Relaxation, Meditation & The Self Help Demon

February 27, 2012   |   30 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites
Every now and then, I see ads for meditation that describe things like short cuts and fast tracks, which are often numbered and qualified, as in: “Meditation: 5 Steps to Easy-Peasy Peace” or “Meditation: Bliss in Just 3 Minutes a Day” and such.
I’ve been meditating for about 15 years. I’ve spent countless hours on the cushion and a significant percentage of that time was definitely spent looking for short-cuts and, hey, I’m not stupid. If there was one to be found, I think I would have stumbled upon it. No luck. (At least, not yet.)
Maybe it’s my objective in meditation that is the problem. As I’ve been taught, the aim is not peace, nor is it bliss. It is to wake up. Another way of saying this is that the aim is to have no aim whatsoever but to relax completely. Absolutely. At this point, awakening is discovered rather than manufactured and suffering ends. The advice to stop, slow down, look within, and allow for both your brilliance and your brokenness flies in the face of conventional self-help. Self-help is not about relaxing with yourself exactly as you are. Meditation is.
Somehow, though, the idea of relaxation has become synonymous with spacing out. This is not what is meant. In my experience as a meditation teacher, basically every student I encounter has to be taught how to relax. It does not come easily to anyone, myself included.
What most of us do to relax is some version of corpse pose on the couch, remote in hand, staring, clicking, clicking, staring. There’s nothing wrong with this–until you try some alternate form of relaxation (say, going on vacation or lying on the couch to read) and you find it impossible. You’re too antsy. You start thinking about dinner and jump up to begin chopping vegetables. Or you think, let me put one more load of laundry in or answer that email that’s been bugging me or wipe down the outside of the fridge  or take out the recycling or revise the last chapter of my book or find a cure for cancer. You get the idea. Hey, we should all chop our veggies in a  timely manner and have smudge-free fridges and cures for cancer and whatnot. But let me suggest that we have become so egregiously task-oriented that we are in danger of forgetting how to relax altogether.
Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we are so broken that a full-on 24/7 surge of endless, repetitive, and unflagging attention to our failings–or, if not our failings, to our “opportunities”– is called for. What I would like to tell you, what I would like to tell myself, is something my friend [Patti Digh](http://pattidigh.com/home) says: _you are not broken and you do not need to be fixed_.
However, it turns out that this is a thousand times more threatening than the notion of having flaws that could, with enough attention, willpower, and courage, be abolished. My friends, this is a setup. Here is how I know that. Whenever I have been diligent/lucky enough to actually achieve something, be it the publication of a book, a repaired friendship, or the eradication of gluten, as I sense that my accomplishment nears, all pleasure diminishes. It wasn’t enough. I could have done it better, faster, cheaper. By the time I cross the finish line, it is already a non-event and I’ve moved on to tormenting myself about the next unmet aspiration or fatal flaw.
I’ve asked my students, what do you think would happen if just for one hour, you stopped trying so hard? What they say is so recognizable to me and also so sad. They say, “I’m afraid everything would fall apart.” As if our lives were held together by spit and yellowing tape. We walk around with the sense that the whole situation is just so tenuous and, if we rest even for a moment, it will break apart.
At such a point, many people turn to meditation. This is a very dicey situation. Meditation will not de-stress you particularly. Well, it will, but not if we apply our usual strategies to it. If we meditate as a way of improving our situation, it doesn’t work because it is not a strategy. It is not even a skill. It is your natural state. When we try to find our natural state, it is akin to trying to get your eye to look at itself. A, it’s impossible and B, it’s a waste of time.
Because it has become oddly difficult and even frightening, allowing yourself to truly relax is an act of courage. I don’t know how so many of us got to this place where letting go and resting has become more challenging than cranking up and doing, doing, doing–but at least for me, it has. Get-it-done-fast  meditation methods actually feed into this and if we approach our practice as a to-do list item, it will simply become another whip used to spur ourselves onward toward, well, more spurring onward. Someone has got to stop the madness and right now, I am voting for you.
In a very real sense, meditation is the practice of relaxing, nothing more and nothing less. From this relaxation springs joy, creativity, and clarity. It arises with cessation of effort which, after all, is the very definition of relaxation to begin with.
As you approach your practice on this or any other day, please do so by relaxing in the beginning, relaxing in the middle, and relaxing in the end. Here, relaxing doesn’t mean flopping down or giving up or anything messy and inelegant. It simply means _to allow_. When you are antsy, allow antsiness. When you are peaceful, allow peacefulness. When painful emotions arise, you could cry and when you tell yourself a joke, you could laugh. Perhaps most important of all, when you are bored, please allow for this slightly uncomfortable and spacy/speedy state of mind. It is actually a really good one. It means that for the moment you are giving up on entertaining yourself, whether it is by reality TV, mentally replaying old arguments/love affairs, or trying to get your meditation practice to perform for you. This is a fantastic, brilliant beginning. Kudos. For the practitioner who has the courage to relax, the self-help demon has no use.

