Relax, slow down, smell the roses, breathe, chill out.
We often find these challenging. But why?
Why can’t we just sit on our own in silence and feel relaxed?
As a teenager, I did everything I could to avoid work or deciding on my future. I dropped out of high school to pursue video gaming and binge drinking.
Everything I was doing was in search of pleasure – through escape and relaxation, I wanted to separate life into two neat categories: things I wanted to do, and things I didn’t. In this world, I truly believed that anything I inherently didn’t ‘want’ to do – with some emotional commitment or vigor – was a waste of time.
Life was very easy, and rarely challenging. My life was the pinnacle of middle-class privilege.
It wasn’t until I had a succession of deaths in the family that I awoke to the fact that life is short, and I have choices I can make. Choices that meant I had to leave my comfort zone and my pleasure-seeking behind and work hard.
I decided at 22 to go to university for the first time. It was an easy decision – I was sick and tired of the way my life was. My life had no direction, and no long-term goal.
I began to focus my efforts, push myself, and strive for goals that I wanted in life.
It was a challenging, rewarding time for me, as it is for most people. The biggest challenge was trying to juggle relaxation into the workload I had set for myself.
University started a trend that I believe most people feel in some way – a trend towards pushing oneself towards ever increasing goals, and never quite feeling satisfied until the next goal is attained. This often leads to simply never feeling satisfied.
Unable to relax
Have you ever felt like you just can’t relax?
It’s that low hum under the surface, that indescribable sense of unease. It lives just below the surface for most people. You can perhaps relax on a holiday or at a wedding or special occasion, when you’re surrounded by people you know and who love you. But what about sitting on your own, at home?
For me, for a long time, this just wasn’t possible. My drinking morphed into a weekly Friday binge that I used to numb the feelings of dis-ease bubbling away under the surface. I’m not alone in this – many people have turned to similar escapes to try and deal with the feeling that they couldn’t relax.
As time has gone by, I started wondering why. Why can’t I just sit at home? What is so difficult about having a night in? I started to believe that the problem is that we are never taught how to relax.
Society tells us how to dress, how to act, when to cry and show emotion and when to bottle it up. Society also tells us what is relaxing. That trip on the boat with smiling friends, that cabin in the woods with the cozy fire.
These pictures of reality tell us what is relaxing, but it never describes any method for how to relax.
This, I believe, is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness as a Lifestyle
It’s only when you stop – truly stop – that things come into perspective.
Mindfulness is simple: just genuinely be here, now. Just because something is simple, however, does not mean that it’s easy.
Getting to the point where I could relax using mindfulness techniques has taken me half a year. I won’t lie: it’s been hard work at times. I have had to force myself to complete mindfulness exercises when inside I was complaining to myself ‘I just want to watch TV and have a beer’.
Conscious Beginnings has been a big help. Completing the mindfulness course connected me with myself and a group of strangers like I had never been connected before. This connected allowed me to re-frame my thinking, and relearn how to find relaxation within myself.
I am eternally grateful to Jon for his help in this matter, and I can’t recommend him strongly enough.
Like everything in life, learning how to relax was worth the effort. I am less stressed and anxious on a daily basis, and I truly feel as though I am taking care of myself for the first time in my life.
My self exploration through mindfulness has lead me to change my life in a few subtle ways, and I am about to embark on a 10-day meditation retreat called Vipassana. These retreats are notoriously good at opening you up and forcing you to feel all the feelings you don’t want to. This TED talk was the catalyst for my decision to set this particular course. You can also read an excellent personal account here.
I have a feeling this will be simultaneously the hardest thing I have ever done, and also the most rewarding. I am confident there will be many times during the 10 days when I find it very difficult to relax. But that’s all part of the journey, I suppose.
I look forward to telling you all about it when I return!
Stephen is a budding counsellor, avid craft beer enthusiast, and part-time Buddhist. He enjoys hiking, connecting with nature, losing himself in deep conversation, and contributing to the Conscious Beginnings blog.