Relaxation, and the way of getting there, means different things to different people. Some find relaxation in being still. Others find it in motion. There are biochemical explanations for whichever approach we choose to examine. Being still gives us an opportunity to experience the many possible mechanisms of excitement that arise in our minds and bodies and to practice deliberately releasing ourselves from them. Motion offers us an opportunity to be so involved in physical activity that we are able to interrupt the automatic ways that our minds arouse us and create discomfort and disturbance.
One of the most important things to understand about how our minds work is that minds make things. That’s all they do. Mental activity makes something out of nothing constantly. Everything we contemplate, every idea, every plan, every task, every dream, even the most basic sensory function is to make something out of what is essentially nothing. We have been making something of ourselves our entire lives. There are moments when we may not like what we are making or becoming. There are moments when we like what we are making so much that we want it to continue indefinitely. And we know how that goes. But either way, no one else is doing the making.
In that act of continuously making something out of nothing, we create conflicting realities, conflicting intentions, plans, likes and dislikes and so forth. Such conflicts, occurring repeatedly over many years of living are reflected in our bodies in ways that may eventually be sensed as discomfort and tension. There are many ways of addressing the physical dimensions of conflict, and many of them are very effective at restoring ease and comfort in our bodies, but they cannot themselves change the way our minds work. They may help us to discover more information about the particular ways our minds work to create conflict in our bodies, but they do not themselves change our minds.
We are the only ones who can change our minds. Understanding the biochemical basis and the neurological effects of creating conflict is very helpful. We can learn the ways that modern life and our acquired mental habits tend to stimulate the accelerator function of our nervous system. We can learn to employ techniques that stimulate the braking function to help us soften, release conflict, restore equanimity and let “things” go. We call it inner peace, presence or relaxation. But in essence, it is a state of not making things. Temporarily.
So this thing we do, making things…what is it? It is what Buddhist teachers call reification. We impose a concrete nature to the thoughts, ideas and the mental responses to sensory activity. On one hand, obviously, all this ‘making’ is a critical survival function. We are enmeshed in the mechanical and physical dimensions of life and if we are to continue, we have to make something out of what happens in our world and respond appropriately. Otherwise, we will soon become nothing ourselves.
On the other hand, going beyond the obvious to the less critical or immediate mental functions, we are constantly engaged in making things up about who we are, about being separate selves with our separate world of sensation and thoughts. We are constantly reifying things that are not by any stretch of the imagination critical to survival.
Seeking relaxation in stillness or motion is the repeated act of unmaking things, learning to become aware of the thing-making function of our minds, to unplug it, to turn it off, to allow it to fall apart and unmake itself. Meditating for even a very brief moment with this intention draws our attention very quickly to an awareness of this function working and to realizing that it works constantly, every single moment. We are constantly reifying formlessness, or emptiness, into form.
Relaxation is the resolution of conflict. The physical aspect of conflict is the shortening and excessive activity in opposing pairs of muscles. It is also learning to assume balanced postures in our activity to reduce (and relieve) the accumulation of excessive tension in the structure. The mental aspect of resolving conflict is the ability to reverse thing-making. To render our mental activity, which will never fully subside until death (and we’re not completely sure about that), formless again. Becoming aware of our awareness as it is always making things up offers the choice to reacquaint ourselves with the formlessness of all things, to relax just a little more in every moment.