Thursday, August 6, 2009

Let Go and Relax

Buddhist meditation instructions are littered with references to relaxation and reminders to relax. In the Mahamudra tradition of Tibet, it is said that those with the greatest degree of relaxation achieve the most profound meditation, those with middling relaxation achieve middling meditation, and those with lesser relaxation -- well, "forget about it," as Ponlop Rinpoche once joked.

Earlier this week, I quoted Milarepa's classic Mahamudra meditation instruction:

Throughout the day and night, look at your mind.
When you look at your mind, you don't see anything.
When you don't see anything, let go and relax.

At a retreat I once attended, we were compelled to sing those three lines from Milarepa's song over and over and over, countless times, with an irritating nursery-rhyme melody that often drove me crazy. But it did have the intended effect of lodging this instruction permanently in a part of our brains where it is unlikely to be erased even by senile dementia.

Indeed, this instruction to "let go and relax" seems to be one of the most recurrent themes of the teachings I've received from Ponlop Rinpoche and other Tibetan teachers. This line is so often repeated among Ponlop Rinpoche's students, and has become such a hallmark of his teachings (both in groups, and on a more personal, individual level), that I've come to think of it as one of his main instructions to his students in the West. As such, in spite of its apparent simplicity, I think it merits a profound degree of contemplation.

In certain Zen traditions, students receive a koan -- a sort of confusing, quite possibly unanswerable question -- that they will chew on for months or even years before coming to some experience and realization of its meaning. "Let go and relax" has this koan-like quality.

But how exactly does one put this instruction into practice? Is it as easy to do as it sounds? If so, why don't we actually do it all the time? Why should we need to be reminded so often about something so simple? Why are these teachers always trying to drill into our minds the notion of letting go and relaxing?

I'll go out on a limb here and say it's because they see how not-relaxed we actually are most of the time, how much we hold on to things with our minds and simply don't let go. We all have, in varying degrees, an enormous amount of training and habituation in being not-relaxed, in being tense and worried and fearful and bothered and lustful and jealous and ambitious and angry and numbed-out and closed down. We are exceedingly well-trained and talented at being busy and always *doing* something -- strategizing, planning, striving, contriving, and conniving. With such a perpetual flurry of activity and tension as our habitual state of mind, it's no wonder that the instruction to "let go and relax" seems shocking and revolutionary to us. It's also no wonder we find it so difficult to put into practice.

But...once do you actually *do* it? In his book "Wake Up to Your Life," Ken McLeod writes about the confusion that arises for meditation students when they mix up a practice's method with its effects -- they end up thinking they're supposed to be practicing the effects. McLeod observes that books on meditation often include vague, fruitional instructions like "Open your mind," "Be centered," "Let your mind be empty," or "Be one with your body." Frustrated students often "can't figure out what to do," McLeod says, "because these 'instructions' are effects of practice, not methods."

"Tell a tense person to relax, and he will usually become tenser in the effort," says McLeod. "He is tense because he doesn't know how to relax. Tell him to take a deep breath, let it out slowly, then take another breath, and let it out slowly. Then he will relax. The method is breathing slowly and deeply. The result is relaxation."

In addition to deep breathing, tuning into our sensory experience is one way to bring ourselves out of the trance of thinking and into the present moment, so that relaxation even becomes possible. As long as our mind is spinning and we've lost direct contact with our embodied experience in the present, there is little space for relaxation to arise. But the body is incapable of deceit; unlike the mind, the body cannot drift into the past or the future, and it cannot pretend to be anywhere other than where it is right now. By becoming aware of what is happening, right now, in our body and in our senses, we can tune the radio dial of our minds into that present-moment station where it's always "easy listening" -- that is, if we allow it to be, if we refrain from trying to change the dial the instant we hear something that makes us bored or uncomfortable.

One thing is for sure: we're not going to succeed in thinking our way into a state of relaxation. For Zen students, the breakthrough in koan practice seems to come when they reach a point where the whole strenuous, intellectual effort to *think* about the koan's meaning falls apart, and in the wake of that collapse a non-conceptual realization is able to dawn.

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