Is Meditation Relaxation or Active Mindfulness?

R: When I start meditation, I start concentrating on relaxing my body and focusing on my breath. After a few minutes I seem to be giving away to total relaxation/loss of self. Then a portion of my my mind says “No. Stay awake. Don’t give into any relaxation! Meditation is all about staying awake and mindful!”Once I start doing that, I see that my mind has become a monkey, examining one thought after the other without any relaxation. As a result, I get too panicky, examining and trying to get away from every thought in a self conscious state. Ultimately, what happens is that I get confused. I ask myself, “Should I focus on total relaxation or total mindfulness?”

I think I’ve got the practice all mixed up! I seem to be mixing up relaxation meditation with so called mindfulness meditation, in order to find out the “correct technique.”Now, I’d like you to go through what I said carefully and to answer me.What is the correct technique? Which method should I concentrate on? I seem to be mixing up styles. Is it ok?.HELP!

Jay: I understand what you are talking about. These are two different qualities of the mind that you are describing – the relaxing, accepting mind and the analyzing, “alert” mind. These probably correspond to differences between the left hemisphere of the brain and the right hemisphere. This difference is also reflected in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

It seems that the human body/mind is divided into two halves very naturally. Often these are in conflict with each other. For example, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems cannot be activated at the same time. Either one is activated or the other. I forget exactly what they control but one is something like digestion and relaxation and the other is voluntary activity.

How does the body know which one to activate? If you need to digest but you also need to run away from a tiger, the body must somehow make the decision. If you run away from the tiger, your digestion will be shut down and you’ll get a stomach ache. If you relax and digest, you will feel good but you will be eaten by the tiger (which will then have to lie down and digest you!)

So we can see that there is a lot of intensity and feeling of urgency around the turning point between relaxing versus being active. It is a turning point that may be associated with life and death itself. It is natural then that as you begin to relax, something is activated that says “Wait. I should not be relaxing. I should stay alert.” and that there is a sense of urgency about it.

Of course, as you maintain alertness, something in the back of the mind is saying, “Why am I doing this? I need to relax but I feel like I shouldn’t.” Then the active part of the mind tries to shut out that voice and works harder to stay alert.

Alertness cannot go on forever. It eventually has to rest but if it has the feeling that it does not dare rest, then it will push itself into exhaustion. Resting also comes to an end at some point. When there has been enough resting, then there is energy for the mind to become alert.

Does this give us a good picture of these two aspects of the mind?

Now the question you raised is “Which one should I do?” But I can ask you, “Which mind is asking that?” This is a question you can considered carefully as you observe what is going on.

In fact, the body/mind works in the most healthy way when it is responding to what is actually sensed in the present moment, especially the physical senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, etc. Usually, in most of us, most of the time, the information of these senses is drowned out by the sound of our mental thoughts and images. These are not good information for the body/mind because often the thoughts and images are confused or not really representative of what is going on.

By that I mean that suppose you hear a loud sound outside and your brain immediately presents the image of a tiger. Just like in a dream, the body thinks, for a moment, that there is really a tiger. Then the adrenaline starts to pump and the muscles tense and the digestion turns off. It is the same thing if your boss comes up to you with an unhappy face. Before the boss even says anything, the mind has already created the image that someone is angry with you and the body/mind thinks this is really happening.

There is no way to stop this imagery of the mind, at least without doing damage to the mind’s natural sensitivity. However, it is possible to realize that the information that is coming into the senses is much more real and much healthier. When one starts to notice this, the chattering of the brain becomes less important and may slow down on its own.

If I have decided that I should relax or should be alert when I meditate, I have only created one more idea to confuse my poor body/mind. Is it possible to sit down without knowing and to be in simple touch with what is going on? You may find that it doesn’t matter whether the body/mind goes into relaxing mode or alert mode. If you don’t care which it does and just be present, you may discover some things about these internal modes, which may have personalities of their own.

Some people have pointed out that it is not important at all what is seen (experienced). It is only important that what is going on can come into the light of awareness, that things are seen. We can’t say that this takes alertness or that this takes relaxation. It depends on the moment.

People have also pointed out that the state of mind is not important. At one point this would have sounded completely crazy to me. I would have felt that meditation is completely about the state of mind. But then at a certain point I suddenly noticed the world around me. I realized that the state of mind did not need controlling or cultivating. That states of mind just need to be seen if they arise and forgotten if they don’t. There may be information in states of mind, just as there is a scent in a flower, but it is not something I have to be concerned about or control.

Whether the body/mind needs relaxation or alertness at a specific moment is determined by vast, mostly unknowable factors. The information of the senses is useful. There is other information, like the pull of the moon, the activity of the sun, the minds of other people and animals and plants, that also influences this. The decision is not made by the conscious mind, even though it may feel like I have decided to be alert or decided to relax. We simply become consciously aware of a decision that has already been made in the nervous system.

This is all an experiment at any moment. You can watch the conflict between two systems of the body/mind. You can be interested in how it plays out. Which one wins. Which loses. Follow it up for hours if you are interested and see what happens. You may find that if the conscious mind does not try to decide which is right, that there is a tremendous freedom and even playfulness in these processes.

I have a friend whose two children, an older girl and a younger boy, always argued with each other in the back seat of the car. One time my friend couldn’t stand it any more. He stopped the car and yelled at them, “Why do you two always argue with each other?” They were silent for a moment, then looked at each other and responded, “But we like it!”

I hope this helps a little. Please write back if I have not been very clear about something. I will also be interested to hear how this goes for you.

R: I suppose Buddhist meditation is all about being mindful. Other meditation forms are about entering a trance-like state based on relaxation, right? Which one would you recommend? What is YOUR meditation technique? Thanks.

Jay: This is really the same question that we discussed before, isn’t it? Should I be “mindful,” alert, active, or should I let myself be relaxed, in a trance?

Personally, I don’t have a meditation technique. For me there is the possibility of a simple presence in which the happenings of the mind and body and world all around are simply visible, experiencable as they happen. It doesn’t matter whether it is the sound of a bird or the sound of an angry thought coming up in the body and mind. It can all be noticed if the brain is not trying to direct everything or to control itself.

In this presence there may be a relaxed state that is noticed or there may be an alert state that is noticed. It doesn’t matter which. Each has its place. The important thing is the noticing.

Perhaps you have an unrealistic expectation of meditation. I think it is very helpful to carefully examine your goals and reasons for doing meditation. Maybe you came to meditation because you wanted to make yourself better. But if you watch carefully, you discover that you don’t know what to do. Do you relax or do you be alert? It is impossible to know which one to do. The two are always in conflict. So you look for an expert who can tell you. But even if you look to ancient and wise traditions, you still find this same contradiction. Some say “be and relax” and some say “be actively alert.”

When you sit down to meditate, maybe you can ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Then just listen to your body and mind and to the sensations coming in from the world and to the silence all around you. Let all of that information come into you without interfering with it.

Letting what is going on be revealed is not a trance state nor is it trying to be alert. It is a matter of not interfering with what is actually here. It is both quiet and attentive.

If you still think “But how do I do that?” then just sit and try it. You will notice the mind continually evaluating what is going on and thinking about what should be done. If you can notice that the thinking does not really know, then you can make it an experiment. If you really think you should go with trance relaxation, then go with it and see what happens. If you really think you should stay away from trance and be alert, then try it out and stay with it.

Does this make sense?

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