The art of relaxation. What are we missing?
Relaxation involves bringing more balance to our nervous system. When the mind is on edge, we instantly feel it in our nerves. Anxiety, being jittery or twitchy, fearful, an uneasy feeling in our chest and abdomen among others are common symptoms of nervous unease. The mind is intertwined around the nervous system. When our nerves are frayed, we instinctively attempt to take the mind out of the equation, usually through various distractions. Alcohol is an example of a common method of easing our nerves. It works on body chemistry as well as the mind. When the tight clasp of the mind's hand on the nervous system is loosened through artificial means, we may feel relaxed. But this is only temporary and does nothing long term towards promoting relaxation on a permanent basis.
An important aspect of relaxation is loosening the bond between the mind and the nervous system. As long as the mind is not suppressed or the nerves artificially deadened through chemicals, there is no long term or lasting damage to the body or the mind. When awareness remains dormant, and in an unconscious state, the mind and the nervous system are glued together. As awareness begins to open up and flower, we become more conscious and deliberate. Awareness acts to create an insulating barrier between the mind and the nervous system. When we are fully aware, every thought or mental impulse will have to first traverse the gap created by awareness. Most thoughts may not have the power to bridge that gap. Even if they do, awareness silently cleanses them and only those which are beneficial reach the body through the nervous system. Through awareness, we are protected from the mind.
Relaxation also involves letting go. What’s on the surface of our conscious mind may be triggering a state of stress and tension. When those thoughts are let go, we help create open spaces in the mind. However, that openness does not usually last very long, and it is replaced by other thoughts. To create a more permanent “lung space” within the mind where we can retreat to and breathe easy, we will need to get to the roots that underlie thoughts which create a frequent disturbance. Unearthing all thoughts may be inefficient. It may not be practically possible. However, when we introspect, we may find a few dominant thoughts and ideas which create most of the friction and disturbance. Tackling a few of those thoughts may lead to significant gains in building an open and livable mind, one free of stress.
The most significant barrier to honest introspection is the ego. We can let everything go, but we cannot easily let go of the ego. Ego is outward looking while contemplation requires an inward look. When we recognize the ego as a barrier, it is like standing on the edge of a cliff. Standing cliffside, as long as our feet are on firm ground, the steep drop off by itself poses no physical danger. Even if someone said that there is a huge cushion to break our fall, only a handful might venture to jump off the cliff leaning on faith. The rest would walk away. With the ego it is similar. Letting go of the ego is like jumping off a cliff and trusting that we will be safe and no permanent harm will be caused.
Sleep is like a cliff, and we dive into it leaving the ego behind. It happens every day, and since we are accustomed to it, there is no fear. We know that when we wake up, we will again wear the suit of individuality. During sleep we are unconscious, and we cannot remember the depths we go to, leaving the ego behind. Awareness during sleep is absent. To go to similar depths while conscious and awake, we will have to drop the ego consciously. It takes some work on our part to make the leap from dropping the ego unconsciously during sleep to consciously letting go of it while we are awake.
The ego has embedded itself into the nervous system. No matter how much we relax, there is a portion of the nervous system and hence the body that is always under tension. Total relaxation is usually absent. When we are fully relaxed, we slip into sleep. The ego provides us with familiar footing and it not easy to let go. The more we try to rid ourselves of ego, the smarter it gets, and it comes back in subtler ways making it more stealth and hard to pinpoint. A cube of sugar can easily be transported, but once it is dropped in a pond, it can no longer be carried. The whole pond will have to be emptied and moved.
Early in life, the ego is like a cube of sugar. Once it mixes into the mind, which grows from a tiny pond to an immense ocean, every thought in the mind carries a tinge of ego. We cannot empty the mind all at once and neither can we, in our limited lifespan, make even a small dent towards emptying the mind. But there may be a way out. And that is watchfulness. The essence of awareness is maintaining a state of alert watchfulness. When we are sitting on a beach, it may be enjoyable to look at the ocean. But if we did not know how to swim, and we are dropped in the same waters we would be terrified. Watchfulness is like sitting on a beach and looking at a vast ocean with its many waves big and small. That watchfulness disappears the moment we step into the mind. The focus will be on evading some thoughts while garnering others and there is constant effort to stay afloat in the mind and key troublesome thoughts at bay.
We don’t know how to swim gracefully through the mind. Much of the time we struggle to stay afloat, trying to make the mind a more pleasant place and less of a nuisance. If we remain watchful and aware of the mind without stepping into it, the mind will gradually blend into the beautiful inner scenery. When we are engaged and interacting with the mind, it occupies the whole inner space. Watchfulness as a neutral witness gives us the experience of the mind as being a small part of the whole. A cactus plant can be enjoyed at a distance, but when we try to touch it, its thorns will cause pain. The mind is like that cactus plant. When we wear gloves of witnessing, we can approach mind and get very close to it and not be harmed. The most significant harm we inflict on ourselves is losing awareness of the fundamental separation between us and the mind. Greater is that separation, higher will be our ability to relax.
In a forest, there is an invisible order in which trees give space to each other to spread out and grow. Their leaves may intermingle, but their trunks and roots remain separate. Similarly, if such as order can be brought to the mind and nervous system, wherein they remain separate but can maintain communication through our conscious awareness, the mind can stay as is, a vast collection of thoughts, experiences, and ideas but will have little or no negative impact on the nervous system. The nervous system, in turn, will be able to express its energy freely and uniformly. Under the influence of the mind and our likes and dislikes, particular parts of the nervous system are amplified, and other portions remain dormant. Amplification of nervous energy through a small group of nerves may manifest as pain or discomfort of the area supplied by those nerves. If that energy is diffused over the entire nervous system, there will not be any danger to the physical system. If we focus on being watchful and building awareness, the mind and the nervous system will work themselves out, and the outcome will be a state of constant relaxation.