“A meditator who makes letting go his main object easily achieves samadhi” The Buddha (SN 48,9)
This is a condensed draft of my exploration of what relaxation means for the spiritual life, where I am experimenting with some new ideas and ways of looking at various aspects of Buddhism. I also wanted to fully ‘Dharmify’ the idea of relaxation, as the Buddha did with the idea of the Brahmin. This study has also lead me to map the beginnings of a renaissance in relaxation, starting in the 19th Century’s meeting of east and west and percolating down into modern society, and that only now, with the introduction of Buddhism along with Qigong, Tai Chi and Yoga, into the west, is that renaissance finding full blossom (more on this in another article). The path of relaxation can be correlated with the five levels of Going for Refuge: Various and often unhealthy approaches = Cultural Relaxation, Various healthy approaches = Provisional Relaxation, Dhyana = Effective Relaxation, Stream Entry = Real Relaxation, Enlightenment = Ultimate Relaxation.
What Relaxation Means:
Cohen in ‘The Way of Qigong’ makes the point that we don’t have a word for Fang Song Gong (the complete Chinese term for the art of relaxation) in English. Our word ‘relaxation’ does not actively distinguish what is to be relaxed, but Song is to give up unnecessary tension and is a greater aliveness, an active relaxation which has an attribute of effortlessness. He goes on to say ‘We cannot get rid of tension if we are not aware of
1. Training the Mind. Relaxation Requires Satipatthana: Whilst reading Bodhipaksa’s article on Satipatthana as a process I realized that Satipatthana was essential for relaxation and that he was describing what I naturally do when I relax. We can train in Satipatthana as relaxation by constantly becoming aware of and dropping unnecessary effort, for example: physical tension and the five hindrances. Relaxation starts with awareness: we all naturally practice Satipatthana to some extent when we attempt to relax because we need awareness of what to relax and what not to relax; continued awareness of our body reveals tension there (experienced as uncomfortable), continued awareness of tension reveals deeper emotional tension and continued awareness of emotional tension reveals mistaken uses of our mind and unnecessary effort in the form of the five hindrances and wrong views. Seeing this connected process of the four satipatthanas in the light of the Four Noble Truths we experience the conditional sequence of the four Satipatthanas: we can then drop the unnecessary effort with which we cause our own suffering. This requires seeing the four Satipatthanas as a spiral process rather than four separate aspects of mindfulness.
Satipatthana As Relaxation
2. Training of posture. What Happens When Meditation Becomes Qigong: When we have tension or some problem which causes misalignment of the body and we try to maintain a correct posture in meditation for long periods, while trying to relax, we will in effect be practicing qigong and we may experience what is known in qigong as ‘happy pain’. This happens when we try to maintain a correct posture and the deficiencies of our body are highlighted. This can be a distraction for meditation but also shows us where we have been making unnecessary effort. In qigong there are three trials or stages to traverse as we progress, which are: 1, discomfort, 2, fire and 3, boredom. Depending on one’s initial health there may be many years of this ‘happy pain’ training before the posture can become naturally correct and aligned. Many people who don’t realize why they are experiencing discomfort of this nature while sitting could be put off meditation by this. This experience of ‘happy pain’ ends when we break the attempt at correct posture and meditate using external support for our whole body. Some may be tempted to slump in an upright posture: however the tension caused by holding the slumped position will hinder fully letting go into one’s body because it’s not possible to relax the muscles used to support the slumped position. The body automatically assumes a perfect posture when tensions are fully released in Dhyana because it is not pulled out of natural alignment by tense muscles. Effective relaxation is a full release of physical and emotional tension on the horizontal level (allowing perfect natural posture) and represents our integration on the horizontal level which then stimulates vertical integration, which equates to provocative relaxation (described below). Fear of the provocative nature of effective relaxation may hinder this deeper level of relaxation for some meditators.
"The more an individual advances his development the greater will be his ease of action, the ease synonymous with harmonious organization of the senses and the muscles. When activity is freed of tension and superfluous effort the resulting ease makes for greater sensitivity and better discrimination, which make for still greater ease in action. He will now be able to identify unnecessary effort even in actions that formerly seemed easy to him. As this sensitivity in action is further refined, it continues to become increasingly delicate up to a certain level. In order to pass this limit there must be improved organization of the entire personality (Is he talking about Dhyana?). But at this stage further advance will no longer be achieved slowly and gradually, but by a sudden step. Ease of action is developed to the point where it becomes a new quality with new horizons." - Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, p. 87.
