Monday, August 10, 2020

Practicing Relaxing Meditation Before Insight Meditation

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 who are professional meditators need to prepare for meditation, it seems reasonable that a lay person would also need to prepare for meditation.

Before I start a meditation session, I often prepare my mind for it by doing relaxation exercises first. 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. Stress and mental fatigue are two main causes of poor concentration and mental turbulence. Relaxation exercises ease stress and mental fatigue.

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 these relaxing meditation exercises.

These meditations should be done in a relaxed way. That doesn't mean forcing yourself to go slow if you are in a hurry. It means don't be in a hurry. Let go of the hurry and be relaxed as you do the meditations.

First I do physical relaxation exercises like progressive muscular relaxation where I move each part of the body ten times. Every joint in the body has two sets of muscles that move it. One set bends the joint and the other straightens it. When you bend a joint, the muscles that straighten it receive a nerve impulse that causes them to relax. When you straighten a joint, the muscles that bend it receive a nerve impulse that causes them to relax. So bending and straightening joints is a very effective way to relax muscle tension. Unpleasant emotions often cause muscle tension when they affect your facial expression, posture, tone of voice, or rate of breathing. Relaxing this muscle tension can be helpful in dissolving those emotions. Other types of physical relaxation exercises that also work well include certain forms of tai-chi, qigong, and yoga, etc.

Next, I do mental relaxation exercises, either lying down or sitting in a chair. (If you try these exercises sitting in a chair and have trouble reaching the deep states of relaxation or the transition described below, it might help to do the exercises lying down.)

First I visualize colors of the spectrum where I name each color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet) and at the same time visualize either just the color or something of that color (fruits, flowers, and vegetables work well but it can be anything).

Then I do an autogenic relaxation exercise where I mentally name and relax each part of my body noticing a relaxed, heavy, tingling or numb feeling in each part as I relax it.

I repeat the visualization and the autogenic relaxation alternately several times. As I do this, I notice my respiration calming down to the point where I am aware of my heartbeat. While visualizing colors, if you name each color as you visualize it you might notice a feeling of relaxation as you name each color. This can happen if your breathing becomes synchronized with your heartbeat and you exhale as you name each color (even though you are just thinking the name not saying it aloud). As you do this you may notice a feeling of relaxation in your body pulsing along with your heartbeat. You can then bring that same pulsing relaxation to the autogenic relaxation where you notice tingling in each part of the body in synchrony with your heart beat.

If I first start the pulsing relaxation during the visualizations and than make my whole body tingling/numb/heavy with the autogenic relaxation, I often feel a transition to a different mental state. Sometimes the transition may be stronger, other times it may be more subtle.

As this transition occurs, it may seem like you lost focus for a moment but now your mind is very clear and alert. 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 network 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. At this stage I also find blissful states are easily accessible. 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 also help to spend a brief time breathing in a relaxing way counting to three as you exhale (to slow down and prolong your exhalation - which has a relaxing effect), pause for a moment and then inhale and repeat this mode of breathing until you experience the transition.

Sometimes you may do these exercises and not quite reach the same deep level of tranquility that you have in the past, and you might not be sure exactly why. This can be due to what I call "invisible stress". At times you can be somewhat tense or stressed but not be aware of it. Maybe because you experience it so often it seems normal, or there may be an unpleasant emotion lurking just below the level of consciousness. But if you look around within your mind and body you can sometimes find it and recognize it. Then, once you are aware of a feeling of tension or stress or emotion, you can continue with these exercises until you fully relax. It might help to repeat the physical relaxation exercises to help you be more aware of feelings of stress in your body, and this is one reason you should not skip the physical relaxation exercises at the start of a session even if you don't feel physical stress or tension.

Another obstacle to full relaxation can be stress that has some type of biological cause. In this case a mental technique may not be able counter it. One situation that can occur is if you eat a lot of sugary foods, a few hours later you might experience low blood sugar due to the body overreacting to elevated sugar levels. When this overreaction happens, the body uses stress hormones to signal the the body to release sugar into the blood causing you to experience stress. In this case consuming a small amount of carbohydrates might be able to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal and allow you to reach full relaxation using these exercises. In this situation, one way to tell when you blood sugar levels are back to normal is if you find your mood is slightly elevated after consuming the carbohydrates.

While doing the relaxing meditation exercises, it can be helpful to notice the stages you go through as you become more and more relaxed:

If you are tense and don't realize it, 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. (This link has been changed the old link is here.)

It may help to maintain the relaxed state after you finish the relaxing meditation exercises if you continue to think of the floating feeling.

While you are in a deeply relaxed state, you might find that you are able to think of something unpleasant or some unpleasant situation or something you are worried about without actually feeling any unpleasant emotions. If you practice this during a relaxing meditation session, you might be able to maintain that non-attachment after the session - be able to think about it without reacting. And if you can think about it without reacting, then if it happens you might not react strongly either. So while you are in the deeply relaxed state you can practice and learn how to let go of attachments and aversions. You might even get a general feeling for letting go that you can apply to any situation in daily life.

One thing that can be helpful for maintaining a peaceful feeling in daily life is to remind yourself, "The only thing that can interrupt my peace is me." After a meditation session as you return to daily life, if you notice a peaceful feeling and try to stay relaxed and mindful of it, you will also notice what interferes with the peaceful feeling. Over time you will come to understand that all disturbances to that peaceful feeling pass through your mind and it is your mind/body that interrupts the peaceful feeling. Reminding yourself of this can help you maintain that peaceful feeling during daily life.

After doing the relaxing meditation, the mind may still have a tendency to resume its running chatter and this can create mental turbulence and undo the effects of the relaxation exercises. To prevent this it can be helpful to quiet the mental chatter by meditating by counting the breath. Try to stay mindful of the peaceful feeling while you breathe in a relaxed way and as you do so, count exhalations up to ten and then start over at one. You can also count inhalations or both exhalations and inhalations. As the mind calms down, you can count fewer breaths - maybe up to 4 or 5. Try to keep your attention on the peaceful feeling and counting but do this in a relaxed way. Making an intense effort will create tension and have the opposite effect from what is desired. Whenever you notice you have become distracted, consciously notice what distracted you (a thought, an emotion, an impulse or a sensation etc) and then gently return your attention to counting the breath. Some people may consider counting the breath a technique for beginners. It isn't a beginner's technique or an advanced technique. It has various uses one of which is to help quiet mental chatter. If you lose the peaceful feeling while you are meditating this way, you can try to regain it by doing the visualization and the autogenic relaxation while you are meditating.

It can be beneficial to be mindful of whether or not you are relaxed or experiencing muscle tension in daily life. Noticing the physical sensations that accompany emotions can help with this. When you notice you are tense, try to relax.

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