It’s not easy to relax. The individualistic, hectic, consumerist Western world makes this so. There are bills to pay, mouths to feed, kids to shuffle, classes to attend and homes to clean. Our lives, as they say in Britain, are “chock-a-block”—cluttered, making quiet time for us a precious rarity.
Looking closer, however, we can see that core to the issue is not busy schedules, but rather our inability to trust. Can we trust others to help us; to do the bookkeeping accurately, clean the kitchen, ensure the children have the proper food in their lunchbox? Perhaps our spouse and co-workers have let us down before making it difficult to trust them, and thus relax. Or maybe we still need them to do it our way instead of trusting their way, and struggle to release our need for perfection. The way they clean the kitchen does not have the spotless standard we hold ourselves to; but what is more important—a perfectly clean kitchen or our wellbeing? Something to consider, especially over the course of a lifetime.
But let’s go even deeper. Relaxation occurs when our parasympathetic, calming nervous system is engaged. With its help we pause, breathe, ground into our body, into this moment, and discharge ourselves from our active mind and duties. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is in charge of mobilizing us into action; and when we feel unsafe, it arouses us into fight and flight response, into reactions to perceived danger. At some point we did not trust our surroundings enough to feel safe and our sympathetic nervous system did its job and went on alert. If situations worsened, we went on hyper-alert. And if this hyper-alertness extended itself for elongated periods of time then we would struggle to trust and relax into the soft welcoming here and now that had once so innately felt like home. Depending on the severity of our circumstances, we’d live continuously guarded, protecting from tension, stern looks, threatening words, or abuse in and outside our home. Our supple hands grasped, clear mind fretted, tender gaze narrowed, open jaw clenched, more for some than others. We could no longer engage our parasympathetic nervous system for extended periods of time making alertness our modus operandi.
Growing into the Western world of academic expectations, social pressures, rushing between after school programs, dual income households, heavy workloads, incessant distractions, financial pressures, toxic relationships and environmental threats has only compounded the stressful demands already placed on our taxed sympathetic nervous system. We have become ever so on making it virtually impossible to have a symbiotic relationship, or flow between parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, which is a clear indicator of health—to move rhythmically, and without extremes, between slow and fast, quiet and loud, disengaged and engaged, tending to ourselves and tending to others. Hustle, bustle and protect has made us hard-wired for being up, but rarely down, for having addictions to busyness and technology, and physical ailments such as chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, and general burnout. Indeed, on, and the inability to carve out space for self-care and rest, has become a Western bane. Within the full family and lifestyle sleep has become the only time one can turn off—that is if one can actually sleep!
Even more core to our difficulties has been our belief system: I am not safe; Idle hands are the work of the devil; I have to be strong; I need to be responsible; I have to do it alone; They’ll disappoint me; It’s bad to put myself first; I won’t feel loved if I don’t caretake others. These beliefs, along with our trauma, put us on alert in the first place, unable to relax, unable to trust ourselves and others, unable to disengage the sympathetic nervous system. Even though the original circumstances causing our hard-wired alertness are long gone, we still perceive and react—live—as if at the whim of our dysfunctional parents and demanding grade two teacher.
How can we relax if we cannot trust that we are safe to be as we naturally are—present, curious, open, enchanted, loving, vulnerable; if we cannot trust our environment? How can we trust if we cannot relax into another’s outstretched hand; if we cannot relax into this moment?
How can we relax and trust if our nervous system is wired for alertness and activity?
And so for all these reasons relaxation and trust, certainly as we get older, can be incredibly challenging.
“But,” you exclaim, “I have to be on! As the Executive Director of this non-profit organization I am relied upon to tend to a number of details others miss. And as the wife of a somewhat aloof husband and mother of two busy bees, if I don’t tend to the details it won’t happen. Trust me!” It’s a catch-22. Sometimes it is those who felt most unsafe as children that are the most productive workers. Their acute on-ness makes them excellent at being alert to the necessities and details at hand. And so like a self-fulfilling prophecy they find work and relationships that allow them to fulfill these competencies—sharp focus, meticulous thinking, a firm reliable grip—that arose, when young, from a very engaged sympathetic nervous system.
This is why they may both love and deeply resent their work and husband/wife—they get to flex, and gain approval/appreciation for their competencies, but are simultaneously tired of them. Mixed feelings spin. They hate having to always be on, yet know no other way; they long to relax, but are afraid to let down their guard, to trust, to feel the vulnerability behind their alertness.
For this reason someone who is very on will often find themselves marrying or working closely with someone who is messy, forgetful, spacey, scattered, disorganized, unreliable—slightly off. (This does not mean this person has an over-engaged parasympathetic nervous system; to be explained another time). A pain in the butt it may feel like, but disguised in their aloof-incompetence may be a hidden competence you long for more than their perfection. Remember what made you so efficient in the first place…
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Ultimately, what we most desire is to relax into love—to sink into this old flavor of being at one with life, where life inter-mingles with our senses like a sweet fragrance and everything moves and breathes as one sea of peace and presence. When born, we are saturated in this; such is our purity. This is our inherited domain, our native dwelling Self we come rested and nested in. Nothing separates us from this; that is until our sympathetic nervous system becomes hard-wired and limiting beliefs are formed and little room is left for us to feel and relax into our unbounded essence.
For the rest of our lives we search for this now distant feeling, thinking, believing that our on-ness will lead us to oneness—if only we just have things just so, if only we just get that done, then finally… but it’s never enough. Nothing can be enough until we relax into love, which is where relaxation longs to take us.
This is self-love, a place of coming home to your Self, as if slowly lowering from the surface, frantic pieces of this world into the sea of emptiness that unites and gives rise to them all. In falling, we lose a level of control—the control of having to have all our ducks in a row, our pieces just so, the kitchen neatly tidied, and lunches perfectly packed. A part of us dies into the whole we both long for and fear at the same time.
This is our life-long and most challenging journey—to trust, relax and love ourselves again; to feel safe enough to lower our tired guard and return to the way of being we came into this world as, our grip loosened, gaze softened, jaw slightly open, heart tender and receptive, relaxing vulnerably into the garden of life, as life itself.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart