21 April 2014

Ian Gawler Blog: Learn to relax, and change your life

We hear so much these days about mindfulness and meditation, yet relaxation is often overlooked or even dismissed. It seems relaxation has become the poor cousin of Mind-Body Medicine.

Having taught meditation for over 30 years now, it is my experience relaxation itself is incredibly useful, and without deep physical relaxation, mindfulness and meditation are far less effective.

So this week, how to deepen physical relaxation before meditating and how to maintain relaxation of body and mind in daily life. Only 4 weeks before the cancer residential Ruth and I will present in Auckland,  Cancer, Healing and Wellbeing - more detail later, but first, with the spirit of Easter still close by,

Thought for the day

Truly I tell you
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed
You can say to this mountain
‘Move from here to there,’ 
And it will move.
Nothing will be impossible for you.
                       Matthew 17: 20, 21      

Why bother with learning to relax?
You may take up meditation to manage stress or to heal physically or mentally, to find more peace and balance in your life, to be more efficient at work or to perform better at sport, or to be a nicer person. All these things will be vastly assisted by beginning by learning to relax.

There is a beautiful synergy between relaxing the body and calming the mind. The more we relax the body, the more that relaxation flows on to calm the mind. The more we calm the mind, the more the mind sends out messages that relax the body. Therefore, when we bring concentration and mindfulness to the process of relaxing the body, this synergy leads to profound relaxation of both the body and the mind.

Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation
Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation (MBSM) is the style of meditation I have been teaching for over 30 years and it is very simple. There are four key steps, preparation, relaxation, mindfulness and stillness.

Preparation is to do with all the practical details of your meditation.

Relaxation comes second, and here we take time to learn how to relax our body and our mind. This

frees us to be in an ideal state to learn and practice mindfulness, and to then advance into the simple silence of meditation itself.

                   Cats are pretty good at relaxing

How to get started – a summary
The Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is an age old, well tried and tested, super reliable way of letting go of tension and stress, relaxing deeply and experiencing inner peace. Again, my feeling is that this technique may well be overlooked or disregarded by many meditators – to their disadvantage.

To learn the PMR, we learn how to pay attention to four things in each muscle group of the body, starting with the feet, then moving on to the calves, thighs and so on.

These are the 4 things we need to pay attention to
1. Notice how each area of the body feels when we first take our attention to it.

2. Contract the muscles in that area and hold the contraction long enough to notice the feeling that the tightening of the muscles creates.

3. Slowly and smoothly relax the muscles, noticing the feeling of tension releasing and the feeling of relaxation that follows.

4. Give attention to what that area feels like now that we have relaxed it.
We begin by noticing the feeling of relaxation in the muscles of the feet, then we work our way up through calves, thighs, tummy and so on up through the head.

Concentration and the PMR
As we practise the PMR exercise, we do need to concentrate. We concentrate on doing the contracting and relaxing of the muscles, and we particularly concentrate on the feeling as we go through the 4 steps described above.

However, it will work best if our concentration is light rather than too intense. As an analogy, consider a stringed instrument such as a violin or a guitar: if the strings are either too tight or too loose it will sound bad. The strings need just the right amount of tension for them to be in tune and for the instrument to sound its best.

So it is with the mind. If we are too relaxed, too ‘loose’, it will not work so well. Too intense, too serious, too much effort, and again it will not be so useful.

Mindfulness and the Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercise
There are two ways to do an exercise like the PMR. One way is to do it mindfully, the other is mindlessly. Mindfulness is simply concentrating on what we are doing in a way that is focused but free of judgment.

Mindlessness, on the other hand, is when we do not pay attention, when we do not concentrate, and when our mind wanders off and thinks about all sorts of other things.

The wandering mind

Almost everyone will find that, as they do these exercises, the mind will wander, so we need to use the vigilant part of our mind to notice when we do become distracted and, once we recognise this, to bring the mind gently back to the exercise again.

The key here is to avoid beating yourself up in the process. Be reassured that this is the normal experience. Especially for beginners, the mind does tend to wander and become distracted. We need to notice this and bring it back.

