Friday, June 8, 2012

Determined To Relax?

It Won't Help...

If you are determined to relax, your determination will get in your way. Determination involves rallying energy, focusing with more intensity, bearing down, that sort of thing. Relaxation is a kind of not-doing. It's something you let go into, not force your way into. Every now and then I get a T'ai-Chi student who's really determined to relax. It never helps. It can help you with other elements of T'ai-Chi, but not the relaxation element. Not in my experience anyway. In fact, people often hide their fear and resistance to relaxation by being very gung-ho and determined to relax. But being determined to relax is like trying to pick up a chair you are sitting in.

I think it’s better to channel your determination into creating a regular practice, or into the basics of an art form. Use it to do the fundamental work that is the foundation of any art. But then, when the foundation is built and solid, let go of determination and see if you can sense into what you’re already doing that makes you tense and stop doing that. See if you can find the muscles you are unnecessarily holding onto and let them go as much as you can. See which muscles are too weak and soft need to be firmed a bit. See where you’re anticipating struggle and over committing your strength. See where you’re anticipating ease and under committing your strength. I call this “Muscle Level” work. Regardless of the art, Muscle Level work is where you take the tension out of what you’re doing to find a more relaxed, graceful and efficient way of getting there. It’s all about using the amount of force appropriate to the task. It doesn’t matter whether you are painting, drawing, writing or kicking, extra tension does not help you get the job done. And when it comes to relaxation, determination always means extra tension. Let it go and find the relaxation that’s already there, waiting for you to get out of its way.

Another misconception is that relaxation is a purely mental state, that it is purely a matter of attitude. I think attitude is important but I also think that relaxation is intimately connected to the body. I think that when people want to be more relaxed they tend to focus on their thoughts and attitudes or state of mind. This is well and good, but if you ignore the body, especially basic posture, I think one can only go so far. When I show people some basic postural points, often in the very first lesson, they are often amazed at the difference they feel. For instance, there are things you can do with your posture below your neck that make relaxing your neck, at least while standing, literally impossible. And, if you attend to these things, your neck will almost relax itself. Just as you will not let yourself relax into a chair with a rickety leg, your body will not allow you to relax your weight into a poorly aligned skeleton.

And it's not just a matter of "sitting up straight". There are all kinds of ways in which our bodies are held in knots or "nots" that prevent them from letting go into a more relaxed state. For instance, notice your knees when you stand. If they are locked, you will never be able to really relax, at least not while standing. Just let them bend a little bit and you will feel work returning to your thighs that you've been previously avoiding. When the body is aligned more or less properly, the muscles are free to let go. I've seen people doing all manner of exercises for their health and thought, Man, just give me one hour of posture work with you and I could make that exercise 10 times more beneficial.

Still another misconception about relaxation is that it is an empty or limp state. The way I'm using the word, relaxation, like balance, is a dynamic state of readiness that includes the potential to move into action. Picture a tiger walking through the jungle or a snake sliding through the grass. You would surely say such animals are relaxed, but you would never call them limp.

In fact, we have a saying in T'ai-Chi: Relaxed but not limp. Firm but not rigid. T'ai-Chi is about a balance between tension and relaxation with neither side being completely dominant. When we act the tension side comes to the foreground, and when we’re listening the relaxation side comes to the foreground, but each state contains its opposite which is ready to come forward if necessary. When we’re neither acting nor listening to anything in particular, we hang out in a neutral in-between state waiting to see what life calls for next. I don't hold relaxation as being better or higher than tension. Relaxation without tension is unhealthy and next to useless. Tension without relaxation is the same. What I don't like is an excess of either. That’s the idea anyway, the state we aim for: Relaxed readiness whenever we’re not acting or listening.

Here’s another way to look at it: What passes for relaxation is often a kind of vacated, passive, limpness. Usually in such people, a very hard core of tension can be found in their bodies. To me, true relaxation involves a Yin, receptive, passive element, with a latent Yang readiness to move into more intense movement. Just as what I would call true or "good" tension includes a latent Yin readiness to listen. When one is too far in one direction or the other, responsiveness is truly handicapped.

I like to think of maintaining a middle of the road, neutral, relaxed state, like the middle of a dimmer switch between full "on" and full "off". When action is called for, the dimmer moves rapidly in that direction, but as soon as the action has been completed, I try to return to neutral as fast as possible, since I don't know what the next moment will require. If more listening or receptiveness is required, the dimmer moves in that direction, but again, as soon as that listening has been completed, I try to return to the neutral middle again, as fast as I can, because I don't know what the next moment will require.

So it's kind of like an automatic physically trained springy dimmer switch, that's always heading towards the middle, even as more Yin or Yang energies are required in a given situation. To me this is the ideal of T'ai-Chi, whether martially applied or not.

Watch a tennis pro play a great match. You will see that in between flurries of offensive action, selecting targets and hitting the ball, there are other flurries of defensive set-up movements that are in response to the other player’s shots, and in between, always seeking a balanced, ready-for-what-comes-next state of mind.

And so to return to where I started: being determined to relax is self-defeating. But you can focus your attention on where you might be over or under efforting and see if you can correct that. You can also focus your attention of where you might be too tense and do your best to let go of that tension. We need to distinguish between tension and extra unnecessary tension. With no tension in your body, you couldn't even stand up. With too much tension in your body, that is to say, more than is needed for whatever job is at hand, injuries will surely follow. It's not tension itself that is the problem, it's the amount of it relative to the work at hand that is the problem. Removing excess tension can be a lifelong project but, I find, one well worth undertaking.

1 comment:

  1. My son and I had a conversation about this very thing a couple weeks ago. He was nearing the end of the school year, and had some anxiety about finishing all his school work. He was SO tense about it - and I was attempting (haha) to help him relax, because his anxiety was self-defeating, and he was trying so hard. Sweet boy. Anyway, he asked "Mom, it doesn't make sense. You want me to relax, and I want to relax, but if I try to relax...I am not actually relaxing. I don't know what to do!" What we ended up doing was going through a DVD exercise and yoga DVD by Steve Atlas "The Body Practice". But the end of it, we were both laying on the floor, completely physically tired out, and awesomely mentally relaxed. After a few minutes he got up, finished his math no prob - and later told me how much easier it was to relax when he spent the "upset energy" (as he called it) doing something physical, and then let his body relax his mind. He stated that last part in a different way, don't recall the words, but that's the gist of what he learned and communicated. Your post here reminds me of that evening. Such valuable life-stuff, martial stuff, creativity boosting concepts if you are open to them as a reality in your life. Thanks, Gene!