, open and shut eyes or move through a sitting?

This is no small question, as you will no doubt appreciate if you have been developing your own practice. Some of the schools of Zen and Vipassana would seem to project an answer to this question of: “stay still, don’t move”. And likewise, traditional yoga meditation has placed great emphasis upon stilling the waves of thought activity in the mind. Though I greatly respect those classical approaches my answer is: Of course it is okay; whatever is happening is what is happening; it is all about how we proceed now, this moment and in each next moment. This is an idea also firmly in the classical Buddhist teachings, so we can see that we face some paradoxical teaching around these issues.

Why is it okay that we may move, wriggle or twitch a lot in a meditation session; or for that matter, do lots of thinking? Let’s list some reasons why it must be okay:

  • You may be a meditator who has a nerve or muscle disorder – should that make you ineligible for meditation?
  • You may have allergies or an itching disorder that screams to be itched, and maybe you manage to reduce it greatly through a meditation session, but still find yourself scratching a number of times.
  • For any number of reasons you may presently find it hard to adopt a beautifully balanced, upright posture which does not slump or require adjusting a number of times through a session.
  • With regard to thinking, you may have an enormous amount of activities on the go in your life that you keep replaying and chattering about in your mind – this particular reality could be stated 20 somewhat different ways for different people – yet meditation is surely still a good thing to do.

The conundrum of stillness / non-stillness in meditation is like much of the stress and difficulties in our lives – it is all about how we choose to view it and react to it. Depending upon where we have been learning to meditate we may have an ideal in our mind of sitting in stillness, with a still or progressively more calm mind. Sure, it’s a reasonable ideal. And then, however, we face the actual experience that oftentimes we have a not-so-still body, and a very busy active mind. The ideal, and our meditation-as-it-is, can seem to be miles apart.

Let’s come at this today by considering some extremes of body movement. Many people have disorders that involve involuntary moving, such as Parkinson’s Disease and Parkinsonian Tremors, Cerebral Palsy, Huntington’s Disease or other of the Chorea disorders, Dyskinesia, WittMaack-Ekbom syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, Essential Tremor, or dozens of other conditions. Surely none of these people can be considered unable, or unsuitable for the wonderful benefits of meditation and mindfulness? Surely there are ways by which people with such conditions can integrate their frequent physical movement into their sitting meditation. The very fact that we have such a practice as ‘walking meditation’ reminds us that meditation and movement are not incompatible – or to put it another way, complete stillness is only one pathway of entering meditation.

If I suddenly had one of the above conditions how would I approach my meditation? Or how DO I approach my meditation on days when my body is extremely restless?

I start by taking a moment to try to find a balanced posture that feels settled, whether I am in a chair, kneeling on a mat, sitting cross-legged or indeed lying down. Then I pay some attention to progressively relaxing most areas of my body – there are several ways of doing that with which you are possibly familiar.

Then when the first twitching, shuffling or squirming happens (which may be immediately) I try to check what my mental reaction is; to check my mindset. I may well have a goal, and wish for deep relaxing stillness; that’s fine. But do I have a reaction to the squirming something like: “I have to stay still, this moving is making it impossible to meditate”? Well I reckon I now need to have a good, close look at that attitude, and to challenge it. If I had one of those disorders listed above I have probably already thought about this issue prior to sitting. If the moving feels like it cannot be ‘relaxed away’ it is now time to put on a different attitudinal hat.

Can I genuinely slip into a mindset like: “Ha, so this is what nature has in mind for me today. Lets really experience it, lets see where it goes”? Can I adopt that mindset with real attentiveness, curiosity and even creativity?

Leaving aside creativity for now, let’s start with attentiveness and curiosity. Can I openly observe the movement while it is happening, utterly unknowing about how it will unfold and progress in the next moment, and the next and the next? Even if it is an annoying scratch, a need to straighten up, or anything. I would see if I can be fully aware and interested in the feelings of moving, straightening, shuffling or whatever, while it is happening, and then equally aware of the contrast of stillness when the movement stops or pauses. If the movements are frequent and pretty constant then I am attending to movement sensations most of the time, with just little moments of contrasting stillness here and there. It is a different experience to meditation where stillness predominates, but it does not necessarily have to be resisted or downgraded as inferior practice.

This is not much different, for example, from how we treat sounds in mindfulness meditation. We notice and are aware of sound while it is there, equally noticing the stillness or spaces between sounds, and practise remaining both non-judgemental and even somewhat curious about the qualities of sounds that arise, change and fade away. Likewise with each body movement, I can rest my awareness on it as it starts, as it does its thing, and possibly stops for a time.

If I haven’t had much success at relaxing into a deep stillness, then I find it much better to let my attention and experience flow with what is actually happening. Better to let the unwanted and uninvited come into the fold, become accepted, and even welcomed. An analogy might be the way that many parents are able to accept and love children who have disabilities or strange behaviours that they cannot control. Can we accept and love the behaviour of our bodies, and even our mental behaviour, when meditation sessions seem to go haywire? I think we can. I think it is very liberating if we can. Sometimes we get overly serious about meditation. If a chaotic, haywire meditation session ends up turning into having a great big belly laugh at yourself and your antics, I reckon that is not such a bad thing. It may even be a blissful thing.

As this essay closes I am aware that it didn’t go into the concept of applying creativity to unwanted physical movements in meditation. We stayed at the level of “attentiveness” and “curiosity”; great attitudinal qualities for meditation. More on creative, expressive approaches in a future post.