Beginning your practice
The text for the Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercise is in all my books. You can either learn the
script so that you can lead yourself through the exercise or you can use a CD or download to guide you through. You do not necessarily need to learn the scripts word-for-word, although you can if you prefer.

The PMR follows a simple pattern of contracting the muscles and relaxing them, starting with the feet and then moving progressively up through each significant muscle group of the body.

The phrases recommended for use between each set of muscles are intended to keep the mind focused and to build a feeling of relaxation all through the body. The fewer phrases you need to use to stay focused and the longer the gaps between the words before you become distracted, the simpler the whole exercise is and the better it works.

Of course, initially it can be helpful to be led by an experienced teacher through exercises like these, and many people find listening to CDs very useful, especially as beginners. But either way, the intention is to learn to do these exercises for yourself, and to repeat them until you master them in the way described.

Making progress
You will probably find within a week or two of beginning this practice that you can do the PMR without having to think about it too much. The next step is to simplify it. To learn to gain the same depth of relaxation more directly. So we learn to do the PMR without contracting the muscles first. Then even more simply. All this is in the books.

Do be warned that as you become more familiar with any exercise there is a tendency to lapse into doing it on automatic, in that way we describe as being mindless. So as you become more familiar and proficient with this and all the other exercises, remember to do them mindfully. The key principle is to pay attention and be interested in what you are doing; interested in that open, curious and non-judgmental way.

Concentration, mindfulness and relaxation

By concentrating on the feeling of relaxation in the body, it is as if we become absorbed in the feeling of relaxation itself. As we feel the body relax, the mind goes with it. The relaxation of the body flows into the mind. Our body is relaxed. Our mind is relaxed. And we simply rest in that feeling of relaxation.

               But then again, some dogs relax OK too!

How to proceed
In my experience this approach based on the PMR works well for many people. In fact, when I first started to teach meditation, this was all I taught. Many people reported developing a deep awareness of relaxation in both the body and the mind, and were satisfied with this as a reliable technique for meditation.

Slow down and go faster


 : Meditation – an In Depth Guide, Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson:  a useful manual to practice with, to study and refer to. Details : CLICK HERE

CDs and Downloads : A series of meditations to help support and develop your meditation has been prepared by my wife Ruth and myself : Details : CLICK HERE

Mindbody Mastery  - The on-line meditation program and support system I helped develop.
Details : CLICK HERE


1. Warrnambool:  Sunday May 4th, 2014

The heart and science of
Health, Healing and the Mind

Seeking to use the power of your mind
for health, healing and wellbeing ?

Interested in a deeper experience of meditation ?

What really is best to eat ?

Dissolve every day stresses; experience mindfulness, relax effortlessly, meditate profoundly
Discover the practical, life changing implications of neuroplasticity, epigenetics and telomere research
Clarify your questions; be confident of eating well and living well – and enjoying it!

Ideal for people interested in evidence based health and wellbeing, disease prevention and management, for health professionals and for those seeking profound healing

Date: Sunday May 4th, 2014 : 10am (arrive 9.30) to 4pm
Venue: St Brigid's Community Center, 186 Port Fairy - Koroit Rd, Crossley 3283
Cost: $130, conc $90 Includes morning tea.  Please bring lunch to share.
Enquiries: Integrative Health Services - Rosemary Gleeson : 0447 6177 68
                    or email rosemarygleeson@ymail.com

Bookings: Online CLICK HERE 
                   or via telephone with Visa, Mastercard : call Angela on (03) 5966 6130

2. Cancer, Healing and Wellbeing : Auckland, May 16 - 23
This 8 day cancer recovery program residential program is evidence based and will be highly experiential. We will cover the full range of Integrative Medicine options, with the emphasis on what people can do for themselves – therapeutic nutrition, exercise and meditation, emotional health, positive psychology, pain management, the search for meaning and so on.

I will personally present the majority of the content but along with Ruth, participants will have the additional support and experience of Liz Maluschnig and Stew Burt; two very experienced and committed New Zealanders.
For details on this and the other cancer related residential programs for 2014 CLICK HERE

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