Instant relaxation is not only possible; it’s the most natural thing. How fast can you move from relaxed to alert? If you see a car speeding towards you, it’s immediate. Moving from stress to calmness is almost as quick.
If it’s so natural, what stops us from doing it? How can we use this comforting influence?
The answer is over 2,000 years old.
Buddhism describes everything as fleeting and temporary. Impermanence is one of the attributes that all things share. This applies to the material world, as well as living things and the products of our minds.
This seems obvious. Everything changes. If neglected, things decay. If you invest energy in something, it improves. Time never stops and entropy is always at play.
If it’s so obvious, how does it help us?
One of the first steps in many Buddhist texts – ancient and modern – is to accept that all things are impermanent. Everything that exists is temporary. This includes, dear reader, your thoughts.
It’s especially true for your thoughts.
Sensations feel continuous. In truth, they flicker. Think of it like how a movie projector shows images fast enough to create the illusion of movement. Our thoughts, feelings and sensory inputs are the same.
The last time you were in a good mood for an hour… you weren’t. For an hour, you experienced a good mood rising, flaring into awareness then fading multiple times per second. Thoughts are fleeting. If one lingers it’s because as it fades, it gives rise to a new one.
Any stress or anxiety lasts less than half a second. You are so much more powerful than any negative feeling. Emotions (like the rest of us) swirl in a rapid cycle of birth and death. Break this cycle and the sensation fades.
And Buddhism knows how to break this cycle. It’s something you’ve probably heard of…
Mindfulness is a core skill in Buddhism. It means to be present and consciously aware of your experiences. The opposite of mindfulness is a daydream, where your internal and external realities disappear.
Daydreaming isn’t bad (if I thought that, I’d be a hypocrite – I love a good daydream). It just comes more naturally to most of us than mindfulness. With practice, mindfulness comes just as naturally. Then there’s this strange moment where you realise that you’re daydreaming mindfully.
(If this seems to contradict what I said about them being opposites, that’s because life is complex, messy, and resistant to petty human attempts to label and classify things. It makes sense when you’ve experienced it.)
This trick of being present and aware is powerful. When you experience a thought or sensation mindfully, there’s a sense of dissociation. Normally emotions feel like they happen to you… or maybe they are you. Mindfulness distances the thought from ‘you’.
It becomes like a scientist observing an animal in the wild. The emotion is over there and you watch it. Calmly, gently and without vested interest. Whatever the animal does is good and correct, for the scientist is there to observe reality. A mindful awareness of thought is the same.
With practice, you will notice the ‘flickering’ – the impermanence – of the emotion. And then you’ll realise that your attention is impermanent, too. This epiphany is a potential distraction, so – as cool as it is – you let it fade and return to your state of calm focus.
If all of this is happening, you won’t have the mental capacity to sustain the emotion. Even if you did, it’s a jittery, temporary ‘thing’ that you’re observing over there.
This robs it of its power and neutralises it.
The secret to instant relaxation is:
That’s all it takes.
Well, I say ‘all’. These may be basic stuff in Buddhism, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. It takes time and practice. I’ve spent a year focusing on my… well, focus, and I still feel like a noob at this. But there’s a reason why these principles have survived thousands of years – long enough to be embraced by modern scientists and philosophers. Even a rudimentary mastery of the basics helps. You don’t need to reach enlightenment – or even be on the path to it – to benefit from these skills.
Then again, maybe Buddhism isn’t your thing. I get that. Another option – one that allows you to relax deeply and immediately – is self-hypnosis. The psychological mechanisms are similar, but they are different tools to do the same job. You can learn enough to get started (and enough to enter a state of relaxation) by studying and applying the lessons from my free self-hypnosis guide.