When we start on the path of mindfulness, we have a natural desire to feel good. In many cases, participants tell us that all they want is to feel “better.” “Better” is, of course, a relative term and it points to our wish to simply ease the pain we feel. This is a good start!
After the first session of practice, almost everyone reports back that they did feel “better.” When we ask them to sense into what “better” actually feels like the most common term used is “relaxed.” So, we ask, “What does ‘relaxed’ feel like?” And that’s where the inquiry stalls. There are perplexed looks and nervous laughter. “You know! Relaxed!” It’s usually said with a finality, conveying the idea that this is the end point – of the discussion and the practice.
Now as a teacher of mindfulness skills, we tend to get in a bit of hot water right here. This is the turning point of practice. It is the moment when we can shore up the status quo of just reaching a goal and getting momentary relief from pain. Or, we can up-end these treasured stories that mindfulness is about “feeling relaxed.”
But what’s wrong with feeling relaxed? Isn’t that the intention of meditating, being mindful when we eat, walk, talk on the phone? The tough answer is “No and maybe.” Relaxation is a fleeting phenomenon indicating a complex interplay of various muscle groups. It is – and this always comes as a surprise – a side effect of mindfulness practice. In the grand scheme of side effects, it’s a rather nice one. But it is, nevertheless, a side effect and not the intended outcome of mindfulness practice. At a broader level, relaxation is one of the many things that emerge during meditation. Along with relaxation, agitation, emotional surges, physical pain, tension, intrusive or joyful memories are some of the many mental and physical states that can occur when we engage with the Body Scan or sitting meditation. When we narrow our intention to feeling relaxed, we are engaging the comparative mind, the judging mind, which continually rejects the other experiences while on the hunt for that one big, juicy fish in the ocean of sensations.
Relaxation is the red herring of our practice. We already know that chasing it down only creates more tension and agitation. It sets up a cycle of craving and clinging; and, eventually the quest becomes an exercise in disappointment and futility. More to the point, relaxation is also not the purpose of our practice. It is one of the many fleeting phenomena that arise when we sit and watch the mind-clouds. The true purpose of our practice is to do just that: sit with a dignified steadiness facing everything that arises with clarity and an open-hearted acceptance.