For many of us, relaxation has little to do with awakening and self-realization. Instead, we mainly view relaxation, along with the various activities we undertake to achieve it, as a way to reduce fatigue and energize ourselves for what is to come, as a form of stress reduction, or simply to “unwind” and enjoy ourselves. And to be sure, these “therapeutic” views of relaxation are part and parcel of a healthy, creative, and productive life.
The great spiritual traditions, however, teach that relaxation–including the special, inner action called “letting go”–lies at the heart of inner work and awakening. The principle is a simple one, at least on the surface: unnecessary physical or nervous tension clouds our perceptive faculties. It cuts us off from the light of consciousness and from the direct inner and outer impressions of reality it can bring. Deep, conscious relaxation is what can “open” us in a harmonious way–body, mind, and feelings–to new levels and frequencies of perception. It can help us reclaim the miraculous sense of aliveness and awakeness that is our birthright.
In my own life, I have found it helpful to explore relaxation from three, interrelated levels, which I will discuss briefly here. I believe that these levels, which of course mirror our psycho-physical structure, must be understood through direct experience for relaxation to go beyond the merely therapeutic and help us to awaken from the many dreams and illusions we have about ourselves and others.
Relaxation & The Proper Use of the Body
From my experience, the first level of relaxation has to do with the proper use and alignment of the body. It is helpful in exploring relaxation to remember that almost everything we do takes place under the influence of gravity, a constant force that not only gives us weight, but frequently weighs us down. Science has shown that the majority of the impressions and stimuli that reach the nervous system do so as a result of muscular activity under the influence of gravity. And this activity includes not only our intentional muscular actions, but also various unseen antigravity mechanisms and adjustments within our body as we move through our lives.
From this perspective, relaxation has to do with finding the right posture, alignment, and balance in everything we do. Obviously, complete relaxation would be death. The heart, lungs, and other inner organs must continue their work in order for the organism to survive. And the muscular system must find the proper rhythm of work and rest, of contraction and expansion. If one set of muscles becomes weak or unbalanced, others must make up for it. And to do so they must give up their own lawful rhythms. If the abdominal muscles, for example, become too tight too often, the action of the diaphragm can be seriously impaired. And this in turn will disturb our breathing, which will have a deleterious affect on our entire being.
One of the chief manifestations of physical imbalance is unnecessary tension or strain in one or another part of our body. Unnecessary tension or strain, which keeps a muscle in a more or less chronic state of contraction, not only consumes energy but also causes the accumulation of excessive waste products in the cells, which in turn causes fatigue and reduces our kinesthetic sensitivity and ultimately our consciousness. Chronic unnecessary tension also puts our brain and nervous system into a state of constant vigilance as they attempt to bring the body/mind back into homeostasis, and this process consumes our attention and energy, leaving little of either for inner work and awareness.
Unnecessary tension and strain can have many causes–from faulty physical education to mental or emotional pressures and fears. Whatever the cause, however, our self-image, supported by our habitual thoughts, feelings, and sensations, becomes so entangled with these tensions and strains that physical relaxation alone is often not enough to eradicate them. The brain itself–and especially the sensory and motor cortexes, which play a large role in the development and maintenance of our self-image–must be reeducated through a program of conscious remedial action. And this reeducation involves all aspects of our being.
There are numerous experiments one can undertake to learn more about the conditions required for physical relaxation, but perhaps one of the most useful (for both beginners and long-time practitioners) is to lie flat on your back in what is called in yoga the “dead pose” (legs and arms on the floor). As you lie there, consciously sense any areas of tension and relaxation in the various parts of your body, including those that contact the floor. Sense your feet, your heels, your legs, your hips, your back, your arms, your face and mouth, your head. Check also under your knees, the small of your back, your neck. Notice your breathing. Is it tense and constricted or easy and open? Just be attentive to what is going on without any effort to alter it.
As you try this experiment you will see how one or another part of your body tenses or contracts itself and is unable to surrender to the support the floor offers. Don’t try to get rid of the tension or contraction. Just experience the sensation as fully as possible, allowing it to gradually release itself under the intimate influence of your attention. It may helpful to imagine that the floor is a magic carpet actually lifting your body from below. Or it may be more useful to imagine your body actually sinking into the floor. Experiment in both ways. In many cases, simple awareness of the tension in relation to the whole of the body will be enough to help the body relax more deeply. The real point of the exercise, however, is to allow the overall sensation (sensory awareness) of your body to come fully to life. When this occurs, it is much more possible to observe the way in which your thoughts and emotions are constantly influencing your physical functions, often in very constricting ways.
Relaxation & Negative Emotions
The second level of relaxation has to do with our so-called negative emotions, particularly emotions such as fear, anger, impatience, and anxiety. These emotions are related to the “sympathetic” branch of the autonomic nervous system, with its well-known “fight or flight or freeze” reflex. The main function of the “fight or fight or freeze” reflex is to ensure our survival in the face of life-threatening dangers from the outside world.
Whereas the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, with neurons located mainly in the cranial nerves and the lower-back region of the spine, is associated with rest and relaxation, the sympathetic branch, with neurons located physically mainly in the chest and mid-back regions of the spine, prepares us for dealing with perceived dangers by taking a variety of emergency measures. These measures include increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, constricting our blood vessels, releasing sugar stored in the liver, dilating (opening up) our airways, and flooding our bodies with adrenaline and other hormones. The end result of these and other measures is to bring more blood and energy to the muscles so that we can take appropriate physical action.
