I'm on the beach, trying to relax... and brainstorm for this article. As a psychotherapist, my clients frequently ask me for tips on how to achieve a state of calm. Now's my chance to capture something crucial about this inexplicable process (and to reduce my own anxiety the next time one of them asks).
Sitting properly on my towel -- tall spine, floating head, evenly-distributed sits bones -- I take deliberate, forceful, "deep breaths." Looking up at the sky, I attempt to churn out interesting reflections on what I'm doing, with a force equal to my breathing. I try to squeeze helpful insights from my brain but come up with nothing -- it's like I'm attempting to juice a walnut. Here I sit, in the gentle ocean breeze with a pensive, furrowed brow, each breath feeling like a jab to the gut.
"What are you doing?" my husband asks.
"I'm trying to relax." Hearing myself, I feel a rush of humiliation. The concept of trying to relax is of course ridiculous.
I'm suddenly flooded with memories: all the times I've tried to be cool, calm and collected. I see my former Alexander Technique teacher -- a small, sublimely-chill woman -- laughing at my failed efforts. I see my psychotherapy supervisors modeling deep breathing for me, my drama school teachers modeling deep breathing for me, my mother modeling deep breathing for me, my supremely anxious, Type A uncle modeling deep breathing for me (really?). I'm taken back to childhood, hearing the shaming, penetrating voices of my older brother's friends, "Dude, just relax!"
Relaxation is the most difficult Olympic sport of all, and the sting of not getting a medal can run deep.
I choose not to give in to my feelings of embarrassment and defeat. Instead I look into my husband's eyes and laugh. All of a sudden, there I am: present, and arguably relaxed -- it's a start, anyway.
Finding our present is often the missing step as many of us begin a meditation, yoga or any other mind-cleansing practice. When a yoga teacher instructs me to take a deep, belly-expanding breath, I often tense up, strain my throat to suck in air with a punishing focus, and contort myself into "zen-mode" but end up feeling stressed instead of restored.
As an alternative, what if I just took a breath and allowed it to be shallow? What if I noticed my internal chatter (e.g. "You're not sitting tall enough," "Your throat isn't opening wide enough," "Your breath should be in your belly and your lower back, not your chest") but didn't submit to it? What if I recognized the irony of how hard I typically work to relax and laughed at myself more frequently, like I did at the beach?
Before we attempt to follow any more instructions on how to "chillax," we might find it helpful to get in better touch with our raw materials. For me, this means accepting that a series of disciplined breaths isn't going to turn me into the Dalai Lama, and that my impatience, neurosis, and tendency to breathe shallowly is part of the package. When I invite myself to accept these things, I feel a genuine mind-body connection.
Allowing yourself to have your authentic contradictions, imperfections, and little messes -- uncomfortable as that may be -- is the beginning of true relaxation, I think... but don't think about it too hard.
For more by Mark O'Connell, L.C.S.W., click here.
For more on GPS for the Soul, click here.