Relaxation mindfulness

We’re all familiar with aspects of the stress response – perhaps our heart is beating fast, our chest feels tight, we might feel nauseous or irritable or overwhelmed. Stress affects us differently – some people suffer more physical symptoms, others struggle mentally or have difficulties with interpersonal relationships. When stress becomes chronic, it’s likely to impact on all areas of our lives – our bodies might show a range of stress-related symptoms, our mind isn’t thinking clearly and we might feel teary or anxious, and our relationships can become increasingly strained as we feel overwhelmed by the demands of others when we’re barely managing our own.

Yet stress isn’t all bad – the right amount of stress can motivate us to focus, achieve and develop new skills and resilience. It’s when stress becomes chronic and relentless that it starts to have a negative effect on us. Fortunately, even though we might be more familiar with the stress response at the moment, we can also learn what has been called by Herbert Benson the ‘relaxation response’ – our body’s ability to relax and regenerate.

There are quite a number of different techniques which can induce the relaxation response – some of the best known are progressive muscle relaxation, where we systematically tense and relax groups of muscles throughout our body, and also guided imagery, where we are guided on an imaginary journey to a beautiful, restorative place. Focusing on a word during prayer (such as peace or shalom), practising yoga or Tai chi, even knitting and running, can all activate the relaxation response.

Mindfulness, in its meaning of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, doesn’t try to directly evoke the relaxation response. For example, rather than going on an inner journey to a beautiful place, a mindfulness meditation might involve an open, accepting awareness of difficult emotions and painful body sensations. However, because mindfulness has become a buzz word and is ubiquitous now, the distinction between practices involving the relaxation response and those involving mindfulness has become blurred. This is a shame, because mindfulness is only one aspect of what can be helpful for us – there are ancient traditions of contemplative prayer, mantra meditation, visualisation and so on which also deserve our attention and respect. Also, by throwing just about everything under the banner of mindfulness, we dilute what mindfulness can actually offer us.

Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will also help us to be more relaxed, as we become less caught up in the difficult aspects of our lives. Yet I wonder if some people might actually be more interested in learning the relaxation response – it meets their needs for managing day-to-day stress more directly, and gives immediate positive feedback.

Mindfulness is a particular way of approaching the world – to develop its non-judgmental stance requires good teaching and regular practice. We can all have experiences of mindfulness as part of our everyday lives, but to make mindfulness one of the central aspects of how we live requires more than a little dabbling here and there. On the other hand, we can all benefit from increasing our experiences of the relaxation response, by including practices in our lives which balance the stress response with the relaxation response.

Weekly practice idea:

What helps you feel relaxed? Write down a list of five or more activities you find relaxing, and choose one of them to practise this week. How does it feel to make time for the relaxation response in your life?

Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – New Beginnings

‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Yet physiologically and mentally we still respond as if we’re standing opposite a tiger about to pounce. Not only is this exhausting, it also limits our ability to remain aware of the bigger picture. We can spend months and years staring at a door which was shut in our face, and in the meantime life goes on, filled with new resources, new delights, new opportunities we barely notice.

The other extreme is to pretend nothing affects us, as if we were somehow immune from the normal processes of grief. Or we may give up too easily – at the first indication that a door might be closing, we’ve already dashed off to look for something new.

During meditation we learn, over time, to rest somewhere in the middle – to loosen our fixations, so our outlook becomes broader; but also to feel our grief when there has been a loss, to allow ourselves, with kindness, to feel hurt. To ‘always look on the bright side’ can be absurd when we are caught up in devastating circumstances. However, even in suffering, there can be opportunities for appreciation – for the caring gesture of a friend, the compassion someone has shown you.

When we watch our breath during meditation, we notice the outbreath coming to an end, a pause, and the beginning of the next breath in. The pause between each breath is the pause before the next new beginning. Resting in that pause can feel like a neutral space pregnant with new possibilities. The breath teaches us that we can’t hang onto the outbreath, to what has gone. Yet we also don’t need to rush immediately to the next breath in.

Perhaps, if we pause from time to time, we find new beginnings emerging by themselves, without much effort on our part. When we feel very stressed, it can be difficult to pause. We might fear getting stuck in the distressing sensations if we don’t rush headlong ahead. In fact, people usually report the opposite – that pausing during stress opens up new possibilities, a different approach, a sense of new beginnings.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to notice your breath, and allow yourself to rest in the pause between breathing out and breathing in. Notice the spaciousness before each new breath begins.

Anja Tanhane

 

Contentment

 Fern

‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’

From The Cloud of Unknowing

Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?

Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):

  1. The threat and self-protection system
  2. The drive and resource-seeking system
  3. The soothing and affiliation system. Continue reading “Contentment” »