In last Thursday’s class we explored the tension we hold in our bodies. During meditation we practiced relaxing and releasing any tension we found, just as we normally do as we enter our meditation. But this time we purposely made note of any places we find that chronically hold tension so that it will be easy to revisit at any time, especially in a stressful moment.
We can pause when we’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed and notice how scrunched up our shoulders have become, for example. Releasing physical tension releases our grasping onto whatever fear-based thoughts or emotions are adding suffering to our experience. But the places we chronically hold tension are usually somewhat tight even in relatively relaxed moments.
Close your eyes and sense into your body to see where there is tightness — not post-exercise muscular tightness, but chronic tension. It could be in your furrowed brow, your squinting eyes, your pursed lips or clinched teeth. It could be in your locked jaw, your stiff neck or your shoulders hovering up around your ears. It could be in your fisted hands or your tumultuous stomach. What is true for you in this moment?
Having noted one or two places that are holding tension now, set the intention to check in several times during the day, especially at moments of stress, to notice the area(s) again. Developing a habit of noticing physical sensation is a key to bringing ourselves into the present moment, and noticing tension is particularly useful, because we can skillfully let go of the tension to the best of our ability. We can also use the tension as a gateway for self-discovery, which I’ll talk more about later.
Many of us feel that in order to release tension we need to eliminate those things in our lives that are causing the tension. This is skillful to the degree that we understand we have the power to change our lives, to take different turns that are more attuned to our deepest values so that we are not conflicted. That internal conflict causes stress and therefore tension. But believing that there is some external cause and some external cure for tension — a massage, a yoga class, a tropical vacation — is dis-empowering. We have the capacity to cope with the tension that arises in our bodies!
Becoming aware of the tension in our body is one of the most skillful things we can do to change up the energy, to come fully into the present moment and to develop clarity and compassion. Why? Because tension is restriction. It is a pattern of reactivity that is mirrored in our mental and emotional activity. The tight knots of tension we hold in our body are in direct correlation to the tight knots of circular, fear-based convoluted thinking that we have going on in our minds. Both are ways we hold onto thoughts and feelings about the past and the future, using them as fuel for our current decisions and activities. But this is fossil fuel! It’s very polluting! Besides, the mileage is pitiful and this fear-based fossil fuel causes frequent breakdowns. So instead we want to access our infinitely more powerful and life-affirming, joy-affirming energy to fuel our lives. Access to this energy is always here, now and relaxed.
So we take a moment to sense in to our body. This could be a moment standing in the elevator, standing in the grocery store checkout line, or waiting on hold on the phone. We don’t lack for opportune moments in this busy modern life! We just don’t recognize them as the opportunities they are!
When we recognize we are in this opportune moment, we then tune in to the overall sensation of the body. Perhaps this is a neutral or pleasant sensation of all systems fully functioning, a sense of well-being — not hyper-caffeinated nor sluggish, but healthy, perhaps even radiant with life flow. In this state it is easy to be present, easy to smile, easy to take pleasure in the smallest things we notice in our experience.
But perhaps instead, as will often happen, we notice that the energy level is more to one extreme or the other. This is important noticing. This is not a fault-finding mission. It is not a directive to get out of the grocery store line and go get an energy-boosting beverage to change the situation. Instead we focus on the inhalation of our natural breath to raise our energy, feeling the incoming air oxygenating our system; or if our energy is frenzied, we focus on the exhalation, letting the outgoing breath release the excess energy, leaving us feeling calmer and more balanced.
Then we notice any specific area(s) where we are holding tension, the way we just did in the exercise. We don’t have to close our eyes to do this if that isn’t convenient. We can simply turn our awareness inward. Again if there is no tension, just the overall sense of well being, that’s fine. We can go on about our day taking pleasure in this sense of well being. But if we notice a sensation of tightness, we can take a moment — literally a few seconds to skillfully release some or all of that tension. With practice we develop the positive habit of noticing, relaxing and releasing tension in the body.
