Ordinary Mind as the Path I (Restlessness)

This year, I completed the training to be a Level 2 Coach in the Unified Mindfulness (UM) system of meditation. During the last session of training, the system’s originator, Shinzen Young, held a day-long virtual workshop for all the trainees. During a portion of that workshop, I volunteered to present a particular challenging aspect of my personal practice of meditation so Shinzen could demonstrate how to interactively discover different options I could use to work with the challenge. Something that struck me profoundly (among several other things) was when he told me something a teacher of his used to say:

“Ordinary Mind is the Way”

I resonated with this for a lot of reasons that I hope to touch back on as I describe different ways in which I have found this statement to be true. We can be positively transformed by even our common negative experiences when we bring mindful awareness to them — instead of sticking to us, they can purify us (maybe even spiritually). When using the word “Way”, what I specifically mean is the Path of deep human happiness. This will undoubtedly take a little unpacking, but what I hope to demonstrate is that we always have “the Way” within our reach; it is always ready at hand. Remaining open to this possibility makes it more likely: your own openness sensitizes you to the rectifying potential of completely experiencing negative states of mind.

This is the first of a 10-part series of articles on how we may actually learn to find “the Way” in the shadows of our lived experience. In total, I will be sharing some thoughts on how to digest and transform (“purify”) what I think of as 10 of the most uncomfortable aspects of an average life:

  1. Restlessness (from subtle impatience to deep unrest)
  2. Anxiety (general, performance, social)
  3. Anger (from slight irritation or offense to enraged explosion)
  4. Depression (from subtle lowness to deep sorrow)
  5. Embarrassment and Shame (looking bad and identifying with “bad”)
  6. Laziness (lack of motivation)
  7. Excess (lack of self-control)
  8. Regret (maybe as a result of laziness and/or excess…)
  9. Parenting (we’ll see how that one goes…)
  10. Confusion (mental fog, distressing aimlessness, and “Don’t Know” mind)

So… that’s a lot…

Here goes!


Restlessness is very tricky to work with, and it can take a variety of forms…

“Stuck-in-traffic-while-running-late” is a very common instance of what I am calling “Restlessness”, but it can range from the mildest impatience to the deepest existential unrest. I think restlessness is distinct from anxiety: it seems to have a slightly different quality about it – restlessness is kind of like having a lot of built-up momentum that is being stifled in some way (having lots of physical or mental energy swirling around without anywhere to put it), whereas anxiety could be thought of as an unsettling uncertainty or fear about what has happened, what is happening, or what might happen.

Whether you agree with this distinction or not, it is useful to pick apart different terms used to describe separate mental states: to respond appropriately to a given distress, one should have clear sight of what the distress is — and, in many ways, we come to know what a thing is by the name we use to describe it. Giving our experiences the proper name can have a very empowering effect.

So, how does restlessness show up? For me, there is often the building sense of stifled tension in the body. If the limbs are not already moving on there own, they are seeming to clutch to a strong urge to shift, tap, rock, slide, reposition, or do SOMETHING to dispel the boiling energy locked in the body’s nervous system.

The mind has its own versions of this uneasy energy: maybe thoughts speed up and blot out any open real estate in the mind; or blend together in a rapid-fire flood of mental talk; or maybe there are sudden and uncomfortable spikes in negatively-themed mental images (and, to make matters worse, this mental variety of restlessness can also be accompanied by the sense that there is some vital piece of life that is somehow missing in that moment).

Maybe your “flavor” or restlessness shows up a little differently…

Regardless of how restlessness shows up, you can probably at least begin to put your finger on that quality of thirsting for change (“I’ve got to MOVE!“) in the mind and body.

When you can begin to identify and describe the sensations and “mental behaviors” associated with (or brought about by) restlessness, you’re already set up for some success.

What to do next may be a surprise to some — and it will be a VERY common theme throughout the remaining 9 posts in this series. Rather than attempting to get rid of these terrible sensations and mental states, do your best to establish an openness and curiosity toward the source of distress: try to detect subtle changes or different textures of body sensations; maybe rate how much restlessness is present in the mind at any given moment on a 1-5 scale; or see if you can ride the waves of rising and falling intensity found in this uneasiness. What this does is makes you more susceptible to beginning the process of softening and unraveling the swirls of tension and bundles of disturbance that make up what you may be experiencing in a moment of listless discomfort.

Spend some time with this — you probably won’t have trouble finding practice material! Over time, you will begin to sense a loosening grip and a spacious quality of flow within your thoughts and body sensations.

You don’t have to try to defeat this nagging restlessness; you don’t have to forfeit to it either. It wants to move? Give it space. Let it move: just don’t move with it… or against it.

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