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Blog: Relaxing Into

March 2, 2014

I find that one of the most effective ways to deal with distractions in meditation is to relax into them – not to bore into them or push them aside, but to soften into them.

I spent yesterday in retreat with a teacher, Steve Armstrong, and 60 or 70 others. Toward the end of the day I began to think about someone I was mad at. The situation with him was complex enough to dwell on from multiple angles for a long time. It was a powerful distraction (aka hindrance, obstruction, nuisance, defilement).

I was tempted to push it aside. But that would have added aversion to aversion: not a promising solution.

So instead I looked more closely at what was going on. The Buddha’s first ennobling truth is that life has discomforts and we should understand them. To truly understand something we have to see how it works, how it arises and passes, how it feels, what makes it tick. So I sat back to see what was going on. But my mind just slogged on and on, turning it over and over, seeing it in different ways. It was a morass.

The second ennobling truth is that the experience of discomfort arises from tension (tanha in Pali). The Buddha said we should abandon this tightness: in other words “relax.” Adyshanti once said the essence of enlightenment is to relax. But the inner tension can be surprisingly difficult to recognize. My shoulders tighten, my hands clinch, or my mind tenses without me quite knowing.

So in meditation (or life) the problem is how to understand all that’s going on and relax at the same time. To do this, first I see and understand both the storyline and the underlying tension. Second I let the thoughts go: I don’t push them away, but let them wander through my mind without holding on to them or trying to make them go away. Third, I relax the tension beneath the thoughts. And finally, I smile a little to make sure I’m not taking it too seriously.

It is complicated to describe. But the feeling is simple: relax into it. As the tension softens, the thoughts lose their edge. In an entangled situation with lots of momentum, it may take time for the thoughts to run out of gas. But if I keep patiently relaxing into it, it ceases to be a problem, whether it comes or goes. If the difficulty has deep roots, it will come up again to give me another chance to relax a little more deeply.

The six Rs describe this process in more detail. But the essence is to relax into a difficulty rather than try to rise above it, dwell upon it, or push it away. And then smile.