When I lead meditation, I usually guide the group in an overall body scan, using a variety of words to encourage relaxing and releasing tension. I suggest my students notice which of these words is the most powerful and effective. For example, those of us who took Lamaze childbirth classes may still be cued to respond well the word ‘relax!’ However, we were trained to respond to our mate-coach saying the word. I am sure if my husband said that word today, I would respond with full relaxation. But it’s not skillful in our practice to depend on someone else to provide the key for our release!
Here are some of the words I use.
This last word, melt, has an image associated with it. I will sometimes tell my students, especially in the summer, to imagine the spine as a popsicle stick and the muscles as the ice cream melting on the stick.
Try these words out for yourself and see which one(s) are most effective in releasing tension. There may be others that you think of that are even more effective. Whatever you find that works for you, remember to use it! Each of us is developing our own set of valuable skills, our toolbox of meditative techniques, that through our own experience, we know serve us. The word that most effectively releases built-up tension is indeed a valuable tool.
As we quiet down through meditative practice, we can begin to notice all the sensations that compose this thing we call tension. We can find that each area of sensation is a whole series of smaller, subtler sensations that we begin to notice if we simply sit with the experience. This level of refined noticing is skillful, but even more important than the degree to which we notice is the compassion we are able to bring to our noticing.
Sometimes we may think of tension as the enemy and we just want to get rid of it. But tension is just the way our body holds unprocessed painful memories and anxious thoughts about the future. When we are doing self-inquiry, this is a gateway to insight and understanding. Compassion allows us to relax, release, soften and let go. It isn’t about pushing away or getting rid of anything.
One student brought up the challenge of being both compassionate with ourselves and still fulfill obligations, like the commitment of getting to work on time. A sense of needing to meet others’ expectations, is a common source of tension in our lives, so let’s look at it more closely.
The tension that arises is rooted in the fear that we will be judged and found wanting, and that this judgment will render us unacceptable. If we are unacceptable, we will be set out on the proverbial ice floe and left to die. That may sound like a crazy extreme, but this is what we believe in some form or another, even though we would word it very differently. That is why this area is all so dire and why we are willing to sacrifice our health and well being for the sake of meeting commitments. We are afraid of being separate. We are afraid of disappearing. Fears seem to come in all shapes and sizes but they all have that common denominator. We don’t want to be cast out. Even if ‘ve vant to be alone,’ it is on our own terms, and may to a certain degree be rooted in our discomfort with the tension we feel around others, based in this fear of being labeled unacceptable. Even if our voluntary solitude arises out of a sense of being comfortable in our own skin, a sense of connection with the natural world, or a rich inner creative life that needs solitude to work, we can get so out of the habit of being with people that we are uncomfortable with them. Or we may be used to working on our own and when we are working with people or for people, suddenly the tension comes in, even though we are doing exactly the same kind of work we were doing before. It something interesting to explore.
Through noticing and being present, it is quite possible to realize that we are inherently an intrinsic expression of all being, that we can never be separate, and that our ultimate disappearance from this form, just like all of nature, is simply energy transferring to another form. Think of a drop of water flying above a cascade. We each are that drop of water! We each believe ourselves to be separate, but in fact we are and always will be an inseparable part of being, just as the water drop is part of the river, the ocean, the clouds and the rain. We are not separate ever, so we can let go of the fear of any cause or condition making us so.
When we understand our connection to all of life, when we feel the life force flowing through us, then when we make commitments we fulfill them naturally as an infinite connected conduit of open-hearted spacious loving energy. We do not become undependable, blissed-out or flaky, so self-involved we forget our commitments! We instead fulfill our commitments out of this connected sense of infinite love, out of mutual respect and a sense of honoring the time and feelings of others with whom we are co-creating life and experience. Out of love, we arrive where we say we will be at the time we said we would be there. From that sense of connection, we honor other people’s time as we do our own, so we show up on time, and when that’s not possible we let them know as soon as we know that we won’t be able to do so. We can fulfill commitments without drudgery or dread, simply by shifting into the more authentic core of caring and compassion from which we made the commitment in the first place.
