Feeling relaxed

Who in your life is very relaxed – it could be an Elder, a baby, a friend, perhaps a pet? In my life, I’d have to say that my cat seems most relaxed. It’s not that she doesn’t have any stress in her life. She and the neighbour’s cat don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes she’s locked inside at night when she’d love to be outside instead, exploring and hunting. And as for visits to the vet…

Still, when she’s curled up on the couch, or under the bed on a rainy day, it’s hard not to feel more relaxed just looking at her.

I’ve met babies who seem to gaze into the world with serene eyes, and Elders who have learned, over the years, to live with an open perspective to life which doesn’t get them bogged down in every small little stressor. Just as stress can be infectious (we all feel it when someone’s having a bad day at the office), so can relaxation. I feel more relaxed just looking at my cat when she’s fast asleep, and I feel more at ease when I’m in the presence of someone who radiates calm and compassion.

Sometimes we might feel – ‘I don’t have time to be relaxed, there’s just so much to do.’ Yet even when life is busy, we can benefit from slowing down the pace a little; and we can also choose to build little ‘relaxation moments’ into our day. We might not be able to linger for an hour over our afternoon cup of coffee, but perhaps we can take three minutes to pause, breathe, and really savour the drink. If we notice our breath is becoming shallow and our shoulders are really tight, we can roll our shoulders back a few times, and say to ourselves in a kind voice, ‘breathe, relax.’ Perhaps a bird is singing outside, and we can pause for a moment in whatever we’re doing, and allow ourselves to feel nourished by the bird song. In our everyday life, there are countless of these small opportunities for building more relaxation into our lives. They may not seem like much, but over time they make a noticeable difference to how each day unfolds. It is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves – and it’s not only we who benefit, but those around us enjoy the contagious effect of being around a more relaxed person as well.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one small relaxation practice (either one of the ones mentioned above, or a practice of your own choosing), and commit yourself to pause for this practice at least three times a day for the next week. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Curiosity and mindfulness

Being curious in an open, non-judgmental way is one of the key differences between relaxation and mindfulness. The relaxation response is the opposite of the fight/flight mechanism which is activated under stress, and relaxation can help to repair and regenerate our bodies and mind when we’re under pressure. While the regular practice of mindfulness does lead to increased relaxation, in the short term, mindfulness can mean we become more aware of tensions or discomfort.

Our brain has sometimes been described as an ‘anticipation machine’ – we unconsciously predict people’s behaviours based on what we’ve experienced in the past. It is our shortcut mechanism to help us filter and sort the countless stimuli we are bombarded with every day. Up to a point this is necessary. For example, we predict that when the traffic light turns green, the cars in front of us will probably begin to move, and we get ready for this. Not keeping an open mind, however, can really limit our effectiveness at work, as well as lead to impoverished relationships. One of the most toxic statements we can make to our family is ‘you never…’ or ‘you always…’. These statements are rarely true, and limit our family member to a caricature rather than a complex, flesh and blood human being.

We can also apply this curious, open mind to the workplace. A very useful questions when talking to someone might be ‘ can you tell me a little more about that?’ Doctors in busy public hospitals are under great pressure to diagnose quickly, but there are some preliminary indications that mindfulness training can be useful for doctors, allowing them to keep an open mind and ask a few more questions before jumping to a conclusion based on the most obvious symptoms. This has been associated with a decrease in misdiagnosis.

A few years ago I was driving down a quiet side street when I saw a man standing next to a car, gesticulating wildly to a woman driver who was sitting in the car with her window down. I immediately assumed the man was being aggressive in some way towards her, towering over her, using his gestures to intimidate her, perhaps even preventing her from driving off. As I slowed down to see if she needed any help, I suddenly realised they were both talking in sign language. Their conversation was animated, but perfectly friendly.

Mindfulness is about slowing down enough to notice what is really going on, rather than jumping to conclusions. This is helpful in our interactions with other people, but also in dealing with ourselves. We often make outrageous assumptions about ourselves – I’m a failure, everyone else manages to be happy all the time except for me, most people probably take twenty minutes to put an Ikea kitchen together and here I am, three hours later…

It’s delightful to talk with someone who is genuinely curious about you, who loves to hear about your job or a recent holiday or your little children. It’s one of the most precious gifts we can offer to another human being. It quickly bypasses notions of racism or sexism – once we’re curious about another person and take the time to get to know them, we soon realise they’re complex and unique.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, choose something you don’t usually pay much attention to, and apply some mindfulness and curiosity to it. It could be another person, something in your environment, an action you perform frequently. Notice how it feels to engage with mindful curiosity.

Anja Tanhane

The Rush to Relax

Flower in glass

We’ve probably all done it – rushed through something which needed to get done, such as cleaning up after dinner, in order to get to what we really want to do. The tasks we are racing through are almost seen as ‘empty’ time, of little importance to us. We feel our lives should be filled with more important matters than washing dishes, paying bills, brushing our teeth. When I saw the movie ‘Amélie’ I was impressed with her calm, considered morning routine. It looked like such a rich part of her life, something she enjoyed every day. My own morning routine seems very mundane in comparison, without the French soundtrack, the special lighting effects, the sense that, because this is a movie, every action is important.

It could be called the rush to relax – the sense that because my time doing the things I love is precious, I need to deal with the rest of my life as quickly as possible. However, there are at least two ways in which living like this is problematic.

Firstly, most of our lives are made up of mundane tasks we have to ‘get through’. By the time we’ve had a shower, prepared, eaten and tidied away three meals, got ourselves to work or school or the shops and back, ticked off the many ordinary tasks we find there, taken care of our family and pets, done our exercise, dealt with the mail, phone calls and e-mail, paid a few bills and organised ourselves for the next day, it’s basically time to go to bed. Continue reading “The Rush to Relax” »