For some time now I’ve been tracking my daily steps. On one level the news has been good: most days without a huge amount of effort I hit my target. The bad news? This data seems to reinforce what my Beloved frequently says: I’m not very good at sitting still.
While stillness is not actually a critical life skill (for most of us) there are enough books, blogs and believers to explain how to do this, should we feel the need. Google ‘How to Relax’ and you’ll get 248,000,000 results. Clearly this is an issue for our time!
The media and the scientists tell us that if we don’t relax, bad things will happen. So an entire industry has grown around explaining how to do just that. Needless to say, there is one more thing to be guilty about if we haven’t at least flirted with mindfulness or developed some kind of daily practice.
My issue is not with the concept but with the execution. I think, ironically, we’ve made relaxing too difficult and bought into the judgements about what it actually means to relax.
The word relax comes directly from the Latin relaxare meaning to “loosen, stretch out, widen again” i.e. to recharge and regain perspective. (Not surprising then that instinctively, when we get home, the first thing most of us do is change into looser, more comfortable clothing which enables us to relax and widen again!)
In a bid to get into this state of mind, most of the relaxation techniques I’m familiar with try to get us there via our bodies – yoga, stretching, breathing and stillness. These can all be useful things to do, and they hint at the source of the issue – our minds – and in particular, our thinking.
But what if we didn’t have to ‘do’ anything to relax? What if we could simply allow our mind to loosen, stretch out and widen again all by itself?
I’ve been pondering this and have a couple of insights:
It’s just my thinking
Often the thing that gets in the way of relaxing is my thinking: I’m conscious of what ‘needs’ to be done and the ‘limited time’ available to do these things, especially when I have a lot on.
But here’s the thing: I’m the keeper of the list – I created it, I continually add to it, I decide the relative priorities, but ultimately all my list is, is a repository for ideas. If I stop ticking things off for a while a few things might not get done, but it’s extremely unlikely anything truly bad will happen. Indeed things may just take an unexpected turn to somewhere I didn’t expect.
It’s as if I operate from a faulty belief that says either ‘if I don’t keep pushing myself I might discover I’m fundamentally lazy and never lift a finger to do anything ever again’ or alternatively ‘I’m so important and indispensable, if I don’t do these things the world as I know it, will end’.
Either way, my thinking about everything I have to do is just a thought or a series of thoughts. It’s not actually real – even though I’m sure, in the moment, that it is.
Doing what brings me joy
I don’t follow prescribed advice about how to relax. I don’t, as numerous people suggest, spend hours, or even minutes meditating. I’d often rather see a movie on a sunny afternoon than go for a walk in nature.
By midlife I have some pretty good insights into what enables me to recharge. It usually involves not talking with anyone, sitting on the couch and catching up on recorded TV. At some point this will morph into gathering my thoughts about what’s happening in my life, tidying up, buying flowers and cooking i.e. pottering and grounding myself, rather than sitting still.
And here’s the thing: it really doesn’t matter what I do or don’t do, whether I do one thing at a time or amble semi-aimlessly from one thing to the next, the important thing is that I allow my mind to loosen and stretch out so my perspective can widen again.
So here’s my prescription to make it 248, 000, 001 on the Google search numbers: Recognise that all that’s stopping us from relaxing, is our thinking. Then go do something, or nothing, that brings you joy.
What’s your prescription? Give the rest of us permission by sharing your unorthodox way to relax below …