“I don’t need to describe what relaxation is like. I’m in it, right now.”
-A client, near the end of a session
The other day, a client I’ve been seeing for some months came in after a bit of an absence and, after lying on the table for a couple minutes, described the sensations of her body. She noted that her legs, in particular, felt very sunk into the table, and, she thought, “fairly relaxed.” The last phrase had some uncertainty to it, the ending going up, like a question.
Touching her feet and moving her legs a little in what we Synergists sometimes call the “windshield wiper” move, I noted that her legs hardly moved at all, and felt heavy and stiff to me. “Relaxed” wasn’t a word that came to my mind, and in a moment, the client herself withdrew it, noting that in fact her legs felt tired, resistant, and wary. As I moved to her knee and we brought some more attention to her feet and legs, she noticed tension starting to gather in her hips and upper legs. She felt as if her legs were reluctant to reveal more, that being vulnerable was too risky. Yet she longed to let go of whatever she was carrying, or at least, not to carry it alone.
The way we use language to talk about bodymind states is fascinating, and one of the thorniest paradoxes I’ve found is the apparent dichotomy of attention and relaxation. So often in sessions, when people bring attention to a place, they also bring tension. The body speaks its own, impressionistic language, and many bodies seem to respond to the fact that the words sound alike. It doesn’t help, either, that the word “attention” has so much baggage in our culture. Soldiers and servants are meant to stand at attention: that is, stiffly, formally, awaiting orders from some outside authority. Children are constantly being told to pay attention, and that idiom doesn’t end with childhood: as adults learn what it means to pay for things, attention becomes another form of rare currency, not to be spent lightly. When I was growing up in the ‘80s, we “the MTV generation” were forever being told that we had short attention spans; today, the subsequent rise in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder – and the attendant overprescription of medication – remind us again and again that attention is in short supply, and moreover, that paying attention is difficult, tedious, and anything but relaxing. Attention and tension become almost synonymous.
Relaxation, meanwhile, is a word that evokes a total lack of tension – and further, a lack of attention. Attention, we believe, takes a lot of work. Relaxation, therefore, is about lying inert on a beach, or sinking into a hot tub, or “vegging out” in front of the TV or a video game. We even use the word vacation when talking about taking time off of work, as if we were going to vacate our minds and bodies altogether in favor of some mysterious state where no tension – or attention – is required. (It is an interesting side note that these vacations often wind up being more stressful and non-renewing to our spirits than we expect.)
But a curious thing happened to during my session with this client – a thing I’ve seen happen with clients repeatedly. By the end of the session, as she kept bringing her attention – her awareness – to parts of herself she had been neglecting, she began to feel more relaxed. Her legs began to move much more freely, and her feet, rather than being splayed out to the sides, were much more upright – at attention – than they had been. Near the end of the session, she noted that her body – especially her lower body, where we had spent more time – felt much more alert and awake than it had at the beginning, and much more relaxed – genuinely relaxed – than it had been when we started. She felt relaxed, alert but not on guard, grounded, enlivened, and like the outside world wasn’t nearly so overwhelming as it had been.
I’m going encapsulate and boil down this idea, because it struck me and continues to strike me as very important: Attention and relaxation are not opposites. In fact, I might go so far as to say that true relaxation and attention require each other. Relaxation is not vacation. Relaxation is attention without tension.
One of the wonderful things Rubenfeld Synergy does for people is help them to pay close, loving attention to themselves, in a way that people often don’t have time, energy, or, frankly, inclincation to do. There are many things at play here, culturally: the separation of mind and body, the Judeo-Christian valuation of spirit over flesh, a Protestant urge to not be “self-indulgent,” a mass media culture that pushes us to punish ourselves in order to be the best. Whatever the web of causes, there isn’t a lot of space in this modern world for people to just sit or lie down and really pay attention to their bodies. But when they do, the surprising result is often a sense of enlivened peace, relaxed attention. A sense of being here, awake to the fact that we are, in fact, our bodies.
And this state, this grounded, relaxed alertness, is what true attention feels like. When it is available, it is much harder for anxiety and overwhelm to take over. Outside circumstances seem more manageable. One is allied with one’s body, instead of treating it as an ornery, unwelcome intrusion, a vehicle to get you from here to there, whose aches and pains you ignore and push through. And this alliance, this state of having body, mind, emotions and spirit all in one place, keeps us in touch with the resources we need to get through the struggles of our lives – and to fully appreciate the joys.