Resting in the Restlessness

7:53:00 PM

At the Dia: Beacon in Upstate New York is a Richard Serra exhibit. A spiral that wraps in itself allowing you to walk in and let steel walls guide you to the centre--an empty, still, space. 

Restlessness feels like walking in that spiral over and over and over without ever getting to the centre. 

To be restless is to be suspended in a state of desire. 

Marcus Aurelius in Meditations ponders on resisting the puppet strings of desire. He posits this to be among the pillars of a good life. This ability to control our impulses—our desires, the distinguishing factor between man and animals. 

My friends know I am constantly doing mini-challenges with myself—for example, this 2020 I am avoiding alcohol. Part of this restriction is to practice saying no to myself and in doing so, ground myself in discipline—winning the battle with my mind. Doing so allows me to build credibility with myself. To constantly test and expand my internal narrative of who I am and what I can do. 

In behavioural economics we talk about the ‘action-intention’ gap. The gap between what you want to do, and what you actually do. That gap to me has always captured the difficulty in governing our minds (how many of your actions today did you deliberately choose to do? How many benefited you? How many do you not remember?). 

Aurelius says it best “It is shameful that the face should be so obedient, shaping and ordering its expression as the mind dictates, when the mind cannot impose its own shape and order on itself.”

Writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa said “to be at the mercy of buffoons is the ultimate insult.” To be at the mercy of my random desires feels like the ultimate waste, a lack of control in the most crucial place. 

Yet, restlessness doesn't alway reflect a lack of control. Rather, restlessness signals stasis---rest rather than progress. A comfort in my mind and body. And the urge then is action. Do more. Be more. Create more. 

A restless mind sometimes feels like a clothes line full of variety. I can do this, that or the other thing but I must do something. And that’s the hard bit. The desire—not to consume which would be easier to resist, but rather to do something. To create. To be. To put out into the world. 

Which then creates the ultimate conundrum. I think it’s better to produce that to consume. Life has more fulfilment when we do, and when we make. (Without getting into the complexities of the difference between meaning and fulfilment, I should note that I don’t think our actions give life more meaning, our mere existence is inherently meaningful. Feeling fulfilled is a completely different need). So if life is better when we’re doing and creating then surely feeling restless to do and create something is a good thing. 

But it strikes me that perhaps that approach is akin to downing some aspirin for a migraine without questioning what caused the migraine in the first place. 

The answer is not more. It’s less. And this is what’s unconventional for me. Where in response to restlessness I would traditionally act. Create. Write. Extend myself to take on new challenges and build new things. I think there’s a restlessness that comes from needing to be still. To stop and say just say “okay.” Not so I can restart all the activity but so I can become more intimate with my restlessness and better understand. 

I think the point of the Richard Serra sculpture is just that. You take a risk and wander through this dark spiral expecting that it will be worth it at the end because of what’s in the middle of the spiral. But the middle is not the reward, the experience of wandering is. 

I’d like for this rambling to be useful to you, so here’s something you can do if you’re feeling restless. Sit in it for a while. Experience the restlessness and just let it stay there. Don’t go for a walk, don’t create something new use up that restless energy. Just sit with it. And see what happens. 

In the Still Retreat—a free program I launched to help women access calm and feel more connected, you’ll find a guided meditation to help you sit with your restlessness—check it out or practice on your own. Let me know how you go either way by dropping me a line or commenting below. 

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