IMG_0290

Every now and then, I see ads for meditation that describe things like short cuts and fast tracks, which are often numbered and qualified, as in: “Meditation: 5 Steps to Easy-Peasy Peace” or “Meditation: Bliss in Just 3 Minutes a Day” and such.

I’ve been meditating for about 15 years. I’ve spent countless hours on the cushion and a significant percentage of that time was definitely spent looking for short-cuts and, hey, I’m not stupid. If there was one to be found, I think I would have stumbled upon it. No luck. (At least, not yet.)

Maybe it’s my objective in meditation that is the problem. As I’ve been taught, the aim is not peace, nor is it bliss. It is to wake up. Another way of saying this is that the aim is to have no aim whatsoever but to relax completely. Absolutely. At this point, awakening is discovered rather than manufactured and suffering ends. The advice to stop, slow down, look within, and allow for both your brilliance and your brokenness flies in the face of conventional self-help. Self-help is not about relaxing with yourself exactly as you are. Meditation is.

Somehow, though, the idea of relaxation has become synonymous with spacing out. This is not what is meant. In my experience as a meditation teacher, basically every student I encounter has to be taught how to relax. It does not come easily to anyone, myself included.

What most of us do to relax is some version of corpse pose on the couch, remote in hand, staring, clicking, clicking, staring. There’s nothing wrong with this–until you try some alternate form of relaxation (say, going on vacation or lying on the couch to read) and you find it impossible. You’re too antsy. You start thinking about dinner and jump up to begin chopping vegetables. Or you think, let me put in one more load of laundry or answer that email that’s been bugging me or wipe down the outside of the refrigerator or take out the recycling or revise the last chapter of my book or find a cure for cancer. (You get the idea.) Hey, we should all chop our veggies in a timely manner and have smudge-free fridges and cures for cancer and whatnot. But let me suggest that we have become so egregiously task-oriented that we are in danger of forgetting how to relax altogether.

Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we are so broken that a full-on 24/7 surge of endless, repetitive, and unflagging attention to our failings–or, if not our failings, to our “opportunities”– is called for. I would like to tell you something my friend Patti Digh says: You are not broken and you do not need to be fixed.

However, it turns out that this is a thousand times more threatening than the notion of having flaws that could, with enough attention, willpower, and courage, be abolished. My friends, this is a setup. Here is how I know that. Whenever I have been diligent/lucky enough to actually achieve something cool, be it the publication of a book, a repaired friendship, or the eradication of gluten, as I sense that my accomplishment nears, pleasure begins to diminish. It wasn’t enough. I could have done it better, faster, cheaper. By the time I cross the finish line, it is already a non-event and I’ve moved on to tormenting myself about the next unmet aspiration or fatal flaw.

I ask my students, “What do you think would happen if just for one hour, you stopped trying so hard?” What they say is so recognizable to me and also so sad. They say, “I’m afraid everything would fall apart.” As if our lives were held together by spit and yellowing tape. We walk around with the sense that the whole situation is just so tenuous and, if we rest even for a moment, it will break apart.

