Never mind: let me make a couple of points and go back to sleep…
You’ve heard people say: there are many roads to Rome – meaning, many different means to the same end, many a path to get to one and the same destination. That’s understood.
What’s a bit more confusing, however, is when you’ve got one road that leads to quite a few different places. Take the mindfulness practice for example. Say, you sat down to watch the river of your experience, to listen to this babbling brook of your consciousness… What’s it all about? Where’s this investment of time going? What’s the goal?
There is – as I understand – a fundamental difference between relaxation and meditation. While both may share the same road, the very same road seems to lead to rather different destinations.
Relaxation is fundamentally a self-regulatory pursuit. Its very goal is to change how you feel. Relaxation is, by definition, about relaxing a tension. Thus, in the case of relaxation, the agenda is quite clear – to relax, to feel better.
Therein lies the potential stress of relaxation – in its goal-oriented mandate, relaxation can be somewhat stressful. And, indeed, you carved out a ten minute break to do your “clinical homework” of “mental hygiene” that your therapist so emphatically encouraged you to “experiment with.” What pressure! You have to relax, you think. After all, isn’t that the goal of relaxation?!
Meditation is an entirely different matter. Meditation is literally an open-ended process of pondering, a free-wheeling contemplation. Unlike relaxation, meditation involves no destination: it’s just a road to roam, not a road to Rome. Meditation is like shooting an arrow blind, without a target, with aimlessness being the only aim . As such, without even aspiring to, the meditation breathes with relaxation…
So, here’s the “performance-anxiety” paradox so familiar to the ancients: try too hard and fail, let go and succeed.
When approaching stress-management as a matter of performance with clear-cut objectives and timelines (“ten minutes to reset my Autonomic Nervous System to its parasympathetic baseline”), we try too hard to relax and, thus, tense up instead.
What paradox! One and the same vehicle – but such different destinations. So, here you are, practicing mindfulness. This is the vehicle of the moment. If you are all gung ho to relax, to ease this anxiety of being, mindfulness turns into stressful hyperscanning where each sensation you notice rattles you up like parking lot speed-bumps. But, if you just take this vehicle of mindfulness for a top-down-Saturday-morning-no-destination spin, all of a sudden you find yourself on an open road to a relaxing nowhere.
This is the psychology of goal orientation. In expectation of the future relaxation (“expectation” from Latin ex-spectare, where ex - means “thoroughly” and spectare means “look”), we overlook the present; in waiting to get to the destination of the Rome, we miss out on the relaxing scenery of the journey.
So, as your and my minds finally wind down to the end of this open-ended rambling meditation on meditation, my suggestion is this: relax, it’s just a meditation.
It’s 5am. Another Sun Salutation misspent at the keyboard… The Sun’s getting up. It’s time to return to our waking sleep mode: the working zombies of the world unite!
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011