Switching off is getting harder

One of the pervading physical experiences of many people in the West in the latter half of the 20th Century is the inability to switch off, to relax. This can manifest in insomnia or sleep problems, and also a chatter in the mind that will not switch off.

In his most recent TV series Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, Richard Dawkins discussed how to achieve peace and inner tranquility with Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Lhakdor, the Dalai Lama’ s official translator and archivist. For Dawkins, as for so many in the west, the answer was diversion, in his case by listening to music or involving himself in something in which he could lose himself – specifically for Dawkins, science.

Are you getting enough REAL relaxation?

Are you getting enough REAL relaxation?

Doing something creative or imaginative that transports you and makes you lose track of time is certainly an effective way of relaxation.

For many, relaxation means taking time off or a holiday. Typically this involves lying on a beach, reading a book etc. For many the picture at left would represent an ideal image of the concept of relaxation.

Effective and rejuvenating sleep is also important. But there are certainly many ways to more actively relax.

Basic forms of meditation

You will find that I mention Meditation in three different contexts in this “Achieving Eurythmia” section – on a physical level, on a mental/emotional level and finally on a spiritual level. This is because you can use meditation techniques specifically aimed at producing effects on any or all of these three levels.

On the most basic level, meditation can relax the body; it can serve as a purely mechanical technique that helps you to relax. At the next level, it also actively relaxes the mind. And at its highest level many people who meditate can experience blissful sensations, or have religious/spiritual experiences.

Some techniques will simultaneously produce effects on multiple levels at once. You will also find that, depending on the levels of tension in either your physical or mental state, the effects of the same technique one time may produce mainly physical effects, whereas on another occasion they will be felt on a mental or emotional level.

So let’s progress up the techniques.

Progressive Relaxation and its variations

On the most basic level is Progressive (Muscle) Relaxation, a technique pioneered by American doctor and psychiatrist Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. This technique simply involves first the tensing of one particular muscle group, followed by its conscious relaxation, and the progression usually moves in a logical sequence through the body. In this way you would usually start at the toes, then work your way up your legs and through the rest of the body, ending with individual muscle groups around the face and head, and finally the whole head. The last relaxation is the whole body at once. The theory behind Progressive Relaxation is that one can only recognise relaxation by first recognising tension. Jacobson observed that this technique could not only reduce anxiety, but even had a positive effect on skin rashes and allergies.

Biofeedback is a variation on this that uses various instruments to monitor brainwaves, heart rate and other physical responses. It is certainly true that you can learn to control the extent or severity of physical responses by some kind of physical or mental training, although I have found instrumentation such as used by biofeedback unnecessary.

Autogenic Training was developed in Germany by psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz and is not dissimilar to Progressive Relaxation, in that it also teaches the individual to relax parts of the body, this time with the aid of a set of visualisations.

I would have some reservations about these latter two techniques. It has been recommended that these techniques should be learned from a qualified practitioner, and there are often warnings that people with heart conditions and psychotic disorders may have adverse effects.

But certainly, any meditation technique can be taken to extremes by people who have a particular barrow to push. That is why you should be careful to find a teacher you can trust, or who has been thoroughly recommended.

Moving Meditations

Exercise forms such as Yoga and Tai chi have a similar beneficial effect and are gentle on the body, providing you know and stick to your limits. In other words, if you think you shouldn’t tie yourself in knots with a yoga pose, don’t!

But there are many different types and levels of Yoga, as there are for Tai chi. It is important to find your right starting level, and by all means have aspirations to climb to new levels, but only when you are ready. A good experienced teacher here is crucial.

At higher levels of practice, these practices can literally become moving meditations. I have never advanced to a high level of Yoga, but after several years of Tai chi, I found that the almost unconscious or automatic performance of the movements often resulted in a state of mental and physical relaxation and coordination quite similar to a deep sitting meditation. And Tai chi also has very beneficial physical health effects, having the effect of exercising internal organs and toning the body while increasing flexibility, balance and strength.

I’m sure Yoga does the same for relatively advanced students, but here’s a lesson in doing what appeals to you and leaving what doesn’t particularly excite you. While Yoga never grabbed me personally – perhaps because I didn’t find the right teacher at that particular stage of life, it was Tai chi that interested me.

The following video epitomises what appeals to me about the tai chi experience – the beautiful environment out in the fresh air, the social interaction, the calming, flowing, meditative movements:

Flash Mob Tai Chi – Oeiras, Portugal – 2012

If you’re interested in trying it out, I can thoroughly recommend the Australian Academy of Tai Chi, with whom I learned. (There is not, incidentally, any commercial connection or benefit to me for this recommendation – I just know they’re good, and they approach teaching in a systematic and competent manner).

You should pursue whatever interests you, not necessarily whatever has been recommended or that you think might be best for you. But it’s a good idea to try anything at least once. You never know what you might like until you try it.

To find out about Meditation on the next level, namely the mental / emotional level, click HERE.