At such a point, many people turn to meditation. This is a very dicey situation. Meditation will not de-stress you particularly. Well, it will, but not if we apply our usual strategies to it. If we meditate as a way of improving our situation, it doesn’t work because it is not a strategy. It is not even a skill. It is your natural state. When we try to find our natural state, it is akin to trying to get your eyeball to look at itself. A, it’s impossible and B, it’s a waste of time.

Because it has become oddly difficult and even frightening, allowing yourself to relax is an act of courage. I don’t know how so many of us got to this place where letting go and resting has become more challenging than cranking up and doing, doing, doing–but we have. Get-it-done-fast  meditation methods actually feed into this and if we approach our practice as a to-do list item, it will simply become another whip used to spur ourselves onward toward, well, more spurring onward. Someone has got to stop the madness and right now, I am voting for you.

In a very real sense, meditation is the practice of relaxing, nothing more and nothing less. From this relaxation springs joy, creativity, and clarity. It arises with cessation of effort which, after all, is the very definition of relaxation to begin with.

As you approach your practice on this or any other day, please do so by relaxing in the beginning, relaxing in the middle, and relaxing in the end. Here, relaxing doesn’t mean flopping down or giving up or anything messy and inelegant. It simply means to allow. When you are antsy, allow antsiness. When you are peaceful, allow peacefulness. When painful emotions arise, you could cry and when you tell yourself a joke, you could laugh.

Perhaps most important of all, when you are bored, please allow for this slightly uncomfortable and spacy/speedy state of mind. It is actually a really good one. It means that for the moment you are giving up on entertaining yourself, whether it is by reality TV, mentally replaying old arguments/love affairs, or trying to get your meditation practice to perform for you. This is a fantastic, brilliant beginning. Kudos. For the practitioner who has the courage to relax, the self-help demon has no use.

To receive instruction and support for your practice, please sign up for The Open Heart Project, a virtual meditation community.

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30 Comments

  • Posted by:  Kate

    I so needed this today, after sitting in ‘ancy’ for the longest unbroken span of my meditative life. i simply had to roll with it, but it wasn’t simple at all… made me insane. so, thank you. Kudos to me!!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Yes, kudos to you!

  • Posted by:  Victoria

    Scary stuff Susan. Your words cut through all the cr*p to the heart of the matter – that meditation is NOT relaxation. It’s as if you read my mind when you said “if we approach our practice as a to-do list item, it will simply become another whip used to spur ourselves onward toward, well, more spurring onward”. So from tomorrow I am going back to sitting with you and seeing what happens. And for tonight, I am going to read a not-very-intellectual novel instead of trying to tackle my stack of self-help books which just fill me with dread. Wish me luck!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Great good luck! You can do it.

    • Posted by:  paula

      thank you for sharing. I so relate and enjoyed the humor in our attempts “to do” rather than be. hugs.

  • Posted by:  Lisa Morris

    I had to comment on this one Susan. I just love it…so straightforward, practical and simple (in a good way:), yet at the same time we are dealing with complex “layers” of our mind, heart , spirit/soul and body. What came to my mind is the practice of “being”…just “being”. XO

    • Posted by:  Susan

      It means so much to hear this comment from you, Lisa! I love the idea of the practice of just “being.” Love, S

  • Posted by:  Saskia

    Dear Susan, Thank you very much for these wise words. I still find it hard to meditate without secretly hoping it will bring me peace of mind, or new energy. Paradoxically, it does just that as soon as I let go of any objectives..
    I recently did a beginner’s course in TM (Transcendental Meditation) and although it has a very beneficial effect so far (more energy, undisturbed sleep) I still have an uneasy feeling, as if I’m trying to use a trick, a bit like the 5-minutes-to peace types of meditation you describe. I would love to hear whether you know TM and what your thoughts are about it. Thank you again for all your wisdom and support, kind wishes, Saskia (The Netherlands)

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Saskia, me too. I still find it difficult.

      I can’t really comment on TM because I’m not familiar with it. The benefits sound wonderful and at the same time, it is important to pay attention to your unease.

      Keep me posted!

      With love, Susan

  • Posted by:  Stephanie

    Yesterday morning I felt an anxious tide that I’ve been trying to keep at bay rise within me. I knew I needed to sit. And finally I did about 9:00 pm.

