“Being happy isn’t about forgetting the past. It’s about learning from it and discovering ways to have a better future.” Laura King PhD University of Missouri

I’m engrossed in a magazine, right now actually, and I read that quote, and felt like writing. At the beginning of writing this I wasn’t sure what I would be writing about, but after the fact I can tell you that this discussion is about relaxation, what it means, and different ways that we do, and don’t, relax.

This weekend as I was headed down to a conference in Florida, another opportunity I stumbled upon, I couldn’t help but realize that my incentive to go down and just have a fun weekend, see genetically-modified-orange-land and meet interesting people, didn’t feel that way anymore. I was exhausted from a presentation on the Friday, probably a few two many miles, and woke up in the middle of the night with a stummyache, looked in the mirror at very tired eyes, and the question spreading through my thoughts was “Can you sleep in? It sounds like such a beautiful idea”¦ gosh Vanessa, you just flew vertically across the country LAST weekend, and next week you have an exam and many plans made, and at the end of the summer you are travelling to California, New Hampshire, and Baltimore in under 72 hours”¦ and then the Fall semester starts on Monday. You look tired, yet you are thinking about this weekend trip, and your run in 5 hours. And you could, hypothetically, sleep in, but you won’t. Why can’t you just slow down?” What the heck?”

And there was no point in rationalizing it, but I tried anyway, and it was pretty lame, I think I grinned at myself, and then got distracted by making faces in the mirror. It happens But not to get side-tracked”¦ I really don’t know how to relax, at least in big ways. I would argue that I allow myself marginal relaxation over time”¦ closing my eyes on the bus, or lying in the sun, sitting on my bench enjoying my apple, walking through the gardens because I can”¦ but I would call this active relaxing, more mental relaxing as opposed to physical relaxing. I think these two things largely come together, in varying levels”¦ you could think of a Relaxation Gauge being composed of two parallel bars, one for physical relaxation and one for mental.

Complete lack of physical and mental relaxation is probably a fight or flight response, and complete mental and physical relaxation is probably achieved through something like sleep or yoga (although I’m not a huge yogee)

So let’s talk about ways in which people relax. I think it’s safe to categorize relaxation into two types: physical and mental, and within those two types we can talk about external motivation to relax (going to your YOGA class, out to dinner with friends) and internal motivation (collapsing from being tired, getting an injury or sickness). When I put it in those terms, it feels like my own bias is coming in: I largely relax when other people give me incentive to, or when my body and/or mind just push the big red “ABORT” button, something happens so I don’t have a choice.

It’s like I keep moving at the same pace regardless of my responsibility, and if I slow down, I’m not sure what I would do with myself. I just don’t know how to do it”¦ I’d jump on some new idea or project or at a minimum, a new something to watch accompanied by doing something creative all the while maintaining my connection with Gmail

But there is a difference between internal and external responsibilities. Keeping myself occupied with, watching LOST for example, has a certain amount of mindless enjoyment and is probably the extent of my ability to relax, coming just before sleep, which is just being unconscious right? That probably doesn’t count. Creating external business, like scheduling to leave for Florida 30 minutes after the end of a class presentation, arriving late at night, and then reporting to a University dressed in a black suit early the next morning for two days of scheduled meetings, then coming home at the last minute on Sunday to launch into another week of class and work, is different. It pretty much eliminates a lot of the potential for large scale physical and mental relaxation. Schedules do that, I think. I might still get my marginal relaxation in – like sitting on the floor at the airport and staring into nowhere, sleeping on the plane, and going to bed early, but are these tiny tastes enough to maintain a human being?

And after recalling this weekends’ plans, I want to distinguish this busy-ness from stress, because that entire thing sounds pretty stressful. I organize things in a way that, at least from my perception, don’t feel stressful. Back to this weekend trip”¦ all I had to do was walk 100 meters, get on the bus back to my apartment, and wait for my cab to come and drive me to the airport. So no, not a stressful weekend, not to say that stress and busyness don’t commonly go together, but less so for me.

