Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Just Relax!

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

7th December

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!


  1. I do wonder if sometimes we make too much of an effort to modulate our responses to others out of a desire to not hurt their feelings. There's no way to know for sure how someone will take what you say - sometimes that "just relax" might piss someone off for a moment, but then turn out to be just what they needed.

    Some zen teacher - I'm forgetting her name, but I know she came to our meditation center - said to us "Notice the difference between hurt and harm. What you say or do might hurt someone in the short-term, or it might cause harm in the long term. Put your effort and attention into not causing harm."

    I'm not suggesting we walk around saying judgmental things to others, trying to jar them. It's more that given how fleeting emotions are, maybe it's most important that we come from a place of right intentions, and stop fiddling with every little comment or action that might offend.

  2. Reading this all I can think of is "serenity now"!

    Damn those psychologists (LOL). Unfortunately in training tact is not always on the list of skills we are taught. On the other side though sometimes patients go in with an expectation and hear only what they want to hear. If you think you are going to be judged going in you'll only hear judgement no matter what the therapist says. Combine the two and the therapeutic relationship breaks down pretty quick.

    Sometimes professionally you need to say the hard truths but there are ways of going about it and part of the process is tailoring the process to the patient and in a sense I think its the same with meditation. I've been a hard arse with patients who needed it but that was after making an informed judgement on what the person needed. Some psychs do get very focused on one approach especially when you are talking about things like CFS or other chronic conditions. Its the same with relaxation/meditation.

    I was taught a more flexible and holistic approach and found that worked well. Now being on the other side of the couch I have been told to just relax and wanted to hit the person giving me such sage advice. Logically I know such advice is more about the person saying it than me, emotionally I feel like I'm being judged. Not saying I have any answers (or even if there was a question), in fact I'm sure I don't, but if all fails I still think screaming "serenity now" at the person works to both deter their further helpful advice and give you a huge hit of those helpful feel good brain chemicals :)

  3. Really interesting oomments...I did think of that 'serentity now!!' episode when I was writing this. It's one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes (after the 'sponge-worthy' one!)

    I have a psychologist and was talking to her about this kind of thing one time. She says she has clients who need to hear the hard truths occasionally, but she has many who have been critisized so much during their lives that this kind of approach can be nothing but counter-productive.

    As a non-psychologist, I can say that it's difficult, if not impossible, to know whether my comments about other people's behaviour are going to be harmful or helpful in the long run. All I can try to do is to notice the intention behind my speech (and thoughts).

    What I've noticed is that when I tell someone to 'chill out' - it's invariably for my own benefit, not for theirs! I'm saying it because their behaviour is annoying me and I want it to stop - rather than out of any great concern for them, or desire to understand what's behind their behaviour.

    All I can go on is an awareness of my own intentions and desires, and act in accordance with my best intentions. After that...who knows?

    Very confusing! Serenity NOOOOOOOOWWWWWWW!!!!

  4. I found this post to be super helpful. Right along with you, I'm sitting here imagining how many times I told my partner: "just relax" or "chill out" when he was obviously very stressed/anxious. I don't know why I hadn't consider all these years why that was not very helpful or likely to produce the desired result. I feel like thinking like this will make the give much more of a B answer next time I think he might be worrying himself into an anxious state. Thanks!

  5. Thanks janusnori. I'd love to hear how you go when you try the 'B' answer. I'm still hoping someone will offer me a weekend in an architect-designed beach house. (The 'architect-designed' bit is very important...I am a snob when it comes to fantasy beach houses).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...