RELAX. YOU DON’T HAVE TO FEEL RELAXED!

Kim’s slightly tragic and totally hilarious adventure managing stress 

during 14 days of silence and meditation … 


THE PARADOX OF STRESS REDUCTION 

This is the paradox of mindfulness and stress reduction. You do not have to learn to relax to feel less stressed. The truth is that many of the causes of our stress are more than likely not going to change or at least not overnight. How we relate to them, however, can. And one of the most effective approaches is not to force ourselves to relax when we sense anxiety, worry, tiredness or whatever comes up when we are triggered by a person or event.

NO NEED TO RELAX

During a recent 14 day silent meditation retreat I recently participated in (my first retreat of its kind), the facilitator, Frits Koster (he is utterly fantastic!), uttered these simple words on Day 8, “Relax. You do not have to be feeling relaxed.”  And guess what, for a micro moment, I sensed my body relax. I finally stopped trying to relax. Quite simply because I wasn’t. It was time for me to face my reality, all that silence and god- knows-how-many-hours of sitting and walking meditations had stressed me out and I mean totally! Of course what stressed me out was not the serene meditation room, the gorgeous setting, the sunrises and sunsets, it was how I was relating to me, myself and I in confrontation with a meditative marathon.

SELF-INDUCED STRESS

I came to the retreat full of goals and expectations. In mindfulness language, we call this the “doing mode”.  Here was my list. Though you may not meditate, the inner drama I describe may sound familiar to you.

Expectation #1. My meditation practice is going to improve. I am going to experience more inner peace while I meditate. This is code for “I MUST succeed, I must do well and if not I am useless, and most certainly as a mindfulness trainer.” As I noticed hour by hour, day by day, for 14 whole days that I was not experiencing inner calm, instead I was mostly getting headaches. Guess what, I stressed myself out completely.

Expectation # 2. I am going to stay the 14 days no matter what happens because it is a requirement to become a fully accredited mindfulness trainer. This is code for “I do not allow myself to fail, at anything, ever. This is simply unacceptable.” Guess what, this self-inflicted demand totally stressed me out.

Expectation # 3. At some point during the two weeks, I will have an AHA moment and it will become crystal clear how the rest of my life is supposed to unfold. This was code for “My life is not good enough, I am still not where I am supposed to be, and I have got to figure it all out quickly or else…”  How stressful is that, to be waiting for the BIG answer to arrive, every minute of the day for 14 days and guess what, it never came.

So, what was I to do when I was all stressed out and could not talk about it (silent retreat); drink alcohol, have sex or harm any being (vows of intention during the retreat); read, write, text and email (recommendations from the facilitator); or eat chocolate (there was none and I decided not to take any along to help me cut my habit, silly me)?

I reminded myself to walk my talk every step of the wobbly way. To practice the essence of what I teach,  noticing and registering all that comes, in every moment, whether I like it or not, and welcoming it with as much kindness and compassion I could find in myself.  In mindfulness language, we call this non-doing or “being mode” (we are after all human beings not human doings!).

DARE TO BE WITH DISCOMFORT

So I noticed all the twirling thoughts about everything and anything as they came and went. Some stayed a long time and kept coming back again and again. I sensed all the physical pain of my attempts to sit like a Buddha and walk like an ostrich in slow motion (walking meditation) for what felt like endless amounts of time. I allowed my emotions of confusion, humor, despair and micro seconds of total joy to come and go as they needed to. And guess what, because I whispered to myself over and over again, from Day 8 on, “I do not need to feel relaxed, I am OK as I am”, I kind of relaxed. Turning my attention towards all that came and went inside with kindness not only helped me stay the course, most importantly it allowed me to see all my unsupportive habits more and more clearly and to tend to them as a mother would a child, rather than punish or diminish myself. What a relief!

If you yearn to relate to the stressors in your life (some of them due to circumstances beyond your control and some of them due to self-inflicted mayhem) in a more supportive and skillful way, join my mindfulness stress reduction training in The Hague starting in October and learn to practice awareness with acceptance. In that space, you have a better chance to choose more supportive responses to whatever is rattling you and as a result experience greater inner ease. It’s not an easy path and stress, chronic stress especially, is a serious matter. Together, however, we will approach this adventure in self-discovery with kindness and laughter. You have my promise.

Tip: The training is on Wednesday mornings. You might think, forget it, I work on Wednesday mornings.  One of my participants decided to ask his manager if he could have Wednesday mornings off for 2 months this fall and whether the company would pay for the course to enhance his personal effectiveness. Guess what, the answer was “yes” and “yes.” He never expected it, yet he asked, and surprise he got it! This reminds me of the saying: “You don’t know because you have not tried.” 

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