Relaxation in Meditation Posture: Vidyaruci pointed out that we really have only two options for correct relaxation of the body in meditation; to relax by being supported internally by our own natural and correct postural alignment or to relax on external support, which means the whole body, including the head, i.e. a reclining armchair or the floor. If we are unable to relax fully using the ‘internal’ support of our skeletal alignment we may experience problems from the accumulation of tension and may need to occasionally meditate using external support to keep us in touch with the experience of full physical relaxation in our meditation. However if we never meditate in a correct posture we may never have some physical and emotional problems highlighted in the first place. Long periods in incorrect posture may also be harmful for health; it’s best to have a balanced approach.
Being An Armchair Buddhist: Discomfort isn’t inherently spiritual (like poverty, or being of help to others, isn’t inherently spiritual), our intention and our creative response to feeling is the active ingredient; sitting in pain may feel like burning off bad karma but it isn’t that simple. Ideas like this may form part of our protestant conditioning: an order member once said to me ‘if you’re not working with the hindrances you’re not meditating!’ What is important for us is pleasure and comfort – so we can meditate undistractedly for long periods and access absorption (the lotus position was primarily a means to this end). We all naturally tend to have a strong desire to look the part and fit in but in fact this activity doesn’t help us towards enlightenment. It took me a while to realize that meditating in an armchair, or even lying down, is still real meditation, however this is not always recognized by ‘the group’. Enjoyment is the holy grail of meditation, helping us start to give it the time it needs.
3. Training In Integration: How Meditation Can Become Therapy: ‘Relaxation can be provocative as well as sedative’ says Gerde Boyesen (1970). Both types of relaxation arise from a single process: ‘a sedative relaxation so profoundly sedative that it crosses the borderline and becomes provocative. This means that underlying emotional patterns are provoked by the freshly loosened muscular defense system, and that the vegetative elements in those repressed patterns are aroused again. To put it another way: the organism once more finds itself in an unresolved emotional emergency situation, which it had originally tried to escape from by use of repression.’ And Boyesen concludes ‘it seems to me that there are no real psychic means of repression without the corresponding muscular means’.
Boyesen also says ‘besides causing pains, the visible manifestation of this build-up of tensions in the organism – which results in muscular armour – is that changes in the body posture occur both in the lying down and the erect positions, and that these changes become fixed due to a definite shortening of the relevant muscles. When psychic energy is no longer needed to sustain the shortenings, because the ‘muscles are so lacking in elasticity’ even when the psychic defense system should be able to give in, ‘the organism is still in a condition in which it holds back relaxation of the muscles, with their inbuilt emotional tension. This process may not involve repression of ideation content as well: ‘it may happen that, in a trauma situation, the emotional elements only are repressed. Thus pattern upon pattern of remembered, though un-abreacted vegetative nervous energy can be built up in the body in terms of small, residual unrelaxed startle reflex patterns’ [and their corresponding emotional patterns]. ‘By loosening the armour, the emotional content of the repressed material is provoked again –
This will have direct relevance in meditation in two main ways: for how we relax in meditation and how we tend to stop ourselves from relaxing in meditation. Provocative relaxation as described by Boyesen must also happen in meditation where we attempt sedative relaxation no less deeply, and may account for some of our problems attaining deeper relaxation. Meditation has become our therapy when it becomes provocative (at the level of absorption). In which case it may be that to sit still in a fixed posture might be part of the problem since movement and expression is important for abreaction (reliving an experience in order to purge it of its emotional excesses): Dr Kai Kermani points out that ‘if you do not do them [offloading exercises] when unresolved feelings and emotions emerge, and if you try to re-bury or ignore the feelings, you may well find that it will take you a lot longer to get into deeper states or you may not get there at all’. In this way fear of contacting what was formerly repressed will form a hindrance to the level of absorption which activates provocative relaxation (dhyana). Also once brought into consciousness this material adds to the amount that we will need to integrate (horizontally) in order to gain access to absorption again. Hitting ‘the wall’ (of all our repressed material) tends to make meditation much harder – we are then accessing a mass of contacted but unresolved emotion: our basic unconscious samskaras perhaps. This entire process hinges on relaxation; holding ourselves in (rather than relaxing into) a meditation posture may hinder by both unknowingly maintaining and adding layers of muscle armour (compounding our inability to relax in meditation) and by holding at bay the complete muscle relaxation needed for full sedative and provocative relaxation (repressed emotional material equates to tension in our posture and muscles we are not yet even aware of). We need courage, emotional positivity, and a safe context – like a retreat, for provocative relaxation. Further layers of tension in our character armour might be added by willfully overlaying a meditation technique on top of our experience.
