The world has very well developed ideas about what “should” make us feel calm.
Dial up a guided relaxation video on YouTube, and there’s not a whole lot of variety: mellow voice over nature slides, spacey music, instructions to “just let go, let yourself relax, listen to my voice…”
All that can help…some people feel calm.
But not everyone.
I like to listen to guided relaxation videos while I’m in the gym, on the exercise bike. Which, I know, might sound a little paradoxical— but I like to get into a kind of altered state when I work out.
(In fairness, I like to get into altered states in general, but that’s a different blog.)
And I can’t express to you how annoying it is to have somebody with a voice they think is calming, trying to tell me to “let go” and “just relax completely.”
First of all, “let go” is a loaded term for a lot of people.
Many people have been told to “let go” of trauma or anger or pain…LONG before they’re ready to actually let go.
Even “letting go” of muscle tension can be more complicated than we realize, when our muscles are tense because they’re gearing up to fight or flee.
But then there’s the dumb suggestion to “just relax completely.”
Talk about easier said than done. Relax “completely?” Are you sure?
I assure you: if you’ve been unable to relax, let alone “completely,” it’s not because you haven’t had a person with a soothing voice and new age music tell you to “relax completely.”
All of which is to say: my big complaint with those kinds of routines is that they’re so generic.
They ignore all the many, many individual differences that exist between people in what make them feel calm.
Everybody reading this has a different version of what “calm” looks and feels like.
If I ask you to imagine a time you felt “calm,” you’re probably imagining a specific time and place in your life— a scene that nobody else could imagine, because they’re not you.
And I would never suggest to someone that they “relax completely.”
Our nervous system hears “relax completely,” and it’s almost always a signal to do the exact opposite— much like “don’t think of a pink elephant.”
Human beings don’t “relax completely”— nor should we.
What makes you feel calm is what makes YOU feel calm. YOU have the combination to that particular lock. That’s YOUR secret garden to open or close as you please. No one can push their way in.
And I do not recommend you try to “relax completely.”
What I might recommend is: when I say the word “calm,” pay attention to what springs to mind.
Where and when would you be if you were to honestly say, “I’m calm right now?”
Not where SHOULD you be. Where WOULD you be.
Put yourself there, in your head. See it. Hear it. Smell it.
Feel its textures. Just be there for a sec.
Now, if I told you to relax just 1%, what would you notice? Where would that teeny, tiny bit of relaxation occur? Your toes? Your shoulders? Your neck?
Don’t try to relax any of them “completely”— just one percent. You can stay 99% as tense as you are right now— just give me that 1% reduction.
There ya go. Breathe into it. Feel the breath going into the space that was created by that 1% reduction in tension.
See, everything we just did, YOU chose.
YOU decided where your “calm” place was. YOU decided where that tiny reduction in tension would come from.
For us to REALLY develop the skill of relaxing and focusing, WE need to feel in control of the process.
It’s not hard.
But it doesn’t happen by accident.
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