The mind churns. Morning after morning we wake in a hurry with too much to do. Physically fit, we’re aware of a vague mental suffering. ‘Life presents itself as a task,’ philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer complained, with happiness postponed until its completion. No. Today, life presents itself as a thousand tasks with no question of completion.
Even when the body takes its breaks, the mind hammers on. Relaxing in front of the telly, we’re not relaxing. We’re anxious about the crisis, appalled by a sex crime. Peeing at dawn, we feel we’ve been arguing all night, with the boss, our partner, our parents, the children. And perhaps we’re not as fit as we thought. My jaw is tense, my thighs are tense. I have a pain in my stomach. I realise I’ve had it for weeks. Maybe months.
How to stop all this? How to find respite? Drinking can be fun (and I love a good bottle of wine), but then there’s afterwards. Then there’s worrying I’m on the downward slope. If I start on the Prozac, where will it end? I must find time to go running. The endorphins would make me happy. I must find time for the gym. But while I’m lifting weights, I’m thinking about the rent. *sigh* Jogging, I’m watching my watch. At the weekend, I go canoeing. Running a rapid is the only time my mind focuses on the here and now. But all of a sudden I’m upside down. Damn. I’ve made a full of myself in front of my friends, family. The adrenalin is pumping. My stomach is burning.
Months ago, a friend, suggested the chronic worrying bouts I was experiencing were linked to a wired-up psychological state. ‘Turn the temperature down, Joe.’ I didn’t feel I was nay more wired up than anyone else, but it was a more attractive hypothesis than cancer. I tried some relaxation exercises, to do with the breathing.
The first problem was conceptual. I’d always imagined relaxing simply stopping work. I’d thought that to escape from thought you went to sport pr entertainment or sex. Now, instead, I was being asked to consider that relaxation is work, a skill, the incredibly difficult skill of learning not to think without any other refuge but your breathing and body.
Lie or sit down, on a chair or cross-legged, wherever, however, at whatever time. The key is to be still. Then close your eyes and focus your mind on the breathing entering and leaving your nose, for example the breath brushing your upper lip.
How lightly these words are spoken. How hard they are to obey. You feel the light touch of your breath for a moment, but your thoughts are a river in flood. Your concentration is swept away like flotsam. You bring your mind back, back to the point, back to the breath. Again and again. It’s so elusive, so frustrating. And it will take many hours over many weeks before you finally discover, as a solid fact of experience rather than an airy opinion in a book, that it is only when the mind fastens on immediate sensation in the body, in the here and now, whether it be the breath on your lip, the pulse in your hand, the tingling in a temple, or the warmth on the sole of your foot, it is only them with the mind absolutely absorbed by that physical presence, that language-driven thoughts fade away and dissolve. Suddenly, as at the flick of a switch, everything relaxes, deeply. Your pain has gone. You are floating in an uncanny stillness that is the wellbeing of your body breathing now.
Try to attach a name to this, and at once you are uneasy. Your friends are uneasy. You are betraying your religious culture. This stuff is Eastern, or worse still, New Age. OK, so don’t bother naming it. Just take an hour a day, morning, afternoon, or evening, whatever suits to explore it.
The territory is vast, but over time you see that it is the words filling your head that create the impression that mind and body are separate, while in this new state of deep stillness the two are one. The discovery will alter your sense of self. Your body is not an accessory to the more important mind; your body is you.
Also, it becomes clear that if your life is a fast-moving narrative that you are thinking and rethinking, telling and retelling every day, you really can step outside of that, into quietness and stillness, for a little while, daily; and this is not only a wonderful relief, but it shifts perspectives when you move back to your story-telling. You have a better grip of plot and subplot. Maybe you can tall a happier tale.
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