4. The conditionality of Relaxation:
The Spiral Path isn’t just conditioned by the Karma Niyama but by all five Niyamas: As Subhuti points out each Niyama is an emergence on the basis of the previous Niyamas. There is only a single unified conditionality not two or more separate conditionalities. That’s what Sam (perfect, whole, together) might mean for Pratitya Samutpada; it gives a pointer to the true nature of conditionality, its ultimate nature is non-dual, hence ‘form is no other than emptiness’. The naturalness of the Spiral Path goes against the grain for us because it’s something we can’t force. It’s not always as simple as the three-fold path of ‘ethics-meditation-wisdom’ might suggest, and this is one reason why I might suggest using a four-fold path of ethics-happiness-meditation-wisdom (which is closer to the positive Nidhana chain); we may need to work on more than just our ethics. Inability to access Dhyana and deep relaxation may mean our meditation seat is wrong (physical inorganic), we may be ill (physical organic), our conditioning tells us we shouldn’t be happy (psychological), we are angry about something (ethical) and we don’t see a reason to evolve beyond ourself (self transcendent). The Alaya Vijnana doesn’t exist in some hidden mysterious place separate from our world, it’s more like it is our world. Where else could the Alaya’s information be stored and processed than in the five niyamas.
Personality and Relaxation: Each individual will approach relaxation in their own way, since everyone is different, however it might be useful to look at individual typology as a factor in relaxation. Perhaps thinking types like me, having more tendencies to spend time in their thoughts than their feelings, may have a more obvious need to relax than feeling types. We need to work towards tailoring the most suitable practices to the particular individual, and Myers Briggs can help for this.
Altruism and Relaxation: We need to distinguish between all categories of altruism: altruism which is or isn’t for our benefit, which does or doesn’t benefit others, which is physical or just mental, and is perceivable or otherwise. Since intention is primary for ethics, whilst bearing in mind one’s capacity and needs (not everyone is ready for long solitary retreats), one kind of altruism may be more or less conducive to relaxation than another. This must be considered when we are thinking about the Bodhisattva Ideal: If we think that altruistic activity can always be equated to progress on the Path we misunderstand the spiritual life at a principial level, and an advanced bodhisattva could be described as ‘a loner engaged in solitary practice in the wilderness in rigorous preparation for his
future Buddhahood’ (Nattier,
In our altruistic effort also we need to distinguish what effort is necessary and what is unnecessary, it relates directly to this issue of relaxation. This means to correctly distinguish the boundary between what we previously called the Hinayana and the Mahayana, and also the boundary between the effort which helps us to gain enlightenment and the effort which helps others but is unnecessary for our own enlightenment. The two traditional goals are really two extreme ends of a spectrum of ability to benefits others we have developed by the time we gain enlightenment. This explains why the Mahayana path is said to take longer.
Engagement and Relaxation: Films, for example, can offer us easy access to relaxation only if we can engage. Sometimes a film can seem to engage our whole being, all our worries and tensions have vanished and it’s as if we are right there in the film, and we relax. If we didn’t relax this easily then films might be much less popular! But we have to be interested in the film for this to happen, and sometimes a film doesn’t meet our expectations here. Watching a film is only relaxing if we engage with it:
we relax to the extent that we are
engaged, and engagement is a quality of awareness and
concentration. Sometimes we may not be in the right space to engage with a film
or a film may not really be interesting to us. In the hierarchy of engagement
watching a film comes fairly low, since it must exclude one-pointed awareness
and hence even this level of relaxation will be limited. But since happiness
(and interest) is an important factor in engagement it may sometimes be our
Placebo Effect and Relaxation: How can we best make use of the Placebo Effect in our spiritual lives? It has been popular recently to try new practices from other traditions. This is one way we can attempt to activate the Placebo Effect; we think that this new practice is better for us so we approach it with more faith and openness, and we think the practice will give us something and perhaps we can relax our willfulness a bit and relax into our experience more, which means we will naturally be able to make less unnecessary effort. We find that we can more easily get into the new practice because of this. Sangharakshita was not aware of anyone previously talking about using the Placebo Effect in the Spiritual life, however he did recognise it: used in the story of the dog's tooth, and the tantric guru relationship. Dr Herbert Benson has already explored the cutting edge science behind this.
