This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.
At lunch today I was talking to a woman named Jacqui who’s come up from Sydney to stay here for a few days. Over our dhal and rice, we talked about my experiences with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the time she’d spent with an auto-immune disorder.
She made a comment that I thought was really interesting. She’d been to see a psychologist, who was also a Buddhist and he told her that her illness was caused by stress.Jacqui’s face became animated, and she talked about how this comment made her feel.
‘I asked him why he said that,’ she said. ‘Because it’s just not helpful! It might be true, but for the person who’s having the illness it’s not helpful. It’s up to the person themselves to come to some sort of realisation about what their illness is caused, or not caused by.’
‘That’s so true.’ I said. ‘It’s like someone wagging their finger in your face saying ‘just relax!’ – that’s not relaxing at all. All that happens is that you have your original problems and then on top of it you feel ashamed because you think you shouldn't be stressed, but you are!'
Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not guilty of thinking other people should ‘just relax;’ my sister and I have often fantasized about dropping a valium in my mother’s cup of tea in the hope it would calm her down - or at least make her sit down. (We never used it; you’d need a bulldozer and a ten battalion fascist army to subdue my mum – I’m fairly sure mere pharmaceuticals couldn’t do it).
Jacqui and I talked about the best way to get the ‘just relax’ message across without making the other person feel judged. We both thought that it was important to be able to support and encourage people to relax, not to just wag a finger in their face telling them what to do. Better still – just provide the supportive conditions and encouragement without even telling the person you think they should be more relaxed. After all, what’s more delightful and helpful to hear?
a) You’re so stressed out...just relax!
b) You’re a great friend and I really care about you. Life seems hard for you at the moment – would you like to spend a week chilling out in my multi-million dollar Byron Bay beachhouse?
OK – obviously a rhetorical question, but as I was typing I spent a few seconds imagining a friend in front of me saying a) and b). When I imagined someone saying a) I had tightness in my chest, and feelings of disappointment and not being understood. When I imagined b) I felt relaxed, delighted, and very connected to my imaginary property tycoon friend.
I also winced at the thought of how many thousands of times I’ve told someone to ‘chill out’ or ‘just relax’ and how this might have made the other person feel. Because my illness causes a lot of adrenal problems and anxiety, I probably order myself to relax many more time than I say it to anyone else. So, maybe I’ll try to take a break from telling other people – and myself – to ‘just chill out.’ (Because it’s probably the least likely thing to induce any chilled-ness!)
Coming back down to my little caravan in the bush after my conversation with Jacqui I lay on the wooden deck outside the van, and started listening to a Tara Brach talk. She said, ‘ I sometimes get impatient with the instructions that are given traditionally for meditation which is ‘just relax, just relax, be in the present moment’...as if that’s, like, an easy thing to do!’
Relaxing is not, like, an easy thing to do – or we’d all be walking around in a state of calm equanimity. I must try to remember that next time I’m with an uptight person (such as myself!) and am thinking impatiently to myself, ‘Could you just relax!’
My fantasy Byron Bay beach house. Boy...could I relax there!