Meditation Prerequisite: Knowing How to Relax

Buddhists like to compare the mind to a monkey that swings uncontrollably from branch to branch — from plan to memory, thought to emotion, sight to sound — without ever settling down in one place. Some contemporary teachers prefer the more domestic analogy of the wayward puppy that keeps wandering impulsively from one place to another, blithely peeing on the carpet wherever it goes. You may know what it's like trying to train a puppy — you can't overpower it or subdue it or sit on it until it agrees to obey. Well, the same holds true for your mind. In fact, if you attempt to force your mind to calm down, you just swirl it up even more and end up going nowhere fast, like a puppy chasing its tail!

Warm-up exercises

Yogis and sages have been telling us for millennia — your body, your mind, and your heart form one seamless and inseparable whole. When your thoughts keep leaping like the proverbial monkey from worry to worry, your body responds by tightening and tensing, especially in certain key places like the throat, the heart, the solar plexus, and the belly. When the discomfort gets intense enough, you register it as an emotion — fear, perhaps, or anger or sadness.

Meditation naturally relaxes your body while it focuses your mind. As a beginner, though, you may not experience this natural relaxation for days or even weeks. Practicing one of the techniques in the following list before you meditate can be helpful, especially if you tend to be noticeably tense. Of course, relaxing your body has its own wonderful benefits — but your body won't stay relaxed until you can work with your mind.

Tense? Try one of these "warm-up exercises" before you meditate:

  • Shower of relaxation: Imagine taking a warm shower. As the water cascades across your body and down your legs, it carries with it all discomfort and distress, leaving you refreshed and invigorated.
  • Honey treatment: Imagine a mound of warm honey perched on the crown of your head. As it melts, it runs down your face and head and neck, covering your shoulders, chest, and arms, and gradually enveloping your whole body down to your toes. Feel the sensuous wave of warm liquid draining away all tension and stress and leaving you thoroughly relaxed and renewed.
  • Peaceful place: Imagine a safe, protected, peaceful place — perhaps a forest, a meadow, or a sandy beach. Experience the place fully with all your senses. Notice how calm and relaxed you feel here; now, allow that feeling to permeate every cell of your body.
  • Body scan: Beginning with the crown of your head, scan your body from top to bottom. When you come to an area of tension or discomfort, gently allow it to open and soften; then move on.
  • Relaxation response: Choose a word or brief phrase that has deep spiritual or personal significance for you. Now close your eyes and repeat this sound softly, again and again.

Deep relaxation

If you've never deliberately relaxed your body before, start with the meditation outlined below. It leaves you feeling relaxed, refreshed, and in touch with yourself. Because it takes at least 15 minutes to complete, you probably won't do it each time you meditate, but it does teach you how to relax your body, part by part. After you've practiced this exercise a few times, your body will have a memory of what it's like to be deeply relaxed. By the way, deep relaxation is a great antidote for insomnia — just practice it in bed and drift off to sleep!

1. Find a comfortable place to lie down.

Take off your shoes, loosen your belt and other tight clothing, and stretch out on your back with your arms resting at your sides, legs slightly apart.

2. Sense your body as a whole, including the places where it contacts the surface of the bed or floor.

3. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your feet.

Wiggle your toes, flex your feet, and then let go of all tension as much as you can, allowing your feet to melt into the floor.

4. Shift your awareness to your lower legs, thighs, and hips.

Imagine them becoming heavy and relaxed and melting into the floor. If the image of melting doesn't appeal to you, you might try dissolving or sinking or disappearing.

5. Bring your awareness to your lower abdomen.

Imagine all tension draining away, your breath deepening, and your belly opening and softening.

6. Bring your awareness to your upper abdomen, chest, neck, and throat, feeling the areas opening and softening.

7. Bring your awareness to your shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, and hands.

Imagine them becoming heavy and relaxed and melting into the floor.

8. Bring your awareness to your head and face.

Feel the tension melting away from your face across your head and into the floor.

9. Scan your body from head to toe, searching for any remaining areas of tension or discomfort.

If you find any, just imagine them relaxing completely.

10. Experience your body as one field of relaxation, without parts or edges.

11. Continue to rest in this way for five or ten minutes more; then very slowly begin to wiggle your fingers and toes, stretch your arms and legs, open your eyes, and gradually come up to a sitting position.

Check in with yourself and notice how you feel. Do you feel more relaxed? Does your body feel lighter or more expanded? Does the world appear different in any way? Now gently get up and go about your day.

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