In my decade plus years of teaching mindfulness, I have never picked up the phone and had anyone say “I want to learn how to practice mindfulness because I want to cultivate a calm and open attitude to the present moment when I am feeling at my wit’s end.” No – most people call because they want to get away from feeling stark, raving mad.
Most of us discover mindfulness meditation because we want to escape anxiety, depression and stress. The more common requests include “I need to learn how to turn off my mind” or “I want to learn to relax.”
That is when I have to give them the good/bad news. Mindfulness is not relaxation, but it can be relaxing.
Anyone with a regular mindfulness meditation practice knows from experience that being mindful can be downright unpleasant. There are many times where “being present” shines a harsh light on the things we want to keep hidden from not only other people, but ourselves. Fear. Shame. Guilt. Regret.
There are also moments where the experience is simply neutral, and not much is happening at all.
The practice of mindfulness isn’t about turning away from these distressing thoughts or running away from what might feel “boring.” It is about cultivating equanimity – a calm and open presence – no matter what arises. Mindfulness is not the same as relaxation.
How is Mindfulness Different from Relaxation?
Mindfulness is the conscious act of paying attention to the present moment with an attitude of non-judgment. You are alert, awake, and present – tuned into your senses and aware of your awareness. You can be mindful while walking, sitting in meditation, or grocery shopping. If you are paying attention on purpose and with an open attitude, you are being mindful.
Relaxation, on the other hand, does not require you to be alert, awake, or even present. Reading a book can be relaxing, but if it is a good one chances are you are lost in the story. Getting a massage is one of my favorite ways to relax, but instead of being present I give into a wonderful quasi-dream state. Listening to music and guided visualizations, laying on the beach and walking with your dog all can be relaxing, but are not inherently mindfulness practices – though they can be practiced mindfully.
What the Research Tells Us About Mindfulness & Relaxation
A 2007 study, A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation Versus Relaxation Training: Effects on Distress, Positive States of Mind, Rumination, and Distraction (Jain, 2007) shows us that mindfulness meditation and somatic relaxation have equal effects on distress and mood. So why choose mindfulness techniques over other relaxation practices?
The answer lies in mindfulness’s unique ability to manage and reduce troubling thoughts. We allow our thoughts to yank us out of the present moment and hold us hostage in the imagined future or unchangeable past. A great amount of energy is spent rehashing the past or rehearsing the future, rather than enjoying the moment at hand. For many, this is the cause of stress and anxiety.
How Mindfulness Can Help You Relax
So while you do not get to “zone out” when practicing mindfulness, chances are the regular practice will help you relax more. In my experience, there are four key ways that mindfulness can help:
Meditation Activates the Relaxation Response:
The relaxation response is the antidote to the stress reaction known as fight-flight-freeze. Your body comes standard with this feature, and practices such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, and the relaxation response meditation – among many others – can activate it. It not only reverses the harmful effects of stress, but can actually reduce your genetic predisposition to stress related illness.
Increases Our Sense of Empowerment
Ultimately, I find that mindfulness teaches us how to respond, rather than react to our experience. Students often share with me that they feel more in control of their life. Just knowing that they have the ability to control their reactions to their thoughts allows them to approach challenging situations with less fear, worry and anxiety.
Widens Our Perspective
Our biological makeup to focus on threats rather than benefits in any given situation. This “negativity bias” can cause us to stress out over the most benign detail. Mindfulness practices teach us to see the bigger picture, and to know when we are making a mountain out of a mole hill.
Fosters Empathy & Compassion
One common side effect from practicing mindfulness is the ability to feel empathy for others. This removes the “me vs. you” component to daily living. Being mindful of other people’s desire to be happy, healthy, and free from suffering can help you relax in professional and social situations.
Creates Space for Insight
Einstein once said “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” It is one thing to problem-solve – it is quite another to ruminate over the problem or situation over and over – expecting to find a solution. Try shifting from “worry-consciousness” into “mindfulness-consciousness,” and notice what insights and information arises to the surface.
Mindfulness Meditation Tips for Relaxation
When you being your formal mindfulness practice, such as seated meditation or walking meditation, it does help to start by inviting your body to relax. Here are a few techniques that will help you relax before you sit mindfully:
- Breathe. Take at least 3 deep, full inhales and exhales, and allow the breath to reach the bottom portion of your lungs. Long exhales signal your body that it is time to relax.
- Count your breath. Count up to 10 and back down again until you feel settled.
- Scan your body. Focus on each part of your body from your feet to the crown of your head. If you wish, scan back down again. Try not to judge or criticize your body, just notice the sensation of your physical presence.
- Relax as it is. No matter what comes up during your practice, invite yourself to “relax as it is,” reminding yourself that all you have to do is pay attention – you do not have to figure anything out during your sit.
While mindfulness is not always relaxing, a regular practice will give you the long term benefits of peace and equanimity. While some days the practice will be unpleasant, and many days it will be neutral, paying attention to each moment as it unfolds will wake you up to the preciousness – and many little joys – life has to offer.