Mental relaxation eludes most of us at times. The mind seems to run on autopilot generating thoughts and we usually think there is little we can do to quell it. Logical, left-brain thoughts, alertness, and a moderate amount of mental tension are thought to be useful in performing basic daily tasks. Ask anyone who has to drive through rush hour traffic, for instance, and you have an idea of the kind of alertness we demand of each other in the world. Remember the times when your mind was racing as you were trying to go to sleep? Yes, an over-active mind seems to be taken for granted as natural.
And yet, I have found that even in the context of busy and stressful situations, a level of mental and physical calm beyond expectation can be achieved. When the mind is less dependent on customary active patterns the mind can actually process faster and more reliably. I’ve known individuals who found that even their daily commute in traffic could be accomplished with far less clenching of the hands and jaw than they believed possible.
Where Do You Begin to Relax the Mind?
1. Movement is the First and Most Important Modality.
Our bodies were built for motion and yet our normal lifestyles have us spending most of our time sitting. Any type of physical activity can help from visiting the gym daily for weights and cardio exercise to taking a short, brisk walks, or riding a bicycle. Riding a bike can provide a sensation of speed that walking cannot, and so variation will help you maintain consistent effort. Inducing some sort of muscle fatigue is helpful since it causes a release of endorphins that can begin to flow and bring a palpable and lasting calm.
The fun factor plays into this important approach because if your chosen activity isn’t fun, you aren’t likely to stick with it. If your activity is something as simple as walking be sure you have good shoes and apparel, and either find a walking partner, or take some audio programs with you to listen to, and be sure to vary the route you walk. These variations will keep the experience fresh and fun.
There are any number of sports that can be easily engaged in with others or yourself. Golf, tennis, tai chi, yoga, swimming, bowling, and many others can serve to train the mind and the body.
Daily effort, combined with a moderate and innovative approach, is key. If you play soccer on weekends, for instance, you may want to consider taking some dancing lessons, or joining a local drum circle on Mondays. Creative imagination is very helpful in avoiding any sense of drudgery. Check with your local recreation department for many activities you may not even know are available and most of them are at a very reasonable cost.
Within each chosen activity, however, it will be important to exercise “mindfully.” By practicing focusing your mind on something that is enjoyable you will be training your mind to hold its attention what you want it to rather than it randomly processing on its own.
Whatever your chosen performance is you will want to keep your attention on what you are doing while you are doing it. If you are participating in a sport this is particularly important so you are not worrying about what you could have done better in the previous action. The past is over, so let it go and focus your attention on what is at hand. This point is so important because many who engage in sports get upset with themselves for what they did or didn’t do that it affects their subsequent performances. Remind yourself to let it go and put all of your attention on the next play.
Whatever you are doing, you should remain aware that one purpose is to create a calmer space within and let all your activities proceed from a natural flow. In the case of resistance exercise, exertion becomes focus. In the case of tennis or golf, your concentration is on making contact with the ball while remaining relaxed and in the flow letting the racquet or club do the work. Focus will then become a platform from which you can more fully relax your mind.
It’s all about the rhythms, about creating a physical space that takes you out of yourself. An improvement in health and coordination will swiftly translate into a new and more fully relaxed rhythm of thought.
2. The Second Major way to Relax the Mind is “Coming off the Grid.”
Electronics in every imaginable form flood the modern world, and taking time each day to shut them out will have major benefits. Turning off the television is only the beginning, of course; you will want to silence the cell phone, stay away from computer screens, and get as far away as you can from anything that beeps or pings or sends out an alarm. And if you have a landline at home, it’s a good idea to turn off the ringer as well.
I have known people who kept their cell phone on when they were meditating to be sure they didn’t miss a call even then. It would seem counterintuitive to what the meditation is about, but some are so habituated to their electronics it borders on an addiction.
One of the things I have noticed in the past several years is that people’s attention span seem to be very short. They find it quite challenging to keep their attention on any one thing for any length of time. I think one reason for this is the result of being almost continually plugged into some sort of electronic media which has continually and rapidly changing activity or demands for us to respond.
Try disengaging from all electronics for half an hour, at first. Simply be still with your own thoughts, and refuse to acknowledge any intrusions should they come up. When was the last time you took the time to smell a flower? Become aware of your surroundings, using only the five senses you were born with. Observe and think about the weather outside. Ponder the very turning of the earth on its axis and following the sun on its trek around the galaxy at many tens of thousands of miles per hour, and you will be closer to that elusive sense of mindfulness. Work in the garden, if that is appropriate for you, or some other simple, ordinary tasks. You will find that when you are off the electronic grid, you can more rapidly bring your thoughts to the center of your being and sustain a more peaceful and relaxed mind.
Do it daily, and increase the increments of time as you become accustomed to the pattern. Loving detachment from the vast array of artificial conveniences we take for granted will give you that perfect period of time each day to take stock and shift focus.
Grounding, from both exercise and coming off the grid, is invaluable for daily relaxation. Ask anyone who doesn’t own a television set at all, and you will begin to understand just how much stress we allow the outside world to deliver to our front doors. This mindful approach is further discussed in my free article at this link: http://www.jonathanparker.org/jonathans-blog/stress-reduction
3. The third step in teaching yourself how to relax your mind is to find a form of daily meditation you are comfortable with.
Anyone who seeks greater focus and calm should explore at least a rudimentary version of meditation. It needn’t be something like a Zen discipline or a formal class at a Buddhist Temple, though if you feel ready to take such a step it will clearly offer sweeping benefits in your life.
No, sometimes the simplest methods are the easiest to practice and maintain. When you are off the grid, for example, take just five minutes for yourself in a quiet corner. Close your eyes and use your mouth to blow out all the stale air. See it as tension releasing, negative thoughts being absorbed and transformed by a loving universe. Push down on the diaphragm and force all the old air out, holding perfectly still at the bottom for a single second. Then take in that sweet, fresh air, directly into the nose, to the count of four. Hold again at the top for the count of one, enjoying the brief pause, and blow out forcefully again to the count of two.
It is vital to push out as much air as you can. This enables you to take in as much as twice the normal amount of oxygen in a normal breath. Repeat, focusing only on the counting and the cycle of release/replenish that your breathing will create. Then relax with the natural breathing flow and follow it for a few minutes noticing the rise and fall of your abdomen and the sensation of air moving through your nose. I have a lot more free information on meditation at this link: http://www.jonathanparker.org/jonathans-blog/meditation
In a very short time you will see benefits to exercise, electronic silence, and breath work will make all the difference in helping you relax your mind and body. I have a short, free, guided video titled Relaxation Technique to Reduce Stress and Anxiety at this link: http://www.jonathanparker.org/free-videos