One prism through which to consider the ideal of finding “relaxation within action” as discussed in Part 1 of this Newsletter is the concept of WuWei (“MuI” in Japanese)… A deep and oft deeply misunderstood concept of ‘non-action’ or ‘not-doing’. This taoist concept has been misappropriated by hippy/ new-age/ surfer types, rather like the idea of “going with the flow” or “following the way (dude)!”
A direct translation of the Chinese characters 無為 could indeed be rendered as “non-doing”. This interpretation is useful in proposing ideas such as ‘non-intevention’ or recommending quiet contemplation/ meditative practice etc.
However, the concept can be applied more broadly if we consider that rather than simply “doing nothing”, WuWei can mean “doing no more than is necessary / appropriate”. It means doing just the right amount at the right time, no more, no less. Effortless doing. Doing without grasping… Our Chinese sages were an efficient lot when it came to capturing their insights in writng – and were indeed practising thier own proposed philosophy by writing only as much as necessary to convey a multitude of ideas simultaneously**.
In my last Acupuncture Newsletter I promised to share some ideas to help bring us closer to this WuWei manner of achieving… …Of course meditation techniques / martial arts / sleep / recreation / acupunture etc. are amazing tools to be explored and developed if possible. But the real value of these tools is to carry their lessons into our daily lives and activities.
Here are some simple ideas which can have a big impact on finding moments of relaxation within even intense activity: “Switiching”. Not only will we find our activities more enjoyable, rewarding and easier to achieve, we will be more relaxed and less tired. We will be working within our biological design. From an oriental perspective we are allowing the constant mix and change of Yin and Yang to result in the healthy circulation and flow of Ki and Blood.
Multitasking vs Timeboxing
Multitasking is a much vaunted concept for all high achievers – getting more than one task done concurrently. It sounds great and has become imbedded almost as a default in our lives thanks to poweful computers and smart-phones (see more below).
Sadly, most studies suggest that human multitasking is really a myth with the brain frantically jumping between tasks as quickly as possible rather than achieving true parallel processing***. This kind of jumping and erratic switching increases the emphasis of the Yang-Mode as your system attempts to deal with multiple external stimuli. Many studies demonstrate numerous negative effects including increased stress, reduced performance of tasks and reduced ability to recall information consumed, increased likelihood of car / other accidents etc….
As an alternative I would suggest exploring and developing the skill of “Timeboxing”. This involves devoting a pre-determined and relatively short slot of time to a specific task and not allowing for any distractions/ changes of task during that period (yes, that includes checking facebook / email/ sms…). At the end of the “Timebox” (literally measured with a timer) you take a short break and return to the next timebox – preferably on a different task (of course big jobs are broken into many Timeboxes). Timeboxes of between 5 and 10 minutes seem to work best for me, depending on the task.
The benefits of this approach are too numerous to discuss here, but for the purposes of this Newsletter one of the best reasons is that it gives us a natural opportunity to bring our attention out of the cerebral / virtual and into our bodies for a moment. Speaking of which:-
Shoulders & Neck
With all of the cerebral activity going on up top, a huge amount of energy is consumed by your brain. This means that we need good flows of blood / Ki (vital energy) both in and out for optimum performance… In Yang-Mode, shoulders have tendency to creep upwards whilst necks become tightened and shortened at the back. This is actually a natural protective position which is fine for short periods. But if allowed to continue over long stretches of time, this tightness becomes chronic, affecting posture and importantly, blood and energy flows.
The great thing is that we can use the effect (contracted shoulders and neck) to modify the cause (being stuck in Yang-Mode)…. What I mean is that if we periodically bring attention to this area and allow our shoulders / arms to get familiar with gravity, rather than nestling constantly up towards our ears, this has a significant effect on helping us swing the pendulum in favour of Yin-Mode. Bit by bit a habitual state can be achieved with shoulders relaxed even when we are experiencing mental/ emotional stress…
Every now and then take a few deep lungfuls of the life giving stuff that surrounds you. If you have been sitting for a long time, especially if you have been cradling a keyboard or smartphone, your lung meridians (running from your chest through the front of your shoulder across your bicep muscles into the forearm & hand) will probably be stagnated. One way to remedy this is by standing up and bringing your arms above your head on inspiration and relaxing them by your sides on exhlation. Repeat 5-10 times and you should feel pretty different. Whats that? You don’t have time to breathe..? You have time precisely because you do breathe..!
