A felt sense of ease has been frustratingly elusive, but the reasons for this struggle lay in my approach. Each time I felt myself in the presence of ease, I would reach out and grip it with that clinginess of a child wanting a BFF. Not surprisingly, the more effort I put into chasing ease, the more it eluded my reach.
All my life I've heard the nauseating refrain, "You need to just relax." Yet, one can only relax if he or she feels that it is safe enough to do so. Some, like me, may have benefited from the effects of tension. Tension keeps us alert to danger, which causes our focus to narrow. We brace ourselves so we can anticipate threats and react reflexively to what comes our way. So, I don't want to demonize tension. And yet, living with chronic tension and stress chafes our immune system, drains our energy, and colors our perceptions because we are more prone to focus on what went wrong, what is wrong and what will go wrong. While I have a great deal of respect for tension and how it served me, I also recognize how it has been hindering me from experiencing those beneficial states I crave and...need. Believe it or not, my nervous system has been conditioned to perceives those expansive states of ease, joy and contentment as a threat!
So, I went back to mindfulness basics and the law of impermanence. Everything arises out of causes and conditions and everything is subject to change. For the past few days, I've begun noting when I feel moments of tension, when I feel moments of ease, and when I feel moments that are neutral. When I notice moments of tension, I let the gripping and tightening sensations be just as they are instead of trying to coerce them to leave. When I notice moments of ease, I practice Rick Hanson's HEAL technique and use questions inspired by the work of Peter Levine and Eugene Gendlin. Each time I become aware of ease I pause, deepen my curiosity, and pay particular attention to any sensations in my body. My task is simply to observe how ease lives in my body without trying to change it or cling to it. Is there tingling? Pulsing? Warmth? A color perhaps? Is there a felt sense of movement? Swirling? Up and down? Spreading? This slow and gentle process continues to soothe and nourish my frazzled nervous system.
Then, just the other day, I came across a poem I had written last summer.
I often move through life
like a buoyant jellfish
propelled by an endless series
of contractions and expansions
guiding me through the succession
of each passing wave.
Clearly, some part of me was already trying to draw my attention to my habits and what was needed to shift out of them. Too much tension can cause us to feel stuck and inert, just as too much expansion can cause us to feel limp and inert. We can never be entirely rid of tension nor expect to live in a state of uninterrupted ease. That expectation sets us up for disappointment and unnecessary suffering. The trick is to let there be space for both movements. It's the contraction and expansion that propel us forward.