Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration, and Meditation - Selections

Ancient Skills for Modern Minds, Revised Edition

Part One: Relaxation

Do everything with a mind that lets go. Do not expect any praise or reward.
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace.
If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom.

Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.
—Ajahn Chah
 

Dynamic Relaxation

The relaxation described in the pages that follow is not a passive, limp, or ineffectual state, but one characterized by a dynamic, ever-adapting balance between a calm, clear, relaxed quality of presence and an alert readiness. This state of dynamic relaxation is finely tuned and responsive to the ever-changing circumstances and conditions of daily life. With practice you will learn to immediately feel when you are holding more tension than you need to perform at your best. By learning to release that extra tension, your brain and muscles will be vitalized with oxygen and nutrients, you will be able to think more clearly and make better decisions, and your ability to act will be enhanced.

Relaxation skills are the foundation for practicing concentration and meditation. You probably know from experience how difficult it is to harness and focus the power of your mind when your body is filled with tension and your mind clouded by fatigue and anxiety.

Once you begin to understand and practice the skills described here, the tensions and distress of your life can be met as opportunities to apply and refine your growing skills in relaxation. This requires the conscious cultivation of:

  1. Self-awareness: the ability to know what you are experiencing—sensing, feeling, thinking, etc.—at any moment
  2. Care and kindness: the authentic and heartfelt concern that deliberately chooses the paths that lead to greater harmony in your mental, physical, and personal relationships with the world
  3. A joyful appreciation of the process: an attitude of gratitude and openness to learning and growing from life’s unceasing challenges, a joyful dedication to living life as a game to be mastered in the arenas of your own mindbody, and in your work and relationships
  4. Commitment and courage: the willingness to do whatever it takes to continue to realize and nurture your own extraordinary potentials and help others do the same

Relaxation skills build the foundation for your practice of concentration and meditation. This is a dynamic process, leaving us at times immobilized by distress, at times simply coping with our tensions and anxieties, and at times energized, calm, and confident, having all the information and ability we need to master the stressful demands that life’s changing conditions inevitably bring. Having learned to master stress, and to live more and more in the state of flow, we catch the upward spiral of continuous personal development. Breakthroughs to extraordinary levels of health, insight, and performance become more the norm than the exception.

Though stress and tension will always be a part of your life, when you know how to relax, there is no need to get tense about being tense, or feel anxious about feeling anxious. Stress will energize rather than destroy you. Change and challenge will provide every opportunity for growth, creative expression, and extraordinary levels of health, performance, and insight.

As you learn to reduce the noise in your system, physical vitality, mental clarity, calm, centered strength, and emotional well-being that are fundamental to the human spirit will naturally and effortlessly arise.

With this in mind, let’s look at the guidelines and methods of practicing the fine arts of relaxation.

Remember…
Relaxation is not something that you do.
It is a natural response that you allow to happen. Relaxation is what is left when you stop creating tension.

 

Guidelines for Developing Relaxation Skills

1. Motivation

When you start to practice relaxation or mental development skills it is important to understand why you are doing it and to generate a positive motivation toward this learning process. Actively choose to practice relaxation. Remember that it is not what you do but how and why you do it that matters.
 

2. Regular Practice

Make these relaxation tools work for you. Regular, consistent practice is essential if you want to gain maximum benefit from these skills. Remember that when you learn to, say, ride a bicycle, develop marksmanship, or any other physical skill, you are using muscles you have never used before. So too when you learn how to relax: You will be stretching mental muscles that you may have never been aware of before.

Many people recommend that you practice twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening—and this ideal would be excellent. But more important is to consciously integrate these techniques into your daily activities. While standing in line, waiting on the phone, or sitting at a stop light, pause for a few moments to breathe away your tensions and bring calm and clarity to your mind. The more frequently you use these strategies, the more dependable they will be for you. Continuity of practice over time will, in the long run, be more important than duration of any one practice session.
 

3. A Quiet Environment

It is better at first to practice in quiet, comfortable surroundings. This will help you to zero in on the physical and mental qualities you are learning to develop.

Once you have become familiar with your internal controls, and how to access your target state of relaxation, you will be able to carry your practice over into more stressful environments. In fact, the world will continually provide you with opportunities to test and refine your skills in the face of challenge and the unexpected. Having mastered these skills, it is possible that at some critical moment, when it really counts, you will have the energy, balance, and clarity to touch somebody’s life in a meaningful way— and this, of course, includes your own!
 

