Just relax!” Now there’s advice (often, so it seems, bordering on a command) that all of us will, from childhood on, have encountered. And have you noticed how it is that such – often gratuitous – counsel, almost unerringly delivered by some seemingly ‘sanguine soul who is the very epitome of ‘togetherness’ and tranquillity? By contrast of course, their hapless victim is most probably feeling emotionally – and perhaps even physically – as ‘tight as a drum’. Maybe it was on the eve of a crucial exam when we were beseeching a parent or whoever, to at least remain open to the possibility that our passage to success was not going to be the foregone conclusion that they were so confidently predicting. Or as a child with raging toothache, now lying almost horizontal in the dentist’s chair, with nothing in view beyond the beam of bright light, silhouetting a lethal-looking syringe poised presumably, in the dental surgeon’s ‘business’ hand.
“Just relax”, really does make it all sound so ridiculously simple doesn’t it: as though there was really nothing to it; as easy as “falling off a log”. Yet it is precisely at such moments of need and of knowing we should relax that we can feel so wound and ‘screwed up’. Consequently, the very mention of the remotest possibility of a more tranquil state falls on our ears like a sick joke. Even at times when one might think that a relaxed mind and body can be taken for granted – as in night sleep – the evidence (such as we know of it) appears to leave much to be desired. Perhaps you like me, have watched a film of an individual’s night repose greatly speeded up to a point where it appears, at any rate, to be more in the nature of a series of stressful contortions than a soporific release.
Furthermore, if relaxation is so vital and so good for us, how come that just about every aspect of formal education seems, at times at best, to ignore and at worst to actively militate against it? In Scotland (where I spent a sizeable proportion of my professional working life) there seems among some – implicitly at least – to exist a ‘Calvinistic’ ethic, which solemnly and somewhat piously (so I have always thought) amounts to the maxim, “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”. Whether in days of childhood, adolescence and youth or well into adulthood; when, in times past, did any of our mentors actually take the trouble to at least attempt to initiate us into the art of relaxation? Yet if there is one thing almost above all others that at some time or other most of us have desired (and at times craved) it is for a credible and reliable parry – if not repost – to that unthinking, naive and, yes at times, somewhat inane counsel to “just relax”.
This need and consequent search for relaxation (which, for some, not uncommonly or infrequently amounts to little more than a yearning for respite) perhaps explains why more and more people, especially the young, are so ready to turn to alternative agents, e.g. alcohol and drugs (including tobacco). Whilst not in any sense wishing to be a “killjoy” it must be acknowledged that all, to differing degrees, contain dangerous compounds, injurious to physical and psychological health. Not the least of these is their insidious ability to lure – especially the young and more vulnerable – into their clutches, via the undeniably cohesive but at times constricting bonds of “peer pressure” and “social ritual”.
Thousands of us it seems – even when otherwise well health-wise – regularly attend a doctor’s surgery, in the vain search for some kind of ‘magic bullet’. And its sought-after purpose? Well, presumably to ease the pressure and help us handle, not so much short-term crises as daily and run-of-the-mill routine. Yet the undeniable truth is surely clear for all to behold; namely that if we are ever to attain to anything like our true potential, it will – can – only ever be achieved by resisting that spiral, so evident (if implicit) in much of the above via the integration of relaxation and respite time into our daily repertoires and itineraries.
“Many roads”, so it is said, “lead to Rome”. Yet roads too have a history of not infrequently leading back in time to little more than a simple mud track. It is a fact of history that such “roads”, in the form of initial approaches and methods of relaxation and meditation, can be traced back to Judaic and certain Sanskrit texts, some as early as 2000 years BC. Over the ages, there have – increasingly so – emerged, related as well as non-related approaches and strategies, some ancient, others more modern. These include the practice of Yoga in its different forms·, “Transcendental Meditation” (TM) from India; Zen and Taoism from China and Shintoism from Japan. Each, in its way, confronts us with the same or similar question: given that we are so faced with centuries of, in some cases, widely differing overall approaches and practices, what hope have we of ever achieving what can all too often seem to be little more than a pious ideal? (C)SB.