Don’t Read This!
Yes, abtuse as this may seem, I am actively suggesting that you do not read this Newsletter! But only if you take the average reading time of 4 minutes to do nothing instead. Can you do it? Either way, Relax. No, really, I mean it. Be conscious of a nice long slow exhalation before reading on…..And….Relax. Sit back or lie down. Release your grasp of the mouse and keyboard….the world will get along ok on auto-pilot for a few minutes. I promise you! Allow your shoulders the pleasure of the experience gravity and really relax. Go on. Chill out. Do it! Or should I say “Don’t do it”. Or perhaps simply “Don’t do”.
Some part of your brain, probably at the sides, is just about to kick in and demand that you make an active decision as to whether reading this Newsletter is worth the investment of your time. It isn’t – so long as you spend the next 3 and a half minutes contemplating the space around you and inhabiting the innumerable sensations provided by your senses every moment. If this is too much little to ask, please read on.
Don’t do!? Do I really think I have a hope with this message in the face of the advertising dollar of Nike…The current socially imprinted modus operandi is primed “for action”. For doing. For striving. Achieving. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it…
As much as we like to think we have mastered nature, she has a funny way of reminding us that actually we are nature. We are running around in a technology driven playground but the codes and blueprints which drive us are written in DNA largely unchanged for thousands of years. Our systems are designed for action, to be sure. But they are also set up for good doses of non-action, contemplation, repose, and taking things to the limit, for sleep.
You have essentially two basic modes (or extremes) of operation hard wired into your DNA. The sympathetic nervous system sets you to “fight or flight” mode. Your energy resources are fully activated and prioritised to your exterior senses and skeletal muscles. Hormones from your adrenal glands flood your system. Your heart beats faster. We can think of it as the accelerator. All systems related to receiving information from the exterior and to dealing with the exterior world are primed. This is all about immediate survival of the present moment. Exterior, fast, highterned alertness, defense – These are things Yang – So we will call this “Yang-Mode”.
When the dinosaur has been evaded / foe defeated, its time to return to a more prosaic mode of life. State of emergency is cancelled and the ‘military-like’ sympathetic nervous system begrudgingly hands some control back to its more relaxed ‘civilian’ counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system. The directives and resource priorities slowly shift to a longer term perspective – available resources are diverted from immediate exterior action to make essential repairs and maintainance.
You begin to notice that you are hungry and perhaps a little tired. The ankle you didn’t realise you had twisted whilst slaying the dragon begins to throb. That old ache in your shoulder joins in for good measure as the adrenaline ebbs.This is also an intensely active state, but in this case, the activity is mostly in the interior – in the organs – the “Yin” areas of your body. This is “Yin-Mode”.
In terms of mental states, we could consider conscious thought as being Yang-Mode, and sub-conscious awareness/ feeling the preserve of Yin-Mode.
Relaxing within Action: Switching
We all know that we need to make time to relax and there are plenty of well known methods and systems to help – But for the purposes of this Newsletter I am interested in the idea of relaxing within action:- Finding relaxation within our everyday activities so that “relaxation” does not end up meaning collapse in exhaustion at the end of the day / week.
The essential issue that we need to address here is switching. For obvious reasons, switching to life saving Yang-Mode is very simple and primed with a hair-trigger. Switching back to life nourishing Yin-Mode can prove a little more tricky. It is the absence of the Yang-Mode that allows the Yin-Mode circuits to function. Actually, rather than a simple on/off mechanism, we are really talking about a constant “switching of emphasis” between Yang-Mode and Yin-Mode as dictated by your environment – actual and, importantly, perceived.
“Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee”
The point is that postponing relaxation to some time in the future is a fools game. It will rarely happen – and when it does, it is too little too late. We need to develop the skill / habit of switching on a more subtle level so that we can achieve periods of relative relaxation (Yin) even within the context of action (Yang).
“Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee” is the same concept encapsulated by Muhammad Ali: switching off (floating) and on (stinging) even within the brutally “on” activity of boxing. We see the same concepts in the various martial arts involving periods of smooth flowing movement with brief intense moments of total hardness and contraction at the moment of impact…
What this means is approaching all of our activities – be they work/ study/ exercise – with a small portion of our attention/ awareness devoted to how we are now – to assessing whether we are carrying out the task of the moment in the most efficient, relaxed, skilfull manner. We all know that physical skills require relaxation to master. We know that mental insights to complex issues often come at moments when we are seeminly distracted or distanced from the problem (my patients patients sometimes report resolution to pressing issues on the treatmetn table!). But for some reason most of us routinely fail to build these essentials into the daily activities which consume most of our time.
In Part 2 of this Newsletter I will look at the Taoist concept of WuWei and discuss some simple, practical steps we can take to achieve relaxation within action.