5. Using Relaxation Biofeedback To Access Dhyana: Listening to Bhante’s talk on ‘Stages of the Spiritual Path’ it really hit me how important Priti is here. Do we make the mistake of thinking of Priti as merely a feeling (Vedana)? How could mere feeling be a conditioning link on the Spiral Path? Priti is a form of tension release; it is active relaxation, this gives us a sense of how the Spiral Path is flavored by Relaxation and shows us also how relaxation is an action and how relaxation and action are closer to each other than we may normally think. Priti and relaxation (with its body awareness) are a requisite if we are to make any real spiritual progress; No relaxation and happiness = no Samadhi and Insight.
Bio-feedback: Breathing, Health and Relaxation: The breath can be used as a kind of Bio-feedback which leads us to higher levels of consciousness. ‘Everyday tension produces over-breathing’ (L. C. Lum 1977). Hypertension is more an unnoticed everyday occurrence rather than the emergency employment of the paper bag we see depicted in films. ‘One of the first signs of increased tension will be increased breathing rate’ (Muir 2011). This is one side of a spectrum of effects of unnecessary effort which we become more aware of the more we deepen meditation. In deeper meditation experience I myself have experienced the breathing seemingly stop altogether, in fact the breath has just become too subtle to be experienced physically (thinking can also stop altogether). This means that a more subtle breathing will correspond with experience of absorption and we can do what is necessary to allow the breath to become subtle, i.e. stop making unnecessary effort of thinking and body movement. In these states we can experience directly how much breathing is needed to provide fuel for unnecessary effort and tension. We can see how much fuel our thinking tends to use when we introduce a coarse mental hindrance during a state of absorption; suddenly the breathing, along with other systems of the body, jumps up into action. The Mitochondrial activity which generates electicity for thinking requires a surprising amount of our energy (We may feel energised after revving up the body or mind, in the gym for example, but actually we end up with less energy rather than more. In qigong, ethics and meditation we are 'revving down', which leaves us with more energy, and we are left truly energized). Not only does the distraction of coarse breathing prohibit the higher levels of concentration but this unnecessary effort must be abandoned as a prerequisite for Dhyana. ‘The outcome of even a low level of hyperventilation is of great significance, more carbon dioxide than normal will be exhaled producing change in the body’s delicate chemical balance.. involving every area of the body’ (Muir 2011). Naturally we can’t calm the breath through will power but only by removing the unnecessary effort which requires the higher breathing rate – which in meditation is tension and unskillful mental events or merely thinking itself. ‘Hypervenilation, one of the more significant, yet often unnoticed, physical changes accompanying increased tension, can become a multi-symptom health problem which will go away when the breathing is brought under control’ (Muir 2011 pg 87).
Relaxing The Sense Organs In Absorption: In my experience the eyes are the last part of the body, the last part of the jigsaw, to relax before entry into absorption, I suppose this may differ for different types of people depending on which sense organ we cling to most. How much eye or mouth movement do you make while meditating? As Muir (2010) says ‘As we have our everyday thoughts in our head, these are usually made up of words, and the muscles of speech make tiny movements’ and it may be similar for the other sense organs, particularly the eyes. We can use our experience of relaxation in the eyes (and other senses) as biofeedback to lead us deeper into absorption because use of the eyes, and tension involved in that use, will fall away. Also for example, as we let go of thinking in the second level of absorption. Using body memory of dhyana as the meditation object to lead us back into dhyana might work partly by making use of this as we remember how our body felt in dhyana without its usual tension, this is not dissimilar to how body memory is seen to function in Jacobsen’s ‘Progressive Relaxation’ (1929).
