What are my limits? What are the limits of my ability to relax into whatever the present moment brings? These are questions I’ve been thinking about lately. I have asthma, and when I go to the doctor, a medical assistant gives me a breathing test that involves exhaling after having taken a deep in-breath. She coaches me to push right to my limits on the exhale:
And I do, always finding more air to let go of, even when I think I’ve already let it all out.
I study Buddhism, and I’ve noticed that at their heart, many teachings express an encouragement to let go of our thoughts and feelings and relax. How can I locate the limits of my ability to relax and then go a little further?
When I sit down to meditate, I arrange my legs in a way that works for my 56-year-old hips. This often puts my feet in a position that sparks a foot cramp. Tight, tense and painful, the cramp provokes a mild kind of panic as I cringe away from the sensation. The fact that I’m preparing to meditate when the cramp shows up is helpful: It is a built-in reminder that relaxation might be an option. But my habitual reaction rebels. Are you kidding!? I can’t relax into a cramp! A cramp IS tension. Recently, I thought to ask my mind — as His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa suggests — to “open a bit more.” It turns out that it is possible to relax into a cramp by not tensing other muscles, and by accepting, allowing and being curious about the sensation. Asking questions that seem ridiculous is part of this process:
- What is this feeling?
- Why don’t I want to feel it?
- What exactly makes it unpleasant?
- What makes my personal comfort so very important?
Foot cramps are not the only form that tension takes for me. I find myself mentally cramping up in response to what’s going on in my day:
- When my remote access to my work computer keeps crashing
- When co-workers make suggestions I immediately recognize as “ridiculous”
- When the soup doesn’t come together the way I was hoping
- When I’m asked to take on a project I’m obviously too busy to do
- When someone who loves me gets me all wrong
Thanks to my foot cramps, I can begin to ask if there’s a way to relax the mind cramp of No! Not this! Get me out of here! and to explore the nature of the cramp: What exactly is making me so uncomfortable?
It’s not as if that cramp-y mental reaction makes me feel better — it’s a spasm that only multiplies my distress. Instead, maybe I can relax into the moment of things just as they are, not immediately cringing or struggling. Maybe I can keepgoing and be patient and steady just for a few moments before I react. And maybe, in the space of that relaxation, I can keepgoing, become curious, and watch whatever it is that’s arisen change, shift, and subside.