Category Archives: releasing tension

Hey, hey, what’s that sound?

“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” – Abraham Lincoln

El Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX

What noises irritate you? I was asked this question by a recent survey about ‘noise pollution’ so it brought up a lot of thoughts about our relationship with sound. In Mexico a local once told me that when you don’t have much stuff, noise is stuff. It’s free and you can make as much of it as you want. It fills you up.

Huh! I had certainly never thought about it that way, but it was a kind of invitation to open to a different way of relating to sound.

It was challenging because, especially as a meditator, I think of silence as nourishing. In my culture, personal music is enjoyable, while other people’s choices may be perceived as an intrusion. Wealth is not a bounty of noise but an ability to build a buffer from noises made by others. The richer we are, the thicker our walls, the more panes on our windows and the more acres between us and the world around us — all that traffic and other aggravating noises. So when an American university thinks up a survey, they title it ‘noise pollution’ without even considering that not everyone has a negative bias against sounds.

How we are in relationship to the sounds all around us is an important indication of how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Are we making an enemy of it? And if so, how does that affect us?

In meditation, silence is something we cultivate within. It’s not useful to expect that the world around us should comply with our decision to be quiet. Outside life goes on. Noise goes on. When leading a guided meditation, I suggest allowing a sound to be experienced as pure sound, as if it’s a note or an instrument in a symphony: The Symphony of Now — this unique moment of never-to-be-repeated-in-just-this-way sounds. Can we simply be with the experience of sound instead of getting caught up in thinking about what is making the sound — someone slamming a car door, hammering, talking, barking, playing loud music, etc.? If so, we can be more at ease and less likely to tense up with displeasure. We don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about the source of the sound, who’s to blame, why are they making that sound, there ought to be a law, and how long will this go on.

Even if it’s a pleasant sound — bird song or gentle rain, for example — can we allow it to simply be sound? Can we be present without getting lost in trying to identify the type of bird, scolding ourselves for not being able to, or getting caught up in thinking about how the local cats are decimating the bird population?

In Mexico I brought my meditative attention to listening to all the sounds as I sat in the town square. At different times of day and evening so many sounds happen all at once: several Mariachi bands playing on different corners, teenagers with their own music for break dancing, hawkers calling out their wares, children yelling and laughing, lots of conversations, and the church bells ringing at the quarter hour. So much sound everywhere! But as I sat and allowed myself to really listen for fifteen minutes más o menos every day over the course of a few weeks I began to be able to hear the various sounds as if tuning into multiple channels at once, each one distinct and clear, and together a wondrous symphony. This exercise completely changed my relationship with sound. And in changing my relationship, I noticed a difference in my whole body — a release of tension and a rising of ease and contentment.

Since the people in the square don’t make an enemy of sound, it is reasonable to assume that it doesn’t cause stress in their bodies, and therefore, that noise in and of itself is not necessarily bad.

While I believe that to be true, there are situations when I am not able to be so blissful, especially if I am trying to sleep. I didn’t catch a wink in a midtown Manhattan hotel with 24 hour construction right across the street. I tossed and turned and got sucked into thoughts about who’s to blame for this and how could they be so rude? How could the hotel put us in this room? How could the city allow for this noise in the middle of the night? But then I would get moments of recognition that I was the one who was caught up in angry thoughts. I was the one who was making myself miserable. But hey, I’m not the enemy either. And my mindfulness training was insufficient to the task of overcoming a lifetime of discomfort with ‘noise pollution’ in certain situations.

The pattern of thoughts we experience when something’s bothering us happens not just about sound, but about anything that we make the enemy. Anything, anyone or any idea that causes tension, sets us on edge, and fills our thoughts with hatred, is a perceived enemy. Big or small, we all have them. Maybe they are pet peeves or maybe they are major threats to our well being. Or maybe they are convenient scapegoats for something else altogether. But whatever they are, they affect us. We internalize them. We suffer from how we are in relationship to them.

Billboard Blues
In the 1980’s I worked in advertising. Some of the time the work felt like play because I got to use my writing and visual design skills, and my colleagues at the agency were fun to work with. But over time, as I became more and more skilled at developing campaigns, I began to see how insidious advertising is. What skill was I developing? The ability to use psychology and an understanding of human’s innate negativity bias to activate fear and craving, and to promote our clients’ products and services as miracle cures to assuage that fear.

I remember preparing for a presentation to a well-known manufacturer of locks. Given the nature of the product, the proposed campaign had to be rooted in fear — the fear of someone breaking into your home — otherwise why would you bother buying a lock? And even though I understand that these are needed devices and that this manufacturer is very good at making them, I felt a lot of resistance to taking the company on as a client. I did not want to be a purveyor of fear. So when we didn’t get the client, there was definitely some relief mixed in with agency-shared disappointment of not getting such a prestigious client. Then I began to see how promoting even pleasant products, was actively playing on people’s fears. Not the fear of home invasion, but the fear of not being enough, not looking good enough, not being perceived as successful, etc.

By the end of my time at the ad agency, which I had to leave because I had become physically ill with an autoimmune disease, I had written for myself an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising. I tossed it after writing it, as if it was toxic. I just needed to get it out of me as catharsis and the beginning of my healing. But it’s easy to see and reasonable to conclude that my perception of advertising as evil, as enemy, put such stress on my body, so much tension day after day, that it was at least partially responsible for my illness. Through rest, meditation, self-discovery and a good doctor, I recovered within a year. Mine is a cautionary tale about having your work align with your core values, but also about how enemy naming and the resulting internal discord can make us sick.

