For many of us, we may have been drawn to meditation initially because of the promise that we will experience a deep sense of relaxation. And this is completely understandable – we live in a fast-paced, stressful world and seeking a way to detach from that and calm our minds is a positive intention. We might choose to relax by taking a hot bath, reading a book or watching our favourite TV show, we may even meditate for relaxation. But here’s the problem with meditation for relaxation; if you are meditating mindfully (and therefore getting the full benefits for your practice), then it can often be a frustrating experience, meaning that although it will definitely give you some form of long-lasting relaxation, you might not feel the most relaxed during, or even directly after your session. If, however you are meditating for relaxation alone then you will not be meditating mindfully and will be missing out on the most important benefits of meditation.
So what we’re saying here is, meditation is always a form of relaxation but relaxation is not always meditation. If you have used any relaxation techniques in the past and have not found them effective, or would like to experience a longer-lasting sense of calm, then just using relaxation techniques will not be enough. Luckily there is a lot more to meditation than relaxation. Meditation can help you to cultivate a relationship with mindfulness, not just relaxation, and fully understanding what to expect from meditation and what the benefits really are is a crucial part of the experience.
What is relaxation?
When we feel stressed the sympathetic nervous system is engaged and our body releases adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in physical and mental manifestations of stress. Relaxation practises work to combat this response by steadying the breath, slowing down the heart rate and bringing our minds away from the subject that is causing us stress. There are techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga and hypnosis that actively work to de-stress us and create a sense of relaxation.
Relaxation is a very necessary part of our routines, without it we would all surely become too overwhelmed to function at all. When we are stressed or panicking our minds and bodies react instinctively, and when we engage in activities that relax us then our brains can send a signal to our bodies that all is well and we are safe. The types of typical relaxation techniques we have mentioned above fall under one of two categories; either they are specifically designed to create a relaxed state of mind like breathing exercises and hypnosis, or they are individual to our unique personalities like reading a book or going to the gym. Both categories will provide the same results, however, those which are designed to reduce stress may be more effective and require some sort of guidance, whereas the other option is to intuitively follow your instincts to find out what activity helps to settle your mind and create a sense of calm within you. If you are using any of these techniques then it will not be too difficult to create a moment of calm.
This feeling of calm and relaxation is what a lot of people are seeking when they try meditation, and they believe that it is an indication that their meditation practice is working. So when they inevitably come up against difficult or frustrating moments in their experience they believe it is because they are doing something wrong, or because meditation is not for them. If this sounds like your experience of meditation, don’t give up. Although you might not be feeling totally relaxed after a session, the long-term benefits definitely include relaxation, as well as a shift in your mindset that works preventatively against stress in the future.
We’re not saying quit your Sunday self-care routine, or swear off the gym if it relaxes you. But if you’re looking for a long-lasting peace of mind that will help you to find calm even when your external circumstances are very stressful, then investing fully in meditation and its many benefits is for you.
Calm and Insight
It is possible through any number of relaxing activities to gain bucket loads of calm. As we’ve covered, relaxation isn’t the difficult part, and that is why its positive effects don’t last very long. Insight on the other hand is something that can only be achieved through mindful meditation. If we think of the word insight there are a number of meanings that might stand out to us. Insight could literally mean to view what is within, in this case, what is within ourselves and our minds. It could also mean to possess a depth of knowledge on something or someone. The kind of insight that can be gained through meditation makes use of both definitions.
The insight we can gain through meditation is both, because not only is it an investigation into our inner self, it also helps us to gain a deep understanding of how our mind works.
We will highlight in a moment the real-life applications of gaining insight through meditation, but first, it’s interesting to look at what happens in our minds when we start meditating in a mindful way.
If you learn to meditate through a guided meditation on an app or a course then that is a great way to learn, but eventually, meditation should become an activity guided purely by your own mind. Once you achieve this mindfulness meditation will help you to take a step back from your inner narrator, and fully understand your mind. You will begin to gain a clearer picture of your habits, thoughts and emotions, and will be able to view them without any negative judgement or bias. By detaching yourself from your thoughts and emotions you are also detaching yourself from your reactions. We can think here of your reaction to a stressful situation; by viewing our reactions in this way we are able to see the stress-inducing situation for what it is and react in a more productive and calm manner.
Reactivity and stress
Through mindful meditation, we are able to stall our reactive side a bit. When we develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and why we might react in certain ways, we are able to prepare for the moments when we might feel stress or when we might be likely to lash out. This ability then enables us to prevent these moments of reaction without thought. So next time a colleague says something that we disagree with, instead of instantly telling them exactly why we think they are wrong and creating a negative environment, we will be able to detach from our reactive side and decide on the most productive and fair way to move forward in this difficult situation.
Again, this relates to the idea of a greater insight into our minds allowing us to detach from our reactive side. One concern some people have about meditation is that it will make them emotionless, so this is probably a good time to note that detaching does not mean you are going to lose your emotions. In fact, your emotions and feelings will not be dramatically different. All that will change is the way in which you view them and act on them. Mindfulness allows us to view everything around us as connected and impermanent. There is a new level of reality to be unlocked by mindfulness that will reveal to us that stress is an impermanent feeling that will not help us in the long run so we can react to that knowledge rather than to our feelings of discomfort.
Some research shows that meditations impact on coping with stress could also be due to the positives moods of meditation users. This alone shows that by choosing to meditate we are making changes to our minds that will have far-reaching positive impacts on our lives as a whole.
Relaxation is so tempting on its own because it is a space away from whatever is causing us stress. However, taking these moments to find calm is not a guarantee that we will never be in a situation that causes us stress again. Here’s an example; if you get very stressed giving presentations at work it is understandable that after a big presentation you want to come home and watch some TV with good food and just relax. That will make you feel better in the aftermath of the stressful event. However, it’s not going to prevent you from feeling the same amount of stress the next time you are required to make a presentation at work. Now if you were to invest some time in meditation you would be able to gain insight into the problem and learn how to combat it effectively next time you are in that stressful situation. That’s why meditation is far more useful to us than just relaxation.
The mindfulness we achieve through meditation will help us in more ways than just managing stress. But in the modern world where we can always find something to be stressed about, it is a welcomed benefit. It is easy to choose relaxation over meditation, or calm over insight when we are feeling in need of a mental break, but the best thing we can do for ourselves in the long-term is to invest the time into meditation as a source of mindfulness. By doing so we will not only have a way of coping with stress in the moment, but we will be preparing our minds to build an immunity to negative emotions like stress in the future.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.