In our fast-paced world it seems everyone’s stressed, hassled, and exhausted, so it’s a good thing that August 15, 2012 has been declared National Relaxation Day.
When they think about relaxing, most people would tend to hit upon rather conventional things, like soaking in the bath, having a glass of wine at the end of the evening, or watching a movie. But those things are temporary fixes that don’t lead to long-term change. Instead, I’d like to suggest five habits that can be cultivated and practiced every day. These are skills that can become a permanent part of the way you function in your daily life, and bring you long term benefits. And you can do them whether or not you have time for a long relaxing soak in the tub.
1. Take your time eating
We all have to eat, and we don’t generally do it very mindfully. We watch TV while we eat, or we read, or we’re caught up in a conversation, or we just space out. Sometimes, heaven help us, we even eat while we drive.
It’s very enriching, and deeply relaxing, to eat mindfully. It might not be feasible to eat every mouthful of food with complete attention, but what if we were to eat the first and last mouthful of a meal or snack mindfully? Whether you’re eating a gourmet meal or a candy bar, really notice the movements of your body as you transfer the food toward your mouth. Notice yourself receiving the food — how it feels, tastes. Eat slowly. Chew methodically. Savor the experience. If you find you’ve plowed into your food and are mindlessly scarfing it down, pause, and take the next bite with full awareness.
2. Give yourself short breathing breaks during the day
You may have heard of the three-minute breathing space, in which you spend a minute just tuning in to an awareness of your experience, a minute focusing on the sensations of the breathing in order to gather your attention, and a minute expanding your awareness so that you’re no longer noticing just the breathing, but also other sensations from the body, your mind and emotions, the sounds, light, and space around you. Even on the busiest of days it’s a good idea to take a few of these three minute breaks.
If that seems impossible, then just pause what you’re doing, take a few mindful breaths, and then bring your attention back to the task at hand.
3. Notice what your thinking is doing to you
A Harvard study of 250,000 people found that they spent almost 50% of their waking time thinking about something other than they were doing. What’s more, they found that the people who were most distracted were more likely to report feelings of unhappiness. Much of our thinking promotes unhappiness.
So develop the skill of checking in from time to time to see what your thoughts are doing to you. Notice whether you’re relaxed or tense, whether your overall experience is pleasant or unpleasant, whether you’re happy or distressed. Notice this without making any judgements about yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re “bad” or a “failure” for harboring thoughts that make you feel bad. But see if you can just notice those thoughts, and let them pass away. Actually, just to notice how you’re feeling you have to let go of some of the compulsion around these inner dramas.
4. Reduce input channels
One thing that really stresses us is being interrupted. So give yourself a chance to focus. If you’re writing a report, shut off your email program, turn your phone off (don’t just switch it to vibrate). Close any programs you don’t need to have open. It’s just you, and the task. You’ll find that when your concentration isn’t interrupted, you’re not only more relaxed and happy, but you get more done.
5. Give yourself a break from the news
We get really hooked on the news, and we stress about it. That politician and his lies! Those criminals! That tragic accident two cities away! It seems like it’s vital to keep in touch with what’s happening. What if a war were to break out and nobody told you? Well, I remember times I went abroad on vacation and didn’t have access to English-language news media. And you know what? When I got back, I felt like I hadn’t missed anything. Most of the news is the same old yadda-yadda, and the TV companies are trying to built it up so that you’ll get mad, be scared, and pay attention (and by the way, here’s an ad for a new wonder-drug).
Try unplugging from the news entirely for just a day. Or maybe for a week, go on a news fast and do nothing more than glance at the headlines in the newspapers. The world will go on, and you’ll be happier.
I’m not suggesting that you abstain from news for life, but at least for a while give yourself a break so that reading or watching the news is a choice and not a compulsion. And you’ll realize how much your own habits stop you from being relaxed.