Relaxation: A Healthy Necessity

Relaxation has been given a bad rap.  I know that people talk about wanting to relax, but many of us never take the time to really do so.  It doesn’t fit in with the American ethic of hard work being handsomely rewarded.  Relaxation is often seen as a past time; something to do when all of the necessary tasks and important jobs are done.  The trouble is that in our modern, 24/7 world, there’s always something else to do besides relax.

I’ve watched myself doing it.  I’ll sit down to rest for a moment to check in with myself and take in Life, just long enough to remember something I had forgotten to do.  Then I’ll jump up again to take care of it before it slips my mind again.  Our society’s “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” attitude, coupled with the sensation that time is speeding up or even running out encourages workaholism and makes relaxation seem like avoidance behavior.
Relaxation is not a luxury.  In order for us to maintain a healthy metabolic balance in our bodies and proportion in our lives, relaxation is a necessity.  This is not something generally taught or encouraged by our society.  Indulgence in purposeful relaxation as a priority is often seen as the providence of the wealthy, vain, or hedonistic.  When we force our bodies into a constant state of physical, mental, or emotional “doingness,” they tend to get stuck there, resulting in symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, or unceasing tension-induced muscle pain.  Deep relaxation from things like massage therapy or time on the Amethyst Biomat are the antidote, but how often do we take time for it?