It’s important to notice what happens when we make an enemy of anything. Our thoughts get locked, frozen and unyielding, whether we are defending something or finding fault with it. We lose sight of our common humanity and our shared desire to live together in peace and harmony.

In our meditation practice we are encouraged to greet all that arises with friendliness, and this applies to everything that arises, not just who or what we like or agree with. It’s skillful to notice when we have shaped an enemy, and skillful to notice the form it takes, how this enemy-making tendency needs a target. We identify a person or group of people who we deem responsible for whatever it is that we are opposed to. Tension rises up and strangles us. Our bodies react as if threatened, and over time reach a breaking point, because the enemy we have created is not fleeting but has taken up residence in our ongoing thoughts.

So then is making enemies the enemy? There’s got to be an enemy!
Or does there?
Can we allow for the possibility that all life is deeply interconnected and there is no ‘other’? Can we see how lashing out against a perceived enemy ends up harming ourselves even worse?

And yet there’s so much in the world that needs our attention! Can we find a way to attend it without aggravating the situation? Can we develop the ability to notice in a deeper and wider way, the way I learned to listen in that square in Mexico? Can we see the overall complexity of life ever changing, and learn to love life instead of constantly being in battle with it? If there are grievous wrongs being done, can we come forward with wise intention and wise effort, grounded in awareness and compassion, using wise speech and wise actions, to greet it?

If not, we are entangled in the thrall of blind misery, entangled in confusing thoughts that cause us terminal tension.


  • Close your eyes and imagine someone or something you think of as enemy, even if you might not use that word. It might be some annoyance or aggravation. It might be a person. It might be a concept. It might be people in general who do certain actions that drive you crazy.
  • Now do a little inquiry: When I bring this enemy to mind, how do I feel in my body? Is that feeling sustainable? Do I make wise choices from this feeling? Or do I spiral down into stronger negative emotions? Do I imagine doing harmful things? Do I become someone I would steer clear of on the street?
  • Notice any tension in the body and relax and release it to whatever degree you are able. If you are comfortable doing metta – lovingkindness practice, send metta to yourself and then to your perceived enemy. May I be well, etc. May you be well, etc.

When we make an enemy of someone, aren’t we just adding to the suffering that makes them behave as they do?

When we make an enemy of an idea, do we make it too scary to look at closely? It becomes locked in and casts a huge shadow in our minds.
When we make an enemy of anything, aren’t we assuming we have an all-encompassing view of all times and places, that we know exactly how things will turn out. Can we make room for the possibility that all that arises has a role to play and that we don’t know for sure if what we label enemy may be what needs to happen to stir up an awakening of consciousness.

How often have you been surprised by the way things turned out? We rarely see things coming. We’re often caught off guard, even though we were so busy watching out for the enemy.

But it’s equally important to remember that our healthy desires for peace, justice, fairness and well being for all life are also part of the ongoing unfolding of life, so engage! But see if you can do it from the fullness of your heart rather than the tight knot of your fear. Perhaps together we can gently but powerfully creating a loving consciousness that is so needed right now, and always.

I leave you with an example of a very creative non-enemy-making way to shed light on something without making an enemy of it. This is not to promote this politician, but to simply share her fresh take on how to engage productively.

Feeling a little tense, are you?

Sometimes I find myself all tense and worried about a current situation, and I fall into the belief that once this is over I can really relax. And then it is over and I’m glad, but my body is still tense! What’s up with that?

The body has a strong preference for the here and now, so when the mind has cast a net into the future, the body tightens up, creates discomfort and even pain as a reminder to release the net and come back to this, just this.

The body so wants me to be here now that even as I’m writing this I can feel my body purring like a cat!

Oil painting by Stephanie Noble

If you feel tense, pause to sense into your body. What do you notice? Where exactly do you feel tension? We all have places we chronically hold tension and it’s useful to know where they are so in a moment of crisis we can gently focus on that area, softening its grip.

Once you have identified the area(s) of tension, spend some time relaxing and releasing the tension in whatever way works best for you. Maybe send it the message ‘Relax’ or ‘Release’ or another word or phrase that soothes you like ‘Let go’. Maybe imagine breathing into that area, softening it with the warmth of your breath.

Now notice other sensations in the body, places where there is no tension. Find a pleasant or neutral sensation and it will remind you that there is more going on in your body and in your life than just this situation that is causing you tension.

Use all your senses. Listen to the various sounds around you without getting caught up in attaching them to preferences or references that draw you into the past or future. It’s just a symphony of sounds. Look around you and notice all the light and dark contrasts, the colors, patterns, shadows and reflections. See if you can smell anything. If not, you might go find something to smell – the cinnamon in the spice cabinet or the flowers on the table. (Smelling things was a big part of our childhoods but we often don’t use it now except to notice something unpleasant. My little granddaughters sometimes generously share their blankies, offering them up to be smelled. All the comfort they derive from these little soft squares of fuzzy fabric is in that cozy scent.)

There are so many sensations available to us in any given moment: texture, temperature, the dampness inside our mouths, the breath that rises and falls in our chest, the feel of the earth supporting us. The more we are able to access sensation, the more present we are in this moment. The more present we are in this moment, the more we are able to live fully with clarity and compassion.

So come to your senses, release whatever tension you can and see if it doesn’t make you purr!

Releasing Tension

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.
Relax…..Release….Let go….Soften….Melt

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.

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!