I’ve recently fallen into the habit of restlessness. This is not a good habit.
The last time I recall being conscious of feeling restless was a couple of years ago, but I recognized the feeling immediately when I realized it was happening again.
The time before was when I lived at the edge of the lower Garden District, in an apartment complex near the river. It was a Friday. My day off. I sat down to meditate, but instead found myself repeatedly getting up to take care of something or the other and then sitting down. And when I finally made myself sit still, I wasn’t remotely still inside. I was restless.
That’s an interesting word, restless.
My breathing gets shallow when I’m restless. Small furry creatures inhabit my abdomen and run around a wheel inside me when I’m restless. My mind skips from one chore to another that wants to be done, promising, lying, “just do this and you can rest.” Then when that’s done, it says, “Oh, I forgot. You need to do that too.” Or “maybe you should go get a nice cup of coffee before you sit.”
The only thing for restlessness is rest, and that feels like a sort of torture when your mind falls into restlessness.
Today when I felt restless I discovered another odd thing about it. I’d gotten about the usual time, brushed my teeth, made tea. I’d read the disquisition of lament that passes as the day’s news. Cleaned the kitchen. Visited with family. And when chores were done, I told Debbie I felt a need for spiritual nourishment, so I went, alone, upstairs to listen quietly to a favorite contemplative podcast, and to meditate.
I settled in, and sat still.
That’s when I realized that I was making myself restless. Something else wasn’t doing it to me. And when I sat quietly to listen, I found myself picking up my phone to check for messages, texts, emails. I’d listen for ten minutes, this shortness of breath, this urge to get up and do something eating at me. I’d give in to the urge. Stop. Get up. Do something quickly. Sit again. Listen. But I never lost myself in the conversation to which I was only half-listening.
To be restless is to be without rest. It is to fall into the habit of not resting to such an extent that rest does not settle in our bones. In that state, we act out of restlessness, and whatever we do manifests that same character. If we interact with others, we do not share ourselves, or wisdom, or compassion, or care; we share only our restlessness. And there’s no shortcut to a cure for restlessness. It requires rest.
And, ironically, the fact that many of us are isolated, at home, some of us even relatively inactive these days, doesn’t mean restlessness decreases. Indeed, for most of us, it is on the increase. And, strangely, those of us who do find ourselves busy in this time, as often happens among those with their hands full with remote work and childcare and home-schooling, the deep need for rest eludes us even when we are exhausted.
The pure actuality that is divine being (what medieval Christian theologians referred to as God as Actus Purus) precedes even potentiality, because it is unconditioned. God does not, we might say, stir himself to act; he is at all times for all eternity “actuality at rest.” That’s why God never gets restless. Again, God doesn’t “stir” himself to act because his actuality is at rest. God acts, we might say, without being stirred. Unfortunately, for us, we find ourselves stirred incessantly, whether real action is called for or not, as though our actuality depends on the stirring. This incessant stirring wears a channel of reactive habit in our souls.
And the only cure starts with an awareness of the habit, an awareness of the feeling, an awareness that busy-ness only reinforces it, and an awareness that the only cure is to rest. We become uneasy with the restlessness, and this disquiet opens the door to rest. Then comes the hard part: stepping through the doorway, breathing in place, gently inviting ourselves in our restlessness to rest, graciously observing the compulsion “to get up,” but allowing that compulsion to pass without being driven to react, resting in the pure actuality that God shares with us until rest is restored. Then we may have something worth sharing with those around us.