Essay

What Nervous Twitching Has Taught Me About Inner Peace

By Duff McDuffee on February 13th, 2012 1

As a child, I would frequently bounce my leg, tap on any flat surface, rock back and forth, or otherwise move and shake. While this was a useful way of calming and soothing myself (aka “stimming” as it’s called by those who study Autism Spectrum Disorders, or “nervous twitches” as I usually referred to them), it had the unfortunate consequence of annoying other people and giving me unwanted attention in the form of shaming and public humiliation.

At first I wasn’t even aware that I was engaged in such unconscious behaviors, so I often denied other people’s observations and accusations. When I became aware, I frequently felt embarrassed and resolved to stop such behaviors, but many times couldn’t because I wasn’t aware I was doing it and so I didn’t know how to stop.

When I was made aware of my unconscious movements by others, I tried holding myself still through bodily tension, but that just made me more anxious as the energy built up inside almost ready to burst. This is what I mostly did during my youth because I didn’t know of any other option than to self-monitor myself constantly and tense my body so I wouldn’t attract unwanted attention for my “stimming.” I learned to split my attention between what was happening outside and what my body was doing. As a result, I became extremely self-conscious which gave me a great deal of anxiety in social situations.

In high school I found a few books on meditation and Buddhism at a used book store and tried sitting still and meditating. I remember the first time I sat down to meditate. I resolved to sit perfectly still for 30 minutes but literally could not sit in one place let alone still for five. I practiced a little here and there will almost no success, but kept trying whenever I could.

In college I happened upon a book on self-hypnosis that a friend loaned me. I attempted some relaxation exercises which were nice, and some arm levitation which failed utterly. Somehow I got the idea to try relaxing my feet by placing my attention there and acting as if I were dead. I figured if I was dead, I wouldn’t need to move and bounce nor tense my muscles (luckily I didn’t know about rigor mortis). So I just gave up on moving or tensing and just let the muscles in my feet relax.

I first focused just on my big toe for as long as I possibly could until I could feel it start buzzing pleasantly. Then I scanned my other toes, then the ball of my foot, then the arch, then the heel, then the top of my foot, and finally my ankle, until my whole foot was buzzing and tingling. The sensation is similar to how a limb feels when you sleep on it funny and it goes numb but then wakes up, except more pleasant than the painful “pins and needles” feeling.

I then tried the same exercise with my hands while at a music concert. Many of my friends were in the conservatory of music at my university and so I went to many senior recitals that year, but always got antsy and started bouncing and tapping and drumming away. So I put my attention on one hand, starting with the tips of my thumb, slowly scanning that thumb and acting like it went numb or I was dead and thus didn’t need to tense or move at all, letting go completely. After a few minutes, sometimes 10 or more, it too began to buzz and tingle, and then I could continue until my entire hand would go numb and tingly, or sometimes both hands and both feet by the end of a 90 minute concert.

I noticed that my mental state also changed when I did this. I went from anxious with my mind racing (my default mode at the time) to much more calm and clear, my body buzzing and tingling and generally feeling quite relaxed. I wondered what would happen if I could get my whole body feeling this way, but it struck me as something that would take a very long time since it frequently took me 20 minutes or more just to get a nice buzzing going in one foot.

Later a friend turned me onto S.N. Goenka’s 10-day Vipassana meditation courses. I found the Vipassana technique to be surprisingly similar to my self-hypnosis technique in many ways, except not focused on going numb or making your body buzz, but instead being very aware of bodily sensations with a precise awareness without reacting, scanning from head to toe. The results ended up being somewhat similar however, as the natural progression of my meditations went from feeling lots of gross bodily pain to subtler pleasant buzzing and a flow of sensation all over. After my first course I noticed that emotions are made up of physical sensations for the first time in my life! I always thought emotions were just thoughts and hadn’t noticed they had a physical component to them. I realized then how poor my bodily awareness had been. And by my third course, I could sit all day without a problem—a big change from my first five minutes!

Most recently, I’ve become interested in whether my personal experience applies to that six-pack abs of meditation, “inner peace.” I’ve experienced inner peace numerous times through meditation, self-hypnosis, and Core Transformation, but it isn’t a lasting, ongoing peace yet. I still get nervous about some things, I still have ADD-like behaviors, and I still have a hard time letting my mind settle. Even when I have scanned the body with great precision in Vipassana, I can still be thinking about something else at the same time, due to the skill I developed in splitting my attention.

To focus on one thing at a time is frequently painful for me, and the basic “shamatha” (literally translated as “calm-abiding”) mediation where you focus on just one thing (the sensation of the breath at the nostrils, a specific body part, a mantra, or whatever) is something I feel I haven’t progressed in at all really, despite my progress in other techniques. Shamatha is the first technique I learned (and the first that many people learn), yet I still can’t keep my mind focused for very long before I’m like that kid again, unaware that his leg is bouncing—except this time it’s my mind, and there’s nobody to point it out to me except me.

Could it be that ongoing mental chatter, aka “the monkey mind” is like the nervous twitching of a leg? My first approach was to tense up against such activity, as if “shamatha” didn’t mean “calm-abiding” but “struggle to control your mind.” This aggressive approach seems like a similar strategy to tensing my body to stop bouncing my leg or tapping my fingers. It doesn’t work all that well for me in any case. I end up snapping at people and demand silence in my environment, something impossible to achieve even deep in the wilderness.

If I were dead, there would be no reason to continue an endless stream of purposeless nonstop thinking, so perhaps I can “die before dying” by just letting go of each thought as it arises. That’s what I’ve been trying lately at least, and it seems more like “calm abiding” than what I was doing before. It’s less about repressing thinking or cutting off one’s ability to think (which unfortunately many people take as the goal of meditation) and more about letting go of unnecessary nervous mental twitching.

Maybe inner peace doesn’t have to be such a struggle as we sometimes make it out to be.

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