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How to do nothing: a simple guide to the lost art of relaxation



As I shake out the blanket and prepare to lay it out, there’s a scurry of activity as the insect population races to get clear. I’ve slipped my shoes off and I can feel the dry crispness of the long grass scratching my ankles.


There’s a hum of bees and flying bugs and the gentle breeze sets a background soundtrack of gentle rustling.


It’s warm but not stiflingly so, thanks to the light breeze. Occasional clouds drift across the bright blue sky and it seems certain to stay sunny, warm and glorious.


There’s a bubbling fizziness in my tummy as I think about the moments ahead. The anticipation of the delicious afternoon I’ve manifested.


Doing nothing. That’s the plan. It doesn’t sound exciting but to me it is. I’m so used to the relentless busy-ness of life (like most of us) that it feels like a radical act to let go. I admit to myself that I’m not very good at it. I need more practice.


I lie back, my book beside me and a flask of tea resting against my bag of supplies and wait. Surely any second now the racing of my mind and the urge to “do” will fade away and I’ll be left calm and relaxed?

The irritation of “doing” relaxation


With the scene so perfectly set for rest and relaxation, how could it go wrong?


Ah, there’s the rub!


Just because we decide it’s time to rest, our body and mind doesn’t necessarily come along for the ride.

The more we “try” to relax, the more we scupper our attempts. In the same way that lying in bed “trying” to fall asleep leaves you wide-eyed and sleep-less, relaxation isn’t something we can do. It’s actually the absence of doing.


Relaxing the muscles, for example, simply means no activation of signals from the neurons to the muscle fibres. So by definition when we try to make it happen, we create action. Action is the opposite of Relaxation.


Creating the right conditions


Effective relaxation starts earlier than you think.

It's a little like trying to navigate a car out of the fast lane and onto a gentle country lane. You don't screech across 3 lanes of traffic in fifth gear and then slam on the brakes. It's a process, albeit one that's probably mostly on autopilot:


You look in your mirrors, check all around you for hazards, change gear, change lanes, slow some more and finally leave at the exit you've decided. When you finally get to that leisurely road, your engine has begun to cool and your gears have wound down.


It's funny that we don't often offer ourselves this same kind of transition, both to come out of relaxation or to go into it.


How often have you expected yourself to shift out of "go mode" and straight into "chill mode" without any gear changes?

Often we spend all day without space to transition from one thing to the next: zoom meeting to zoom meeting, dropping kids off and then racing to get jobs done, checking emails while you pop to the loo (yes, I see you!). All the endless rushing to meet commitments and responsibilities with no break. Then we hit a designated relaxation time or a lull in the hustle and we're surprised that we feel so restless.


For me, when my day has gone this way, it leads me to reach for my phone or a sugar hit or some other distraction. My body is out of the habit of just being and it feels awkward and uncomfortable. Just like having a car in fifth gear on that country lane.


We can easily become addicted to the chase for dopamine and adrenaline: a constant cycle of trying to feel good and avoid feeling bad. It can be clunky to change gears so we don't. Then we convince ourselves that there's no point relaxing anyway because it will only make it harder to go back into the storm.


How can we recover the lost art of relaxing?


I often talk about micromoments: the small ways we can break this endless doing cycle without needing to find hours of extra time each day. It's powerful, like building a tiny release valve into your day so you can check in and see what you need.


Sometimes though what's needed is to spend time learning how to deeply relax. I don't mean "how to feel a little bit less like you're going to explode" relaxing. I mean "full system reboot, let it all go" relaxed.


Like most things, it's a skill you can cultivate and actively practice. It makes it easier for your body to remember what it feels like when you find yourself in (or maybe even start to create) a spare moment. That remembering makes it much more likely that you'll release stress throughout your day instead of storing it up.


There are many ways I love to share and teach people to relax, it's often the very first thing we do together as it paves the way for the deeper work. A tense and stressed nervous system is not conducive to change.


There are probably hundreds of ways to relax and what's most important is finding what works for YOU.

