Is relaxation over-rated?


HAS anyone ever told you to “chill out”?

If you’re anything like me, this injunction creates the opposite effect – intense irritation, followed perhaps by shame that I haven’t yet mastered the art of inner peace.

But recently I’ve noticed I’m getting more relaxed about tension. While low-level stress rightly gets a bad rap, I’d like to give alertness its due. A few weeks ago at the airport, for example, I was so determined to chill out about a 90-minute flight delay that I almost missed my plane.

Flow or flurry?

Using the extra time to enjoy a leisurely lunch together, my partner and I were feeling pleased with ourselves for “going with the flow”, until I caught the end of a “gate closing” announcement with a suspiciously familiar flight number.

Paying our bill in a flurry, we begged gate staff to let us aboard the suddenly punctual flight, leaving a mobile phone behind in the process. Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that if we had been slightly less relaxed and stayed alert enough to check the departures board regularly, we would have saved ourselves this annoyance.

So is relaxation over-rated? In fact, far from being opposites, staying calm and staying alert ideally go together, as anyone with a meditation practice will tell you.

The confusion only comes when relaxation is equated with the often escapist quality of modern leisure – as in “I relax by losing myself in a box set” or “I was off my face at the weekend” – which seems to require our partial absence. Partly because our lives are so busy with low-level anxiety, we have learned to crave a complete switch-off.

Peaceful vigilance

Animals, however, are much less binary with their emotions and body-states. Even my dog, Charlie, who has most of his needs met on a daily basis, can go from tummy-tickling pleasure to tremulous yearning or bad-tempered barking in a split second. What he doesn’t do is give himself a hard time about what he’s feeling.

What about wild animals? Are they stressed, or relaxed, or both at once? An impala grazing in a clearing is constantly alert for possible predators but seems able to exist mostly in a balanced state of calm alertness, or peaceful vigilance.

The closest I’ve come to feeling this peaceful vigilance in my own body is when I’m scuba diving. I need to stay calm, as anxiety or strong exertion will burn through my oxygen in a matter of minutes (as I once discovered swimming hard to get closer to a turtle). Uncontrolled panic could easily kill me. So I stay both calm and alert, keeping an eye on my air gauge, and enjoying the amazing multi-coloured life around me.

Paradoxical poise

The principle really isn’t that different for life in general. Neither blissed-out contentment nor high tension will serve us well – as I discovered at the airport – if they are just two separate poles to swing between.

So what’s needed, amid the rich array of emotions and experiences that make up our lives, is the paradoxical poise of peaceful vigilance. I’ll never attain that all the time, but as mindfulness practitioners know, it’s a wonderful home to come back.


Posted on: 15 Aug 2018 in Coaching, General, Psychology, Spirituality


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