Special Topics

Relaxation and Ease of Mind

Are you relaxed enough? In this stressful age, most people are eager to try various ways to achieve relaxation. In fact, "relaxation" has certainly become a popular pursuit. But, what does it mean to be relaxed? What is the link between relaxation and Chan practice? And, does the state of relaxation really help our mind become more at ease?

Modern life is blessed with multiple material conveniences. Yet, people often feel more stressed as a result of personal financial matters, peer competition, work, job promotions, interpersonal relationships, social pressures, and family expectations. These factors can be suffocating. An appropriate amount of stress may be a driving force for us to make progress, but chronic stress can greatly compromise our physical and mental health. Medical reports have confirmed the link between long term stress and cardiovascular diseases, as well as cancer. The World Health Organization also pointed out that mental stress is becoming the second leading cause of disability and threat to life, next to cancer.

In response to the increasing demand, all sorts of well-being programs or ideas to combat stress have arisen in the market, such as "relaxation massage", "therapeutic toys", and "slow living travel". Hospitals also offer clinics for relaxation, with prescribed methods or remedies to help people learn to relax their body and mind, as a way to recharge themselves, in order to better cope with life's challenges.

Awareness of bodily sensations as the first step to relaxation

Everyone wants to feel relaxed. But, do you know how it actually feels in the body to be tense or relaxed? Try clenching your hands, and keep adding more force until you feel all your hand muscles have tensed up to the maximum. Then, immediately loosen your hands. You will feel the sudden disappearance of a force, with the muscles of your whole body also relaxed. Alternately, try raising your shoulders as high as possible, and then let go at once. Do you sense a particularly light feeling? This is to experience how our body tenses up and becomes relaxed.

Being aware of our bodily sensation is the first step to relaxation. We often fail to notice what our body is signaling to us, such as clinched jaws, tight shoulders, intermittent migraine headaches, and clenched fists while sleeping. These phenomena reveal that we are precisely being subject to stress and pressure.

Ven. Guo Yuan, Vice Director of DDM Chan Practice Center, who teaches relaxation methods on a regular basis, regards relaxation as part of our "innate instinct", because nobody likes uncomfortable emotions and sensations. In fact, the letting go of discomfort is, in itself, relaxation. Be aware of where your discomfort is coming from and simply let go of it, and you will gradually be able to loosen up.

Don't be trapped by the misconception of relaxation

As DDM founder Master Sheng Yen described, to be relaxed in body and mind is to have nothing on our mind, which is, however, not the same as being absent-minded or indifferent. On the contrary, it is about doing the best we can to deal with whatever we encounter in the present moment, letting it go when the moment has passed without allowing it to linger in our mind with worry. Furthermore, as Ven. Guo Yuan stressed, relaxation is not idleness and laziness; misunderstanding relaxation as slowing down, we will likely become inactive and passive.

Then, what are the differences between relaxing, slowing down, and emptying the mind? As Ven. Guo Yuan clarified, "Slowing down helps us relax better, but it is not the same as relaxation. On the other hand, emptying our mind involves temporarily trying to avoid thinking and doing anything; it does help us to relax, but, again, it is not the same as relaxation." He emphasized that to relax, in its true sense, is not necessarily to become slower in speed or pace. For example, a sprint athlete may achieve great speed with a relaxed mood during practice. However, in a race, harboring a comparing mindset could in turn compromise that speed. So, by keeping an "ordinary mind", we are more able to relax at all times.

Focused attention instead of forceful attempt

How do we relax our mind? In his book, Chan Experiences and Chan Teachings, Master Sheng Yen said: "Simply put: do not intentionally seek favorable conditions, and do not reject unfavorable situations. All phenomena are there for a reason. So just calmly accept it, deal with it, and finish it, and we will find it easier to relax ourselves.”

Learning how to properly relax our body and mind helps us keep a calm and stable body and mind. Therefore, relaxation can be said to be the foundational step to Chan practice. For this reason, Silent Illumination practice in Chan Buddhism indeed comprises a method to enable people to achieve thorough relaxation, from body to mind: to let go of our self-centered attachment and clinging is to practice "silence", while clear awareness of the mind reflects the function of "illumination". Only by attaining freedom of mind can we truly be at ease.

Extended Reading:

Relaxation and Ease of Mind

Q&A about Relaxing the Body and Mind - Question 1: How do we know that the body is tight and needs to be relaxed?

Q&A about Relaxing the Body and Mind - Question 2: Why is it easy to become drowsy when relaxing?

Q&A about Relaxing the Body and Mind - Question 3: Does relaxation mean thinking and doing nothing?

Q&A about Relaxing the Body and Mind - Question 4: I know I want to relax, but I just can't make it. What should I do?

Q&A about Relaxing the Body and Mind - Question 5: How is relaxation different from letting go and spacing out?

Relaxation for Recovery of Body-mind Balance

Physical and mental relaxation strategies

Resource: Issue 353 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 353 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Shujen Yeh (葉姝蓁)  
Editing: Keith Brown, Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠)