Relax, This Will Only Hurt…

My body is basically a system of knotted muscles that surround tight tendons or ligaments. It’s been this way since I was at least five years old. Whenever I mention that I feel as if I were made of wood, I am invariably advised to practice one of the seventeen kinds of yoga in my neighborhood.

I deflect these suggestions with various excuses because… well… I realize I may be the only person in the world that’s like this, but… well, I don’t like yoga. For some reason, people who are really into yoga believe this is because I never tried it, and they insist that if I did, they are sure I would come to love it just as much as they do.

This isn’t true.

I’ve tried yoga

I don’t like it.

Consequently, I have been going to masseuses for over forty years and it has taught me a lot about pain and “Human Process.” I know that when the bodyworker finds a knot, she or he will put a certain degree of pressure on it to help the knot unwind. I try to cooperate with the intention by relaxing, but I find my body remaining tight in defense against the pain. I tell my body to just let go but it won’t listen to me, and trying to force myself to loosen up seems to defeat the purpose of the exercise.

Suddenly I seem to get through to my body and the muscle finally relaxes. At that moment it seems that I am choosing to surrender and relax, and as the euphoric sense of release washes over me I wonder why I couldn’t have let go sooner.

One day I began to see a correlation between my experience on the massage table and other aspects of my life, and I found a distinct similarity in my response to personal problems and challenges. I faced problems with the same defensiveness and tension as I would a knot in my back. To be more precise, I recognized that the defensiveness was already there, just as it was when I was lying on the table, even before the masseuse had come across the knot.

In my personal life, my defensiveness is already in place before the problem arises, as if I had already armed myself before I even knew what I was arming myself against! Then it occurred to me why this may be the case: I never took the armor off! I walked around all day just waiting for something to threaten or attack me!

I decided that from time to time, I would stop and check in on my body. I know this sounds strange, as if I were regularly visiting a convalescent friend or relative to see how they were doing, but the fact is, I rarely paid much attention to my body. I was surprised to find that my shoulders were often raised higher than they needed to be, there was tension in my stomach, and my jaw was consistently tight. I would consciously relax each area only to find that the next time I checked in, my body had unconsciously tensed up again.

And that was just the physical stuff! It was a bigger shock to see that I carried a similar defensiveness around my feelings, always on the alert for a possible criticism, blame, or judgment from family and friends; always concerned about how my actions appeared to others. Whenever my wife would say something like, “I have something to tell you,” I cringed inside with the expectation of bad news. If she mentioned that my son or daughter called home, my first thoughts were, “What’s wrong? Are they okay?”

There are two specific influences in my life, the apparent characteristics of which are suffering and peace. The suffering seems to be in a constant state of defensiveness, wariness, and the general sense of a tightly wound spring, ready to burst out in attack or escape. The peaceful influence appears in my awareness as a kind of silent presence that maintains a neutrality in the face of experiences, both good and bad.

So when I’m confronted with a personal or relationship difficulty and I don’t relax, I suffer in anxiety and defensiveness. The suffering doesn’t help me in any way to respond appropriately or resolve the issue, and yet I can remain tense for hours, even days, while I try to cope with the situation. But the suffering goes on without my awareness of its presence and effect on me.

When I finally recognize my suffering and relax, I come across the layers of defense and control that resist relaxation and I recognize an irrational fear at its center. The tipping point of relaxation seems to occur when I have absolutely no personal investment in a specific outcome, but simply want to accept the situation exactly as it is. This leads me to accept my anxiety and underlying discomforts exactly as they are.

I call this “accepting my humanness.”

The discomforts are usually associated with unworthiness, abandonment, or the heartbreak of loss or disappointment. The more I relax, the deeper I sink into the heart of my human vulnerability, and the more still and peaceful I become.

I never know when that tipping point will appear, just as I never know when the knot in my shoulder or back or leg will release. To be still and simply observe without expectation of a specific result is perhaps the greatest discipline of all because it is absolutely effortless, and our defensiveness and armor are expressions of the constant, unconscious effort we believe we must maintain in order to survive physically, mentally, and emotionally.

But the tipping point does appear. The peace of acceptance fills our hearts. The awareness of who we are beyond the defenses, the fears, and the human vulnerabilities grows. And we relax in the awesome wonder of defenseless being.