To relax emotionally, we need to turn on the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which includes the “relaxation response.” Unfortunately, modern life is filled with constant excessive stress. And many of the dangers of the modern world are dangers we can neither fight nor flee. We are reminded of them nonstop through newspapers, television, the Internet, radio–indeed all the media of the modern world, as well as through our own revolving thoughts and conversations with friends, colleagues, and so on. So the reaction continues until the stress stops (which it seldom does) or until we grow weary with exhaustion, or until we simply stop paying attention to these threats or what is being communicated about them. In any event, this chronic “fight or flight or freeze” reaction constricts our breathing, consumes our energy, undermines our immune system and health, and diminishes our awareness of the mystery and miracle of our own being.
Interestingly, and in spite of all the problems of today’s world, a great deal of the emotional stress and fear we experience in our lives is totally unnecessary; it is self-induced, based on our imagination or on our “interpretation” of what is taking place in and around us. It is one thing, for example, to react instantaneously by jumping out of the way of a fast-moving automobile, but quite another to react instantaneously to a perceived insult. Because so many of our stressful experiences are self-induced, based on the stories we tell ourselves, we can learn to have control over them by not continuing to feed them with anticipation and negative thinking. But, of course, the first step is to clearly see the way in which we constantly contribute to our own emotional stress.
For example, the next time you feel that someone has insulted you in some way and you begin to feel hurt or angry, stop for a moment before allowing your negative thoughts and judgments to take over completely, and simply ask yourself: was the person correct in what they said to you or about you? If so, relax and be thankful that that you had an opportunity to hear the truth about yourself in that moment. Or if through your own direct awareness of yourself and your actions it is clear that the person’s insult was off base, then once again there is absolutely no need to become tense and negative. Of course, this way of looking at the truth of ourselves in action, described in various ways by G.I. Gurdjieff, requires the wish and ability to observe and think in an honest way about what we are experiencing.
Relaxation & Thinking
The third level of relaxation has to do with our thoughts, for it is our thinking that often acts as a catalyst for reactions in other parts of our being. Certain kinds of thoughts have the physiological effect of “tightening” us up, closing us to life and the movement of the life force, while others actually “loosen” us up, opening us to life and the life force. There are so many examples of this in our ordinary day that it takes only a few efforts of honest observation to verify that it is true. The effect is so profound, in fact, that in most every spiritual tradition you will find the idea that “you become what you think.”
When we begin observing and questioning our thoughts sincerely, along with the stories we tell ourselves, we see that many of them are simply not true. Our thoughts about our husbands, wives, children, colleagues, friends, enemies, and so on, for example, are often based on imagination and unseen attitudes, assumptions, and expectations in ourselves, yet they have a powerful influence on our emotions and body. We may think, for example, that we deserve more attention or respect than someone is giving us, but if we ask honestly “Is it really true that they should do so?”, we often quickly see that it’s not true at all, and that it is the thought itself that brings unnecessary suffering by arousing certain negative emotions and constrictive postures and movements.
The spiritual traditions–especially those of the East–teach us that it is our attachment to, or identification with, our thoughts and beliefs, and the assumptions and expectations that underly them, that causes most of the unnecessary tension and suffering in our lives. One need not look very far to see how this identification affects our lives. Almost all of the personal, societal, political, and global misunderstandings and violence we face are based on identification with these thoughts and beliefs.
Obviously, we cannot live without thoughts. Nor should we. We can, however, learn to “let go” of our expectations in the moment of how things should or should not be or turn out. For it is these expectations (and the fears and anxiety that often results from them) that affects our nervous system, causing unnecessary tension and often bringing about the opposite of what we desired. One finds this idea of attachment-free action in all the great spiritual traditions, and expressed with great power and clarity in the Bhagavad Gita. One acts as best one can, with one’s whole heart and attention, but without dwelling on or worrying about the outcome.
Letting go of our thoughts can itself be extremely difficult to understand, for it cannot be forced; it cannot be the result of our so-called will. It needs the support of another kind of feeling in us–an all-embracing feeling that can open us and help us become more interested in what we are actually doing and experiencing, instead of what we “should” be doing and experiencing. This feeling is sometimes described as wonder. But perhaps the beginning of wonder is innocent curiosity, the ability to take pleasure in learning more about whatever is happening in the moment. Curiosity helps us become more playful; it relaxes us and helps open us to the subtle, always-changing forms and energies of reality.
Curiosity, however, must begin with ourselves. If we stop whatever we are doing for a moment and observe ourselves as impartially as we can, we will see plenty of reason not only for curiosity, but also for wonder. “What, me, here now?” For no matter how successful or intelligent we may be and no matter how we may view ourselves or what we may believe, the truth is that we understand almost nothing about ourselves and the mystery of our existence. Accepting this lack of understanding and becoming curious about the possibility of real self-study and self-knowledge relaxes us and allows us to look at ourselves and the world in a new, more-innocent way. And with this relaxation comes not only more energy and a feeling of increased well being, but also an expanded sense of awareness. In this larger field of awareness, we find our thoughts, along with our habitual assumptions and expectations, letting go of us more and more often, thus freeing us to become more present to and welcome “what is’ without judgement. It is this presence and welcoming, this genuine “yes” response to whatever conditions that now presents us with, that lies at the heart of awakening.
Copyright 2008-15 by Dennis Lewis. This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in The Journal of Harmonious Awakening.
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