So what does one do in the middle of the night with a delay in going back to sleep? I had a book on my bedside wire bookcase (Target special) under a bunch of inappropriately warm weathered New Hampshire hats, but books don’t talk back, so I woke up my laptop, and went to see which of my college friend crazies were still awake at the wee hours of the morning. Quite a few, actually. You crazies, go to sleep

As one of my special crazies and I chat about people, me mostly telling stories about interactions that I have found fulfilling, I kept my pondering of why I was questioning my “beautifully” planned out weekend on the back-burner. I know this weekend would have had many fulfilling and self-esteem/efficacy boosting components, but my reaction was still “eww.” Why, and how might I act on this cognition? Should I act at all? So I decided that if the ewey-ness lasted into the morning when I woke up again, since it was so novel and demanding attention, I should give it. It might be a strong sign that even if I don’t know how to do so, my body and mind want to slow down. That was pretty exciting to think, actually”¦ step 1 in slowing down”¦ unconscious desire brought into awareness to do it!

So I woke up, and it was still there, and almost as if forcing someone else’s hand to do the dialing, I called the airline, my hotel, the taxi service, and left a message with the company that no, I wouldn’t be there this weekend”¦ but have a good one, Saturday is supposed to be beautiful. And in forcing myself to put a halt on these things, the cognitive squirminess started to grow, and I let it flow in an effort to understand it, maybe ask a lot of wrong and one or two right questions, and hopefully get some insight into why it’s so hard for me to slow down, to relax.

And here we are. All that said, I’m still keeping myself busy with those less external responsibilities, but it’s definitely a step down from what I was originally scheduled to do. And I’m quote excited about my decision, actually, because it has started this new thought process, and I had a few small but incredibly fulfilling interactions that just wouldn’t have happened had I been on an airplane to Daytona Beach. And of course you could say the same about me being there are not here”¦ the butterfly effect right? But that doesn’t matter, because I’m here and not there, but I do understand that we are inclined to look positively on the decisions we made, and at least neutrally about things that we passed over.

It all goes back to that idea of keeping in check with yourself, and taking self compassion to another level of applicability. Not when things go wrong, but when they go right too, knowing when it’s OK to say no to even something that might be really great because it throws you off balance. And speaking from this experience, I suspect that figuring out when you are going off balance is the hardest part.

And here is where you might expect more conclusions, but I can’t comply. I know that I want to have a larger element of slowing down in my life, eventually, and that I will probably benefit from it, but I don’t know how to do it. I know that I’d love to dance, to be able to lie down into beautiful sleep without my body forcing me into it, and to not feel the need to be moving at the same, pretty hectic pace. Uhl. Where to start thinking?

Scheduling physical and or mental relaxation might work to slow down, but my historical data tells me that I won’t do that, at least just for myself.

The biggest force that has even given me any incentive to slow down has always been other people. Different levels of relationships slow me down to different degrees, for example friends provide relaxed dinners and going fun places and good conversation, I love my friends. But the frequency of this is pretty low, despite the high quality of the time. I might amass a gazillion little connections like these to slow me down, but I think that would be spreading one person too thin. I sort of enjoy the level that I have right now, it feels right.

I’ve also been forced to slow down by injury and medical adversity, and although I wouldn’t omit those experiences from my life, they largely sucked, and I’m not looking to have any part of me opened up again. And getting injured is the ultimate emotional poo-fest, because running and feeling strong adds so much positive to my life.

I don’t have any answers for myself, at the moment, beyond people. I’d be interested to know how other people relax, so maybe I can gain insight into myself. The ironic part, the surprising part, is that I’m quite happy being this way, I’m loving life at the moment, despite those tired eyes that look back at me pretty frequently. I think that my future oriented self is sort of hoping that the me in 5 years will have learned and changed and possibly be more insightful than the me of today. The incentive is out there for my life outlook to change drastically in terms of the speed that I move, think, and live, but I just haven’t found the catalyst yet. Perhaps I haven’t asked the right questions, or I haven’t figured out how to ask them, or found someone that influences me to do so. It’s sort of ambiguous, but I am confident that these things come with time.

Until that time, I have to listen to my gut, and keep checks on staying balanced. So onward – give the oxen adequate rations, continue the grueling pace, and let’s ford that approaching river and turn the ox cart into a boat.