    The hours in between were torturous. I didn’t want to do anything much – look at the Oscar photos, read a book, go to a movie. I could neither allow myself the day off, I’m self-employed-or be gentle with myself and see what happened.

    While sitting a sense of understanding arose – “I am trying to control the “bad” parts of myself. ” Later, I thought more about this and I saw myself as a school marm reigning in the wild children in her class, which were also me. There are so many other possibilities than the school marm putting ever last ounce of energy into having the children sit still and pay attention.

    I am going to start imagining these and keep sitting. I’m not sure how to be gentle with the school marm. She’s so tough and not very likable. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Blessings and peace to you, Susan.

    Stephanie

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Ask the school marm what she is trying to do for you / protect you from / get you to see. Then thank her!

      • Posted by:  Stephanie

        Thank her! I hadn’t thought of that. Brilliant! Thank you!

  • Posted by:  Shawn

    Ahhhh, the 10-min meditation hit the spot! What a great thing to do in the middle of the day when the do-do-do urge is the highest.

    I really appreciate your “calling out” of the dangers of the the ToDo list—a tool both so helpful and yet so potentially harmful if we don’t keep it in check.

    btw- I heard your interview with BuddhistGeeks when you talked a bit about your fascination with GTD. A fun weave.

    This is, in fact, my current journey: having committed to a sane and healthy life, how can I also grow my business to the potential it embodies. Still figuring it out, though I can say with certainty that taking 10 minutes just now for your meditation fits in the grand scheme plan very nicely…

    • Posted by:  Susan

      So glad to hear it, Shawn. Great good luck with your business! It is totally possible to commit to your goals, be ambitious, and also remain (somewhat) relaxed. A meditation practice is the key, at least for me.

  • Posted by:  Elana

    This could be one of my most favouriteyest posts you’ve written yet, Susan. I love the way it takes courage to relax sounds. Loving ya as always! huggy!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      so glad!!! hugs back–

  • Posted by:  dvorah

    Right on.

  • Posted by:  Cat

    So perfect for me to read today. Thank you. It reminded me of something I heard years ago (and had forgotten) : we are human beings, not human doings.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Glad!

  • Posted by:  Helga

    Fantastic post, Susan! (read it yesterday) It addresses not only meditation, but other areas in my/today’s life that could use a whole lot more love& kindness&just-shut-up-for-a-bit clarity and a lot less frantic yet pointless control. A cool aside: Deeply touched by the post I searched for a local meditation center. Found a Shambhala center, which – get this – is on my way to/from work and had its annual open house/intro last night! How much more auspicious could this be? Went to the open house, and it was wonderful. Thanks Susan!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      So glad this was useful, Helga. Enjoy the Shambhala Center and here’s to auspicious coincidence!! Susan

  • Posted by:  KCLAnderson (Karen)

    This is exactly how I feel about articles about weight loss/health and it’s why I don’t do “how to” on my blog. In fact, you inspired me to write a similar post!

  • Posted by:  cheryl

    Dearest Susan…
    My heart is beaming with gratitude and love for you and all you do…as a soul-friend, facilitator and catalyst for our further Awakening. This is just what I needed to hear, as I instinctively know when it’s time to pull back …contemplate, commune with and consult the Spirit of my being – and the Great Spirit — far away from sensory input and the seeming carnival-of-information. Meditation practice with you – and the insight and guidance you share prior to practice is a priceless treasure. This morning I revisited the Mindfulness and Awareness talk (Feb) – and I found it encouraging and strengthening. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    Abundant blessings to you… always, Cheryl

    P.S. — Will you be coming to the Chicago area anytime in 2012?

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  • Posted by:  jen

    Susan – I really enjoyed this post. It is a good reminder of the power of acceptance just as things are. I certainly appreciate the reminder:)

  • Posted by:  paula

    How funny…. that you should speak to where i am.
    thank you.

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Glad to hear it, Jen. I require this reminder all the time…

  • Posted by:  Susan

    You are so welcome, Paula.

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