13th November 2009
What follows is a simple relaxation exercise which will help you be more easygoing, be calmer and have a sense of inner peace.
Find somewhere where there are few distractions. Sit comfortably with your back upright. Close your eyes or look down and let your eyelids droop. Notice all the small sounds you can hear for a minute or two. Do not try to analyse them or think what they remind you of or let your mind wander. Just notice them. Then pay attention to your breathing. Breathe normally. Notice how your breath enters your body and exits your body. Notice its temperature and how it feels in your nostrils or throat. Notice the rise and fall of your chest or stomach. Do this for several minutes.
If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your breathing or the sounds you notice. Choose whichever works best for you at clearing your mind of other thoughts. You might start to feel impatient and restless. This means you have trouble relaxing and really need this! Persist and it will get easier to simply sit still, doing nothing. The point of the exercise is to give your thinking mind a rest so that you can simply be aware of your immediate surroundings and how your body feels. If you start thinking about tomorrow, or later today or yesterday, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
Another technique is to notice familiar things which you normally ignore such as how the floor feels against the soles of your feet, or how your clothes feel against your body. You can make up your own. The idea is to just be, and not be thinking about the usual things that go through your head. A popular technique (the body scan) is to slowly scan your body, paying attention to the sensations first in your feet, calves, thighs etc and working your way up your body over a period of at least 5 minutes. You could relax each body part in turn, or visualise each part becoming more relaxed. These techniques force you to slow down and relax. I find the body scan more difficult and I prefer the breathing and sounds technique. You can imagine your breath as waves on a shore coming in, and going out, all by themselves, with no effort.
It can be difficult at first as thoughts enter your head but with practice you can learn to dismiss the thoughts and enjoy the peaceful state that follows. This relaxation exercise can be done for 5,10 or 20 minutes a day. With practice you can enter the relaxed state much more quickly and with less effort. If you do this in the morning or at lunch time you will find that you are more relaxed for the rest of the day. One place you can do this is in a parked car as no one is likely to demand your attention there.
The benefits claimed for such relaxation exercises are many, such as increased patience, feelings of calm and peace, compassion and gratitude. There have been studies showing there are benefits for those with chronic pain. However there have been negative effects in severely depressed people.
If you do these exercises daily or several times a week, or just when feeling stressed, you may start to notice how much calmer you are in general. You can even do little mini-exercises as you go about your day, simply by drawing your attention to your breathing for a few seconds here and there, or by directing your awareness to the feeling of the ground against your feet as you walk. I think after practice, the exercises have trained the mind to relax so just noticing your breath acts as trigger (like Pavlov's dogs) and sends you back into the relaxed state of mind again. You can customise these techniques to suit yourself. The general principle is to calm your mind and stop it racing ahead or worrying by directing your awareness to what is going on in your immediate vicinity.
Relaxation exercises are often used before a stressful event such as a job interview or giving a difficult presentation at work. They are increasingly being promoted in psychology. After several weeks of practising, you may know you can enter this deep relaxation state any time at will. Knowing that can be very reassuring and it is much healthier than resorting to drugs or alcohol. If you are feeling anxious or irritable, you know it is temporary and you have the techniques to return to a peaceful state of being whenever you like.
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