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Refraining

Do you have a nervous habit?  I did.  I do.  But they’ve morphed over the years.  From my childhood until I was married, I used to rock myself to sleep by shaking my foot back and forth.  [As you might imagine, this did not go over well with Dan, my husband, and I had to learn to fall asleep completely still.]  My sister Anne and I shared a double bed, and we’d both gently rock the bed until we drifted off.  I was a nail biter, too, as a child.  Thankfully, that’s disappeared.  Now I bite the inside of my cheek when I’m concentrating hard.

“Well-being of mind is like a mountain lake without ripples.  When the lake has no ripples, everything in the lake can be seen.  When the water is all churned up, nothing can be seen.”

All of this is a little disturbing to me, simply because there’s a reason I’m doing it.  Why can’t I be still?  What is it about the situation that I feel the need for movement?  Might it be that I’m not truly at rest?

I come from a long line of nervous tics.  When we have a family gathering, you can see them all right there, in plain sight.  The nail biting, the eating, the drinking, the sewing machine leg, the shifting.  You name it.  We’ve got it.

I found it interesting that Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, suggests not only the practice of mindfulness but of refraining as well.  I’ll let her explain.

“Mindfulness is the ground; refraining is the path.  Refraining is one of those uptight words that sound repressive.  Surely alive, juicy, interesting people would not practice refraining.  Maybe they would sometimes refrain, but not as a lifestyle….It’s the quality of not grabbing for entertainment the minute we feel a slight edge of boredom coming on.  It’s the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap.

“Once I was given an interesting meditation practice that combined mindfulness and refraining.  We were told just to notice what our physical movements were when we felt uncomfortable.  I began to notice that when I felt uncomfortable, I did things like pull my ear, scratch my nose or head when it didn’t itch, or straighten my collar.  I made all kinds of little jumpy, jittery movements when I felt like I was losing ground.  Our instruction was not to try to change anything, not to criticize ourselves for whatever we were doing, but just to see what we did.

“Noticing how we try to avoid it is a way to get in touch with basic groundlessness.  Refraining—not habitually acting out impulsively—has something to do with giving up entertainment mentality.  Through refraining, we see that there’s something between the arising of the craving—or the aggression or the loneliness or whatever it might be—and whatever action we take as a result.  There’s something there in us that we don’t want to experience, and we never do experience, because we’re so quick to act.

“Underneath our ordinary lives, underneath all the talking we do, all the moving we do, all the thoughts in our minds, there’s a fundamental groundlessness.  It’s there bubbling along all the time.  We experience it as restlessness and edginess.  We experience it as fear.  It motivates passion, aggression, ignorance, jealousy, and pride, but we never get down to the essence of it.

“Refraining is the method for getting to know the nature of this restlessness and fear.  It’s a method for settling into groundlessness.  If we immediately entertain ourselves by talking, by acting, by thinking—if there’s never any pause—we will never be able to relax.  We will always be speeding through our lives.  We’ll always be stuck with what my grandfather called a good case of the jitters.  Refraining is a way of making friends with ourselves at the most profound level possible.  We can begin to relate with what’s underneath all the bubbles and burps and farts, all the stuff that comes out and expresses itself as uptight, controlling, manipulative behavior, or whatever it is.  Underneath all that, there’s something very soft, very tender, that we experience as fear or edginess.”

Then Chödrön tells a story.

Once there was a young warrior.  Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear.  She didn’t want to do that.  It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly.  But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle.  The day arrived.  The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other.  The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful.  They both had their weapons.  The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, ‘May I have permission to go into battle with you?’  Fear said, ‘Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.’  Then the young warrior said, ‘How can I defeat you?’  Fear replied, ‘My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face.  Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say.  If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power.  You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me.  You can even be convinced by me.  But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.’  In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.

Chödrön says we have to respect our fears.  Respect how we’re feeling.  We have to understand where they’re coming from—how we’re allowing them to increase our pain and confusion.

Pause.  Don’t fill up the space with movement.  Connect with the restlessness so it can teach you why you want to go, go, go.

How easy it is for you to stay calm, observe, and notice?  Can you be completely present, without any anxiety about how people perceive you?  It’s harder than it looks.

[Post image: Floating plant by BeverlyLR on stock.xchng]

2 Comments


  1. shawn
    Mar 16, 2011

    I love this and needed this as I’m under difficult times (working for the man crap) and find that I do need refraining … refraining from filling the silence, refraining from filling the void, refraining from saving people who can save themselves, and refraining from always being the one who cares too much. I do all of these things when uncomfortable. I wish I just bit my cheek. : )


    • Elissa
      Mar 16, 2011

      I like your comment about “refraining from saving people who can save themselves.” I hadn’t thought of that one, and it’s so true…

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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