Relaxation is not as easy as we might think. The intention alone is not enough. We are not as in control of ourselves as we like to think.
It gives us comfort to feel like we are in control of ourselves. That we can control our bodies and our minds. That we can always feel the way we want to feel. But that is not the case.
1. We are not in control. There's no need to strain.
We are living organisms who function on their own. Our heart beats without us ever thinking about it. We breathe without ever having to be afraid we will forget. Nutrients are absorbed, waste is created, our cells regenerate, our nails grow, our bodies get tired when it's time for us to recharge with sleep. We function without ever having to do a thing.
The brain is the most complex organ of the body, but it's still an organ. It does its own thing. It makes us feel fear, anger, joy, sadness and all sorts of things. It tries its best to aid us with our understanding of the world.
We easily feel very guilty about what our bodies do, forgetting that we are not in control. Pema Chödrön explains this beautifully in her book When Things Fall Apart.
"My moods are continuously shifting like the weather. I am definitely not in control of what thoughts or emotions are going to arise, nor can I halt their flow. Stillness is followed by movement, movement flows back into stillness. Even the most persistent physical pain, when I pay attention to it, changes like the tides.
I feel gratitude to the Buddha for pointing out that what we struggle against all our lives can be acknowledged as ordinary experience. Life does continually go up and down. People and situations are unpredictable and so is everything else. Everybody knows the pain of getting what we don't want: saints, sinners, winners, losers. I feel gratitude that someone saw the truth and pointed out that we don't suffer this kind of pain because of our personal inability to get things right."
The first step to relaxation is always to accept this fact about ourselves. Imagine the weight lifted off of us when we finally understand it.
2. Let go of your thoughts.
You don't have to control your thoughts. As we have established in the first point, you can't do that. So there's no need to strain yourself and then feel bad you didn't succeed.
But that doesn't mean we have to let our thoughts control us.
Relaxation is not about controlling our thoughts and feelings, but about not letting our thoughts and feelings control us. They are just thoughts and feelings after all. Thoughts are not reality and feelings will pass. All is well.
When we are overwhelmed, it is useful to practice letting go of our thoughts instead of holding on to them, so that our thoughts stop feeding our feelings. There is no need for thinking in such a situation. Letting go of our thoughts, our story lines, is a good step toward relaxation.
3. Don't run--relax into it.
When humans are faced with anything uncomfortable, they run. Away. And what is most uncomfortable to us are our feelings.
We cannot run away from ourselves. So there is no use in struggling. We probably have control strategies that we think work. But feelings pass on their own. Us doing anything against them is just the illusion of control. So we might as well relax into it and let it pass on its own. No feeling lasts for long. Even with our non-peace, we can be at peace.
In short: We cannot control. So we don't have to think so hard. We can practice relaxing into our feelings. They will pass on their own without us ever having to do anything.
A guided meditation on the topic can be listened to here.
"Letting go is a practice; it's an art." - Thich Nhat Hanh