Another way to change things, if you can’t tear yourself away from your desk, is to relax your solar plexus. My what!? The area a little above your belly button and directly below the bones which make up the centre of your chest. Most of us unknowlingly keep this area tight in a kind of defensive mode as if the school bully is about to hit us.
If the school bully is about to hit you, please do contract this area hard! Otherwise, try letting go of all tension in that area. Keeping that one area relaxed will automatically improve the quality of your breathing: your diaphragm moves directly behind that area. Strange as it may seem ,you will also notice that your shoulders also feel looser and more open.
The “plexus” part refers to a thick and complex network of nerves relating to numerous Yin-Mode functions. These nerves radiate (sun-like: “solar”) from this area, in all directions, into your internal organs. Learning to relax this area can switch you into Yin-Mode more quickly.
From an oriental medical (acupuncture) perspective this area is related to the proper functioning of the digestive system, and as a diagnostic for your heart – but more generally as a bellwether for the condition of the entire internal organ system, and of spiritual and emotional ease. Developing the habit of keeping this area relaxed will have a profound effect on your health and emotions!
Notifications – Take Control!
The default setting of our smartphone applications faithfully provide us with up-to-the-second notifications of every email / facebook comment tweet /change of status / reminder… All these apps vying for our attention, trying to get eye-balls on adverts… Almost all of it is simply noise that does not need attention right away – and can certainly wait until the end of the current Timebox (see above).
Actually, we are the ones “faithfully” breaking off from conversation / contemplation / concentration / imagination to confirm that the world has not ended… Remember – these are tools we are supposed to be using. Not the other way round. When was the last time you went for a wander somewhere without your mobile phone?
If you can’t do without the latest dose of information being injected into your consciousness, another approach is to use such events (new email/ sms/ facebook update/ end of a Timebox… etc.) as a trigger. Any such event could be linked as a Trigger to a certain action in addition to checking the message itself:- Shoulders & Neck / Breathing / Solar Plexus…
No discussion on relaxation is complete without something to be said about your feet. (For a full discussion see ZuKanSokuNetsu 頭寒足熱 Cool Head, Warm Feet.) From a western perspective we know that venous return of blood from the feet is largely achieved through contraction of the leg muscles. Some kind of stimulation to the feet and legs is essential and will “ground” you a little in the present moment, allowing you to remember your physicality. This can have a strong effect on the way you perceive your current environment, helping to push the needle in the Yin-Mode direction a little.
Alternate contracting & relaxing the feet muscles / standing up & sitting down / doing a few squats / walking down the corridor / stimulating the soles of the feet against a hard rounded object (a golf ball works well) are all good candidates. If your feet are cold (feel them!), a hot water bottle under your desk will be your best friend.
I almost forgot to mention this. There is a huge amount of evidence attesting to the innumerable benefits of smiling, but to be honest, I don’t think it really requires any explanation. Try it now for a minute or two. Have a look around you to make sure no-one is watching, though – this is infectious stuff! Seriously, try it for real rather than just typing as a “smiley” in an SMS/ Chat and see how you feel.
I ran an experiment on myself by keeping a note with the word ‘Smile’ visible at the top edge of my laptop screen whilst writing this Newsletter. The result was quite remarkable (and the note is there to stay, along with another on my mobile phone). I hope you will try it too… …but if this “screens” idea is too much, try simply making the small new habit of smiling your way to sleep, and kicking off with a couple of minutes smiling as you wake up…
In a future Newsletter I will discuss the ultimate Yin-Mode: Sleep.
* I chose the image of a stalking cat (see image above) for this Newsletter to illustrate the idea of “relaxing within action”. Our feline friends are past masters – we would do well to take inspiration from the way they move/ sit /eat etc..
** WuWei also has a much deeper and fundamental sense of “doing without grasping” or “acting without motive for gain or profit” – be it financial/ mental/ spiritual/ physical… But this is most definitely beyond the scope of this Newsletter. And in any event, I fear I run the risk of contravening this concept myself by invoking the depths of the WuWei concept for the purposes this Newsletter!
*** This kind of frantic mental scrambling brings to mind the modern “attention deficit” and “hyperactivity” disorders (ADD; ADHD) afflicting today’s children.