Relaxation in The Nine Mental Abidings: Looking at Geshe Gedun Lodro’s book
Calm Abiding and Special Insight
where he talks about The Nine Mental Abidings from Asanga’s
Grounds of Hearers, we can see in detail
how relaxation progressively deepens in meditation. The process culminates in
‘setting in equipoise’ where one has achieved the power of familiarity
(paricaya) (which seems to be the ability to return to this level through the
power of body memory, in which case the object of concentration might be the
body memory of equipoise). Until this point much of the practice involves
balancing ‘laxity and excitement’, like balancing a see-saw, via the
application of the eight antidotes. The only antidote necessary for the ninth
abiding is ‘desisting from application of antidotes’ (an antidote being now
unnecessary and counterproductive), this I would call fully effective
relaxation. It is described as having spontaneity (anabhoga) because it ‘does
not depend on the exertion that observes whether laxity or excitement’ (sinking
or drifting) has arisen. Just as Feldenkrais says, purely appropriate effort is
experienced as a feeling of effortlessness. You can’t be stable in Dhyana
without effective relaxation, and you can’t be in effective relaxation without
Dhyana because effective relaxation means no unnecessary effort is made, and
the five hindrances are one example of unnecessary effort.
6. Ultimate Relaxation Is Cool!: We can offer a transformed image of relaxation to one which is more realistic, as well as more attractive to men, and this is one of the things I’m attempting to do in this article. For example, some people don’t know that Tai Chi is a martial art, and there is a similar wrong view about Buddhism as being soft or palliative. The central and most important principle of Tai Chi is relaxation because this is where the real power comes from! (just watch one of our icons of cool like the James Bond, or The Fonz, in action). Supreme power comes from relaxation in Buddhism no less than in Tai Chi. Power depends on relaxation and relaxation depends on awareness, so these are the stages in another spiral path; awareness – relaxation – power.
Ritual And Devotion, And Energy: Bhante says in ‘Ritual and devotion in Buddhism’ that our emotions may not be available to us in the spiritual life because they are blocked, wasted or too coarse. Sudden tears in meditation can mean tension in the form of energy blockages is released. He describes unnecessary effort in terms of wastage as negative thought or speech, for example nagging. Coarse energy is refined through ritual and devotion and the fine arts, or both. Communication exercises help to free up energy which is trapped in tension. It is important to remember that we will need to actually bring energy to the puja for the puja to work on refining it.
Relaxation Of Our Hold Onto Views And Ego Stories: We tend to hold on to wrong views about the Lakshanas. As we go deeper into relaxation another very important way we will have to relax is by relaxing our hold on our personal stories and views which we use as a defense for our ego. This is much easier than completely dropping the hold on the actual myth of the ‘Self’. The Path is a gradual one. Vital for engaging in spiritual friendship, in which we receive help and advice on the path from others, is to be able to put aside defensiveness – otherwise we build up walls against not only our friends but reality as well. Who will knock them down again? Ratnaprabha’s ‘Loosening left over attitudes’ (at the 11/11NOWE) is very good.
Relaxation At The Ultimate Level: To relax fully means to be fully at home with ourselves, to start really accepting the truth of our existence. It’s an existential relaxation - it means in particular to be at home in the true nature of ‘how things really are’. This starts by fully being able to sit with the awareness of dissatisfaction; the Buddha’s first Noble Truth of Dukkha. This means the first stage of the Spiral Path can start to overflow into the second; the stage of Shraddha. Relaxation means staying with ourselves and not shying away from the higher evolution when it pops up, it means easing that grip on the worn handrails of our old self when we are scared that there is more happiness or positivity than we are used to and it means giving up that hold on the habitual self when we start to evolve into the direction of the unknown. It means having the strength, positivity and courage to be at home in the true nature of reality itself. It means to transcend all dualities of time and space, to laugh when we realize that enlightenment was always just here and now and it had been that way all the time, while all that effort was the work of someone asleep, caught in a dream they had considered real. When we transcend awareness born of self clinging we transcend the real distinction between effort and relaxation. Only then when we no longer feel the need to relax, because in a sense no one is really there who needs to relax any more, does one’s ability to relax finally become unshakable. In terms of the Dharma Niyama the path of relaxation represents our letting go into its flow, increasing our Spiritual Receptivity in its horizontal and vertical aspect and as an aspect of each of the other four paths. The more we do this the more we can progress towards the goal of no more effort and spontaneous compassionate activity. This is the goal of the path of relaxation.