Monday, August 10, 2020

Preparing for Meditation with Relaxation Exercises

When I have been on meditation retreats at a Buddhist monastery, we would do bowing practice and chanting practice before sitting meditation. This is how the monks normally prepare for meditation. If the monks, professional meditators, need to prepare for meditation it seems reasonable that a lay person would need to do it too.

Before I start a meditation session, I often prepare my mind first by doing relaxation exercises. This helps me to have better concentration and a more consistent experience when I meditate and it frequently eliminates any unpleasant emotions I might be experiencing at the time.

These relaxation exercises can also be considered a form of meditation. If you try them you will see that they require concentration and attention to do them and that sometimes you may find yourself distracted by stray thoughts and you need to refocus your attention back on the exercises just like you do with meditation. If you are upset, or tense, or experiencing mental turbulence and you don't have enough time to do both relaxation exercises and sitting meditation, you might choose to do just relaxation exercises.

First I do physical relaxation exercises like progressive muscular relaxation where I move each part of the body ten times. Other types of physical relaxation exercises that also work well include tai-chi, qigong, and yoga, etc.

Next, I do mental relaxation exercises, either lying down or sitting in a chair. First I visualize colors of the spectrum. Then I do a hypnotic induction where I mentally relax each part of my body. I repeat these two exercises until I reach a state of deep relaxation where I feel like I am floating. At this stage, any unpleasant emotions I may have been feeling have dissipated and I feel positive spiritual emotions such as forgiveness, compassion, goodwill, and humility. These spiritual feelings come from the empathic netowrk in the brain. If you can notice the difference between being in your analytical network and empathic network, it will be easier to maintain this relaxed state and these spiritual feelings if you try to stay in the empathic network. This pleasant state is fragile and may be disrupted by unpleasant or stressful experiences, but sitting meditation can make it more durable and resistant to disruption.

It can be helpful to notice the stages you go through when doing the relaxation exercises:

It is possible to be physically tense and not realize it. If this is the case, when you do physical relaxation exercises and notice the sensations in your muscles, you may start to notice the feelings of physical tension and mental stress. Physical tension is often caused by mental stress. As you become more aware of these feelings in some cases you might feel like releasing emotions through physical expressions such as grimacing or crying. If present, these feelings should diminish if you do mental relaxation exercises after the physical exercises.

When you first start a session of mental relaxation exercises, you may sometimes become distracted by thoughts about whatever might be causing any mental turbulence you are experiencing, such as thoughts about events of the day or worries about the future. After continuing with the mental relaxation exercises, you may notice these distracting thoughts quiet down, and the distractions that arise are just random thoughts about this and that. When those types of thoughts quiet down, you may notice nonsensical dreamlike thoughts arising. At this stage (if I don't get the feeling of floating earlier) I will begin sitting and meditating.

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