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 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 relaxation exercises.

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). 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.

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

If I first start the pulsing relaxation through the visualization and than make my whole body tingling/numb/heavy with the induction, 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 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.

After doing relaxation exercises, 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 counting the breath. 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 full attention on 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.

It can be beneficial to be mindful of whether or not you are relaxed or experiencing muscle tension in daily life. When you notice you are tense, try to relax.

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