Living Beyond Fear, Anxiety, Anger, and Addiction
By Dean Sluyter
Copyright © 2018 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
CHAPTER 3: RELAX AT THE MOMENT OF CONTACT
The experience is all too familiar: You know you can no longer put off that onerous phone call to that difficult person. Right outside your window it’s a perfect spring day, but all you can feel is dread, like a vise tightening around your temples. In the previous chapter, we referred to this as being “gripped by the stressful feelings.” But if we look more carefully, is that really what happens? Do the feelings grip us, or in some way are we gripping them?
No matter what we feel gripped by—whether it’s tension, apprehension, obsession, anything—the question is the same, and the answer is important. If it turns out that it’s us that’s been gripping all along, that’s excellent news. That means we can stop. But how would we do that?
It seems obvious that the opposite of gripping is letting go, and “Let go” is advice you’ll often hear; in fact, it’s become a bit of a cliché in the worlds of therapy and meditation. But it’s often construed in a way that backfires. People hear the word go and think that the thing they’re letting go of is supposed to go away, and then they feel frustrated when it doesn’t. They’ll often say, “I’m trying to let go, but I can’t.” But that’s not letting go. That’s insisting that the thought or feeling disappear, which is a backdoor way of holding on to it.
So forget about letting go. Instead, just relax your grip. Then it doesn’t matter whether the thought or feeling continues to hang around or not. We can’t control that, and we don’t have to.
To be clear about this, let’s do an experiment. If you happen to have a ball handy, such as a tennis ball or beach ball, please place it on your open palm and grip it tightly from beneath. Walk around the room like this, from the chair to the table to the window, or whatever landmarks are there. This is your mind gripping some thought or feeling. It encounters all the aspects of day-to-day living (all the room’s landmarks), but its experiences of them are filtered through the tension of that gripping. Now relax your grip on the ball and walk around some more. The ball may fall away immediately or eventually, or it may remain in your hand, but it doesn’t matter. The hand is open and at ease. The landmarks are experienced with clarity, just as they are, without the distorting filter of tension.
Our new practice is simply to take this habit on the road, to apply it in real-life situations. It does require some attention at first to recognize when you’re tightening up. Although it may be subtle, there’s generally a physical component to that tightening, a sort of bracing of the body. You may feel it in a particular region; for many people it’s the neck, lower back, or gut, but it can be anywhere. Notice it, relax your grip, and just sink back into yourself.
Initially, there may be moments when the newness of this approach makes it a little disconcerting. Over the years of using your old approach, you may have come to equate being tense with being conscientious. You may wonder, Can I really take care of business effectively without my old tightness? Or am I just being flaky and irresponsible? But once you try the new way a few times, experience will show you that when you’re loose you’re actually more effective. Tightness restricts your range of motion and narrows your vision, keeping you from seeing possible solutions to problems. If you’re all wrapped up in fuming at the slow-moving traffic, you may not notice the clear side streets that can get you around it. If you’re caught up in anxiety about the impression you’re making in your job interview, you may not see the warm smile or hear the gracious comments that the interviewer is making to signal that you’re doing fine.
Loose doesn’t mean sloppy or undisciplined. It means open enough to be sensitive and responsive, to act in the moment when you have to move faster than you can think. You can see this in great athletes, martial artists, dancers, actors, as well as teachers, parents, and entrepreneurs—there’s no way to do what they do if you’re tightly coiled. Cary Grant, who exuded supremely cool sophistication on the screen, recognized the importance of coolness in his costars:
I’ve worked with Bergman. I’ve worked with Hepburn. I’ve worked with some of the biggest stars, but Grace Kelly was the best actress I’ve ever worked with in my life. That woman was total relaxation, absolute ease—she was totally there.