Not how you think you should do it, not how you've seen other people do it, but what actually works for your own unique life, temperament and experience.


Here are three "starter" categories that I like to introduce people to, mostly because they can be used for a longer, deeper full body reset and then used in micro-doses to remind you how you want to feel:


1. Using your breath to relax: reclaiming your nervous system Our whole experience of the world, even the types of thoughts and feelings that are likely to show up, come down to what's happening in our body. It's a two way street: when my body is tense and my breathing is shallow and up in my chest, I feel anxious, on edge, ready for action. And in the other direction, if I take control of my breathing and encourage the muscles in my body to relax, I can feel the opposite. I can find calm, spaciousness and clarity.


We can't decide to pump less blood or have less stress hormones released. BUT we can control the breath. It's actually the only part of our primitive survival system that we CAN consciously control. This makes it a perfect tool for shifting our state.


When I change how I breathe, I send a powerful signal to my nervous system that it’s safe to relax.

There are 3 distinct ways we can use the breath to manage our physiology:

  • like a shot of coffee; bringing energy and vitality to a sluggish system

  • like a refreshing glass of water; encouraging balance and restoring equilibrium

  • like a wee dram of whisky (or whatever your favourite nightcap might be); to calm the system and cultivate rest


ACTION:

You can try a "whisky" practice by taking a few rounds of breath where you count to 4 on your inhale and 8 for your exhale.

If that feels like too long, you can make it 3 for the inhale and 6 for the exhale. Repeat at least 10 times. Then just return to a natural rhythm and notice how you feel. 2. Using Tension and release: cultivating our own natural responses There's a neat little hack that counter-intuitively helps all your muscles to relax. You can even try this one out as you read this article:

We can encourage the letting go of all muscle activity by doing the opposite and then releasing. If you want to try it, tense all the muscles in your arms and legs right now. Hold them super tight and rigid. You can even add in all your other muscles, maybe even scrunching up your face, holding your breath. Hold it tight, tight, tight...and then release. Let it all go. You may notice that the muscles after the tension hold feel more relaxed than before it.


When we tense and hold our body, we're learning to attune to the sensations of effort. When we then let go, a natural rebound occurs and our muscles switch off.


All we need to do is follow the sensation and let go…simple, but our habit of holding unnecessary tension is strong! So it takes practice.

3. Using the mind to relax: the power of suggestion


Meditation involves paying attention on purpose to what is, exactly as it is, without judging it. It's essentially a quality of attention rather than an action. Sometimes just by shifting our focus it naturally ushers in relaxation. If I notice that I'm tensing my shoulders, the muscles I don't need to be using may well switch off by themselves.


We can amplify this effect by adding in suggestions. When we learn how to respond to suggestion and put our attention into believing it will have an effect, amazing shifts can happen.


ACTION:

Try this suggestion now:


As you read this, put all of your attention into your left arm. Imagine that you're becoming really aware of the weight of your left arm. You can feel it hanging down from your shoulder, the weight of gravity is pulling it down. It's a dead weight by your side.


Now notice and imagine that it's getting heavier and heavier. You can close your eyes for a moment to focus on it. Let your arm get so heavy that it feels like you can barely imagine being able to lift it. Imagining that every muscle has switched off and it's now as heavy as it can be.


Did you feel it? That's how we can use suggestion to relax our whole body.





This month in the Be.Membership, as the days are hopefully longer and lazier, we’ll be cultivating this skill of relaxation and exploring the things that get in the way. Each week for Be.Members, I hand-pick practices from the library of hundreds on offer that relate to this theme. Combined with inspiration, journal prompts and powerful affirmations, this is a journey to get out of simply surviving so you can grow and thrive. Being able to relax is a crucial part of this puzzle. You can take small steps each day and week to live a life that’s rich, full and meaningful. We’d love you to join us! And it’s just £10 per month (and accessible from a handy app) for all this goodness because I’m passionate about making these life changing practices accessible to all. Here’s a little taster practice for you:





See you soon!


Laura



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