When we are in a constant state of hyper-vigilance or plain old worry we run the risk of adrenal overwork (burnout), chronically constricted peripheral blood vessels (perpetually cold hands and feet), an under-functioning immune system, and worse.  Our hearts and minds get overworked to exhaustion.  We can become jumpy, grumpy, tearful, fearful, sick, unhappy, and one dwarf short of a load.  Many of us are so under-relaxed that when we do take some time off, we experience something like “relaxation run-off”, the possible beneficial effects of slowing down not penetrating the hardened, cracked soil of our being the way a thunderstorm’s deluge bounces off drought-baked earth.
Young children know how to relax—or at least the still small ones do.  They can fall asleep on the floor at a wedding reception with the band blaring polkas and never move a muscle.  When their parents gently pick them up to go home and drape their limp bodies over their shoulders, their limbs dangle and sway as they are carried to the car; so deep are they in tranquil sleep that it seems their bones have evaporated.  Complete and total relaxation has not yet been socialized or educated out of them because they do not yet comprehend the world of expectations, responsibilities, and guilt.  They don’t have a care in the world beyond where their favorite toy resides.  Sure, they can get worked up and throw a tantrum or two, but just watch the way children’s bodies bounce and move as they play and you will realize that they are greatly relaxed even when in action.
In my family, the adults rarely relaxed, even when they weren’t doing anything.  My parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts allowed money worries, appearances, competition, and social pressures to keep them in a state of chronic, low level agitation.  My dad was always at work somewhere late into the night and my mom cleaned and cleaned when she wasn’t at her part-time job.  They were stiff and wooden in social situations because they were just trying too hard to be right and couldn’t relax into them.  Lack of money didn’t allow for vacations for us, but even when they had time off, my parents couldn’t bring themselves to use it to unwind.  For many years my mother used her one week of vacation to wash all of the windows in our house.  Now in her 80’s, she is still so tense that she needs help to fall asleep at night.
My parents had forgotten how to really relax themselves and they didn’t like to see us doing it, either.  With enrollment in school came increased emphasis on perseverance, toil, and achievement.  Poor grades had nothing to do with learning styles, how the lessons were presented, or being unable to relate to the subject matter.  If we didn’t get A’s we weren’t working hard enough.  Recreation, slowing down, doing little, or (God forbid!) stopping for a while was equated with laziness, selfishness, or lack of character.  Life became a performance and deep, blissful relaxation a thing of the past.  To this day, my two brothers and I exhibit a behavior we’ve termed “combat-mode”, doggedly sticking with certain self-appointed tasks without breaks, food, or sleep until “mission accomplished” status is achieved.  Rest, let alone relaxation is out of the question.  It’s all too important, right?
Many of us adults have gotten so far away from true, deep relaxation that we no longer remember what it feels like or how to get there.  Our children of 2011 have schedules that are so much more jam-packed than ours ever were, with afterschool soccer practice, French camp, and dance lessons that hardly allow them time to sit still.  When they do, cell phones, video games, and other electronic gadgets keep their minds whirring.  Activity is constant from dawn to dusk.  Kids thus engaged come to believe that relaxing is boring and avoid it all costs.
We engage in things that are largely regarded as “fun” but can’t relax into them enough to recharge ourselves.  The result is that we, and especially our kids, are getting more confused, disconnected, anxious, stressed, depressed, and ill, yet no one seems to know why.  People can’t find ways to meet their mind and body’s clamor for the felt sense of deep relaxation, so they seek to turn off sensation as a substitute instead.  This is achieved through numbing addictions or simple withdrawal from life.  Sadly, both tend to make people feel less, not more, relaxed.
One of my teachers once suggested that the feeling of relaxation and love are quite similar and that they may in fact, from a spiritual standpoint, be one in the same.  When we are able to truly relax, we feel the loving connection we have with Creation that is meant to sustain us.  We feel good about ourselves and the world around us.  Our bodies shift into joy and healing, rapidly ridding themselves of waste, killing off disease, and growing stronger.  In theory, we could be in a state of relaxed awareness all of the time, even driving in rush hour traffic or looking at an empty checkbook.  Being able to do so takes practice and a different perspective.  This takes detachment, the ability to step back from emotion and deal with whatever life brings without being riled by it.  I’m still working on it.
“Isn’t it a bit of chicken-or-the-egg situation?”, you might ask, as to whether stress keeps us from relaxing or lack of relaxation makes us feel stressed.  The answer is that the question doesn’t really matter, only finding ways to get into and maintain relaxed states of being does.  You could move to a beautiful, breezy tropical island where the natives are all blissfully laying around sipping coconut water all day long and still be tense.  It’s all in your point of view as to what is important and necessary in life and what is not.  Your health is.  Relaxation is how your body, mind, and spirit renew themselves, but most of us rarely take time for it on a regular basis.
So how do we let go of anxiety, (over)achievement, and the stress of living in a tense and unbalanced world (and that’s putting it nicely…) and regain a healthy state of relaxation?  It all starts with awareness.  Do you remember ever being really relaxed?  What did it feel like?  What things take you out of relaxation?  How could you change them or your response to them?  Are you even relaxed when you’re asleep, or do you toss or dream fitfully?  Are you willing to lovingly take time out for you, or are you afraid you’ll miss something, let others down, or be left out?  (Google “rule number 6”…)  Realize that the world will not come to a dead stop without your momentary lack of supervision and that Life is not a race.
The next step is to take relaxation seriously.  Make it part of your sustenance and personal hygiene, just like eating healthy, nourishing meals or brushing your teeth.  Learn the difference between allowing yourself to deeply relax and just “stopping activity”.  Get help emotionally regrouping from traumatic experiences that have kept you on edge.  Look for creative or recreational activities that are non-competitive and feel relaxing to you.  Afford yourself the time and patience to sit in gentle silence, detach from the world, connect with yourself, and thoroughly breathe.  That’s what meditation is, but you can spend your meditation time sitting on the edge of your seat if you’re unwilling or unable to R-E-L-A-X.  Lastly, remind yourself that when you peacefully relax you are helping your (human)species by bringing Light onto the planet and being better able to take loving, productive part in bettering society.  Who knows?  You might gain a little spiritual understanding and catch a glimpse of enlightenment.  “Ommmmm.”


About Brad Silberberg

Brad Silberberg, director of The Mesa Creative Arts Center in Burgettstown, PA (Pittsburgh area) is an artist, holistic healer, spiritual leader, and change agent.
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