Relaxation, Meditation, and the Self-Help Demon

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 20 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 e-mail 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’s with 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.

This article is adapted from a post on Susan Piver's blog. Find out about upcoming programs with Susan at Kripalu.