4. Focusing the Mind

At the beginning of each session, it is helpful to employ a concentration technique to quiet, calm, and focus your mind. A simple method is to be mindful of the natural flow of your breathing as you inhale and exhale with full awareness. You might also experiment with the many excellent concentration techniques presented in Part Two: Concentration.
 

5. Effortless and Voluntary Surrender

This state is characterized by an alert, receptive, and calm intensity of awareness. Initially, the challenge is to learn to develop a fine balance between an open, calm attentiveness and the more tightly focused mind that tries to change something or make something happen. This balance is learned through practice and attention to the feedback you receive from your attempts to relax your body and mind.

For best results, allow relaxation to happen. The harder you try, the tenser you will become. Release your tensions as you exhale. Relax into the gentle pull of gravity. Let your eyes be soft. In an easy, natural and effortless manner, just let go of the mindbody tensions that you no longer need. Allow your internal RPMS to slow down, and find your natural rhythm.

If you are the type of person who has always been busy doing rather than being, this approach may at first be alien to you. With practice, however, you will discover a totally new type of inner strength and power when you are deeply relaxed. Don’t worry about losing control. Whenever you need to apply effort or push harder you will be rested enough to do so. You are simply learning to have the choice of two operating modes rather than the compulsive limitation of one inefficient habit. Without this option you may struggle for the rest of your life to keep control rather than simply settling into the power of life naturally and effortlessly.
 

6. Proper Posture

For best results, a comfortable upright position is recommended for practicing these relaxation techniques. It is important that your spine be straight. Lying down is discouraged if you have a tendency to fall asleep. With practice, you will find that you can tune in to an optimal balance between relaxation and activation while walking, talking, driving, or engaging in any activity.
 

7. External Guidance, Internal Guidance

Initially, the external guidance of another person or a taped guided relaxation is useful as it is easier to just let go into the experience. As you become familiar with the stages of relaxation and the variety of mental and physical indicators, you will be able to enter these states at will and under your own guidance. The balance that you develop is similar to simultaneously driving a car and being free to enjoy the view, or playing music and being totally entranced by it at the same time.

For most of us, this is an unfamiliar state of awareness. With practice, however, you will expand your mental and physical awareness to allow you to easily guide your own relaxation sessions. Once you have become familiar with the relaxation techniques by practicing morning and evening, you will be able to apply them when you need to throughout the day as an antidote to stressful situations. You may wonder, however, just when the best time would be to actually apply them. Generally speaking, it is best to practice before you are mentally or physically exhausted. And try to avoid practicing on a full stomach or when you are extremely hungry.

If you wait until you just can’t take any more, odds are your mind will be so agitated that it will be almost impossible to concentrate. And if you wait until you are exhausted or full from eating, you will probably fall asleep. As soon as the boat starts to take on water—use the bilge pump! Don’t wait until you feel swamped or out of control before you use these techniques to dissipate stress.

Remember that your body-mind is your primary instrument. Monitor it carefully throughout the day. Consciously relax or fine-tune frequently.

If you are having difficulty settling down and tuning in, try scheduling your relaxation sessions immediately after periods of exercise or heightened arousal. At these times there is a tangible mental and physical release, a natural time of letting go. Just ride the wave of this shift from sympathetic-nervous-system activation to the parasympathetic relaxation response. At this time investigate and recognize the stages, feelings, and indicators of relaxation while they are most apparent.
 

9. Overcoming Difficulties

There are two main obstacles that you will inevitably encounter in your practice—distraction and drowsiness.

Distraction can be of two types: external, such as noise, heat, cold; and internal, such as physical sensations, pain, and mental wandering. The best strategy in both cases is to include the distraction in your awareness while minimizing your resistance to or identification with the distracting event. Just let it be, and keep your attention on what you are doing. Even if your mind wanders a thousand times, gently bring it back. Do not engage in mental commentary on the process—just do it. Gradually, the agitated, wandering mind will be tamed and you will be able to stay focused on the task at hand.

As for drowsiness or mental dullness, it would be useful to check your posture to make sure you are sitting upright. You could take a few deep breaths, or even splash your face with cold water before continuing your practice.

You might find it helpful to contemplate the preciousness of your life and the unpredictability of your death, and to muster a firm resolve to make the most of each moment.

Don’t allow your wandering, compulsive mind to control your life, and likewise, don’t wait to wake up on your deathbed realizing that you have slept through most of your life. Take charge! Be patient!