Years ago, when I was studying the martial art of aikido with my teacher Rick Stickles, I had an experience that brought this point home to me in a very dramatic, physical way. I was practicing for a test where I would have to repel three opponents as they repeatedly rushed me. Aikido, when it’s done right, is beautiful to watch, almost dancelike. Rather than clash with your attackers, you use their own energy and, in big, circular, pivoting movements, send them rolling or sailing across the mat. But as the first attacker rushed in to grab me and I tried to execute the throw, I couldn’t budge him. We wound up grappling instead, locked in place, as the other two rushed in to take me down. This happened again and again, till suddenly I heard the teacher’s voice. Halfway up the stairs to the dressing room, he had paused to watch, and he called out, “Relax at the moment of contact!”
Was I tensing up? That was news to me—I had been too busy tensing up to realize I was tensing up. But now, as the next attacker grabbed me, I relaxed. No longer frozen in my own rigidity, no longer working against my own tension, I felt my shoulders go soft and my energy drop from my upper body to my hips. In the same moment, I pivoted gracefully and threw the attacker with fluid ease. Wow—that was fun! But then, as the next attacker came in, I tensed up again. Once more, Stickles Sensei called out, “Relax at the moment of contact!” and once again I softened, pivoted, and easily made the throw. And again. And again. Every time I popped out of that zone of relaxation, the throw became difficult or impossible. Every time I sank back into it, it was easy. It was like turning a switch on and off. The difference was so stark it was funny.
Anything you can do, you can do better from that place of fluidity and ease. Anything. There’s never a reason not to relax. Until it becomes habitual, you do have to think about it and make a deliberate choice. First the challenge comes at you, like one of my three attackers. Maybe it’s, Uh-oh, here comes my crazy neighbor again to complain about my trash cans, or, Uh-oh, here I go again, walking to the front of the conference room, to give my presentation and embarrass myself, or, Uh-oh, here I am on a first date again, and I really like this person. Do I seem too eager? Or too apathetic? Am I laughing too loud? The circumstances are different, but the Uh-oh is the same, and that’s what you have to notice—that’s where the physical clenching takes place. Notice how that clenching feels in the body, and then unclench. No one has to teach you how to unclench. You just did it with the ball. You just have to remember to unclench.
This is a subtle skill, and it does take time to integrate it into our way of being in the world. It’s a matter of replacing an old, turbulent habit with a new, chill one. The change is not merely attitudinal but neurological. We’re retraining our nervous system to process experiences in a more cooled-out way, so that it doesn’t interpret every moment of contact as an occasion for fight-or-flight.
These moments of contact are not always so obvious or dramatic. I once spent a winter in southeast Iowa, on a college campus where the freezing subarctic winds whipped right through my skinny bones. One day, as I walked across the quad with a friend, wretchedly hunching my shoulders and tensing my muscles as usual, he pointed out that it didn’t help. “Try dropping your shoulders and relaxing instead,” he suggested. I tried it, and damned if I didn’t feel a little bit warmer—and a lot more relaxed. That’s how you do it. For that winter wind, just substitute the homework you’ve been putting off, the new job you’ve been afraid to start, the breakup speech you’ve been avoiding, the irate driver in the next car—whatever’s attacking you—and relax at the moment of contact.
I would like a time machine, please, and just half a minute to visit my nine-year-old self, the wretched spaz standing desolate out in right field, terrified of the ball hurtling toward him—and fated, over the next dozen years, to have puberty, high school, drugs, college, sex, first loves, and first heartbreaks all hurtle toward him as well. (Also some pretty scary encounters with street thugs, cops, and the draft board.) I would tell him: “Pssssst! Dean! Listen up! Relax at the moment of contact! Don’t forget!”
There’s a further implication here, which would be too much to explain to young Dean in thirty seconds, but which we’re now beginning to explore. To relax rather than tighten is to drop our ineffective, imaginary armor and let things be as they are. That’s the beginning of a more intimate, accepting relationship with the world, a kind of embrace. There’s a beautiful prayer that says, “May all my actions be motivated by love rather than fear.” Eventually this embrace becomes love, and love—as you may have heard, and you’ll soon see for yourself—casts out fear.