The Physicality of Mentality
As you might have noticed, I’ve been absent for quite a while, travelling, finishing a book and dealing with life things. Added to which, I felt as if most of the questions I’ve received have already been serviced in one way or the other by the hundred or so posts already here on this blog.
But then, just this week a question came in and it occurred to me it needed a response I haven’t given before, so here goes.
“Hi Roger, I began meditating to help with some mental issues I’ve been suffering from, namely anxiety and depression. I’ve been meditating for a year or two now, using your audio course, with mixed results, but it’s generally enjoyable.
But recently I noticed something that’s made me change what I’m doing (for the better). I noticed that the more depressed I am, the more tense my body is, and the same with anxiety.
So now, instead of focusing my attention on the breath as I usually was, I spend the entire meditation relaxing my body, and it is proving very effective (I think anyway). I’ve found that the more relaxed my body becomes, the less frantic are the depressed or anxious thoughts. But I’m wondering, is this good meditation practice, to just spend the entire meditation on relaxing the body. so I thought I’d check with you.”
Absolutely it’s good meditation – the body is a wonderful object for meditation, and relaxing the layers of tension and physical anxiety that can build up in a life goes a long way to the stillness we seek to access with meditation.
So don’t worry about the breath unless your body feels calm and comfortable. After all, the breath is just a place to default to. It’s a resting place for your attention when there’s nothing else that needs doing. A place where it can learn to be still and calm. But if the body is calling for you to pay attention, as you meditate, then by all means, go there. Deal with it.
And as you do this, remember, it’s the quality of your attention that is important. Keep it steady, light, contemplative, compassionate and fascinated with whatever sensations you find, whether they’re painful or pleasant. The less reaction you have to a sensation, the easier it is to maintain the detachment you need to be still.
It’s interesting – people assume that meditation is specifically a mental skill. But actually, it’s as physical as it is mental. Very physical in fact – simply because mind and body are in constant relationship with one another, each creating reactions in the other, and back again.
So an anxious mind creates and anxious body, and vice versa – a tense body creates a tense and anxious mind. And conversely, a calm mind creates a relaxed body and so on.
So then, in that context, let’s look at depression.
As with any reaction, the initial cause of a depressive episode can come from either the mind or the body, which, as it falls into the depressive pattern, then influences the other, creating a reactive cycle which, as it spins, intensifies the condition.
For example, let’s say the initial cause is a memory perhaps. This memory, energized by emotion, becomes a kind of magnet in the mind, attracting other like thoughts and becoming a storm which, emotionally charged as it is, then creates patterns of tension in the body.
Those patterns of tension are recognized by the mind as ‘Oh no, I’m depressed’ – which begs the obvious question – ‘why?’ – which, in combination with the body tension – that is, the ‘feeling’ of being depressed – stimulates the initial pattern of thinking so it becomes even more energized. Which causes the patterns of tension in the body to tighten even further – which inflames the thoughts even more – and so on. You get the idea.
so how do you slow this cycle of reactions down and stop it?
Well, you can’t argue with the thoughts. Mind creates its own internal reality whatever mood it’s in. Happy mind creates happy world, sad mind creates sad world, and depressed mind creates depressed world. No matter how many positive thoughts you pose to a depressed mind, it will always throw a more compelling argument back, to prove that it’s depressed. Like different colored lenses creating different realities, that’s what the mind does. It’s a spokesman – a propagandist for whatever we feel. So which ever mood your mind is in, it’s fruitless to deny what it perceives.
But if the mentality of the depression seems unchanging and argumentative, the body is not so eloquent. It has no argument either way. It simple feels bad, or good, depending on your mood. And that ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is simply different patterns of sensations in the body – patterns of muscle tension in response to what’s happening in the mind.
So it’s here you go – to the physicality. Because, where mind is argumentative and deluded, the body is simple – very, very simple.
In the body, everything is binary – either on, or off. There or not there. Sensation is either there or it’s not. A pain is there or its not. And patterns of tension are there, or they are not. No argument.
And most importantly, the body responds to your attention. that is to say, if you feel tension in a part of the body, you can take steps to let it go. If you contemplate the sensations long enough, with a steady, gentle and persuasive attention, tense muscles will relax.
And the more tense muscles you can relax, the more it will influence whatever mood you’re in.
Because as I said – relaxed body, calm mind. Anxious body, anxious mind.
So in the case of depression, if you can pay attention to all the ways the mood has tied your body in knots during meditation, and mindfully relax the tensions you find, this naturally has an influence on the mentality of the depression – takes the edge off it, so to speak.
So good work in finding this out for yourself. Go for it.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)