(When in class I suggested that we can fulfill our commitments compassionately, allowing our intuitive sense of connection with others to guide us, the way birds fly in unison, just at that moment a bird landed on the deck rail, and hung around as if to hear more about it!)
How do we know if we are operating from love or fear? Easy! Sense in to the body and notice if there is a tight knot of tension somewhere. That’s the first clue to operating out of fear. It is so habituated that even advanced meditators will still hold residual patterns of tension that need to be noticed and released. If we judge the tension as a sign of our unskillfulness as meditators, then we are missing the concept. Let the tension be a teacher! Instead of finding fault with it, let it be a guide to the opportunity to sense in, relax, release — or whatever word is most powerful for you — and be grateful to be so instantly ushered into the present moment, where we have the power of our intrinsic interconnection to create space for all experience to exist within our open embrace.
TENSION & SELF-INQUIRY
Developing the ability to sense into physical sensation and to notice tension is skillful not just in order to release it. We can use the tension we notice as a springboard for self-inquiry. Why? Because tension is the way our body holds painful memories and anxious thoughts of what could happen in the future. If that sounds strange, try it for yourself to see if it’s true.
If possible have something to take notes with in case you want to have a record of your experience for future reference. Now close your eyes and notice tension in your body. Once you have located tension, then continue reading. (If you don’t notice any tension, try this at another time.)
Once you’ve located an area of tension, stay aware of the tension while allowing your mind to roam freely. Notice what images, memories or other thoughts arise. Make note of them — a word, a phrase, a short sentence will do.
Your thoughts and emotions will go to the very source of your tension. Sometimes it’s very clear, especially after a period of meditation, and sometimes it’s more challenging, especially if some aspect of self is investing in this ‘woo-woo stuff’ being wrong. But if you have come this far, you are more powerful than that little nay-saying aspect, so continue to explore. (Note to inner nay-sayer: Biologically speaking, this all makes sense — ask a neurologist or brain research scientist.)
Okay, back to the exercise: You might ask yourself, ‘What fear is present in this thought or emotion?’
Notice the wording. We could say ‘What am I afraid of?’ and that’s okay, but this wording can activate identity-based concerns (‘I’m no scaredy-cat!’) that can be distracting. So we can more accurately recognize fear as a free-floating agent in our experience rather than something that is intrinsically us.
Remember that the fear might present as something that has a whole story wrapped around it. Notice the story, Maybe write down a brief note about the story for further exploration, but also be looking for that common denominator fear of disappearing that is at the root of all fears we have, no matter what our story is. The story is useful because it is full of clues about the way we have shaped that fear. We can ask questions of the story, such as “Is this true?” and “How do I know this is true?” We do this with compassion and respect. We are not pooh-poohing the story, but we are holding it up to the light and seeing it, maybe for the first time, with clarity. Most of us have never questioned our stories. We have instead built our identity around them.
For the purposes of this dharma talk, I am just showing how tension can be a teacher, giving us access to a treasure trove of tightly held answers to the questions we have about why we suffer so. There are many other dharma talks on this blog about self-inquiry and self-exploration and I encourage you to check them out from the list of labels in the column on the right.
Whether we are noticing tension to release it in order to come more fully into the present moment, or we are noticing it to do an exercise in self-inquiry, this kind of awareness practice is highly beneficial. It is only effective however when we experience it for ourselves, so I hope you haven’t just read this post, but have done the exercises, noticing your own areas of chronic tension, experimenting to find what words or images are most effective for you to release tension, and have tried out doing a little self-exploration using tension as a gateway to discovery. If not, you can right now go back and actually experience it.
These dharma talks are only adjuncts to the experiential practice of meditation and self-exploration. It is your own development of meditative skills that will make the difference in your life. To read without practice is said to be like fixating on the finger pointing at the moon rather than seeing the moon itself.
So dance in the moonlight of your own awakening! Though we all dance together in a beautiful pattern of life loving itself, no one else can dance your dance!