“Whatever’s not full makes noise. Whatever is full is quiet.” ~The Buddha
“A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated — this is the greatest blessing.” ~The Buddha (Mangala Sutta).
“There are beautiful trees within the island. There are clear streams of water. There are birds, sunshine and fresh air. Breathing out I feel safe. I enjoy going back to my island.” ~ The Island of the Self, Plum Village Song
I recall on the last day of a retreat, during questions and answers at Blue Cliff Monastery, a young boy asked Thich Nhat Hanh how he calms his mind. Thây replied the easiest way to calm the mind is to calm the body. We have ample evidence that the body and mind are not separate entities. When we have tension in the body, the mind is also tense. When we have tension in the mind, the body follows suit and gets tight. This sends the clear message to the mind that there is a real threat and signals the release of stress hormones, cortisol, and epinephrine, which lead to more stress and agitation. This cycle of reciprocal arousal is called a stress loop and the constant state of vigilance and heightened fear response can lead to increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and heightened blood sugar. If the body does not calm and slow the production of stress hormones, over time, this may lead to adrenal fatigue, exhaustion, restless sleep, heart disease, and a depleted immune system function.
(Figure and figure description reproduced with permission from copyright holder. Figure by Michael Jensen MSMI, CMI).
The body will not calm, or relax when it is guarded and vigilant. The body will not relax until it knows that it is safe to do so. Typically, when we travel, we don’t sleep well in a strange and new place. Even though the body is asleep, there is vigilance that keeps us from letting go into deep rest. We do not give ourselves permission to fully relax until we understand on an experiential and somatic level that we are safe.
Safety is an essential part of concentration. Children who live with trauma and violence cannot focus due to hypervigilance and constant scanning. Every Sunday, for the past six months, I’ve led guided relaxation and body scans for teenagers undergoing treatment in a rehabilitation facility. These young people are in treatment for anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, and other manifestations of suffering. What I do is invite them to relax. I am transparent about the role of safety. I let them know that feeling safe is the basis of relaxation and rest. I explain that being safe or the feeling of safety might be strange to them—and for most of us—we walk around with lots of armor and protection. I invite them to be curious about what leads to this feeling of safety and what actually happens when the body recognizes that it’s ok to feel safe. Simply by voicing the permission to be safe and care for themselves, most of these teens are able to relax, some of them for the first time in their lives. They learn that it’s not the room, the sound of my voice, or a special bell that gives them the feeling of relaxation—it is their own ability to believe they are safe. Their relaxation is made from their willingness to let go of vigilance and to know the peace of safety.
The body is the first of the four foundations of mindfulness. The Buddha recommending calming the body to create concentration. In the Bhikkhunivasako Sutta, the Buddha is recorded giving directions for establishing the foundations of mindfulness that lead to concentration to the Venerable Ananda, “With body so calmed down, he experiences joy. Being joyful, his mind is concentrated.” The ability to concentrate is only available when there is peace in the body—which is a source of joy, leading to a greater ability to release our thinking and planning and to concentrate the mind.
It is especially difficult for those who do work with threating situations to practice relaxation of the body. Firefighter, police, first responders, medics, and soldiers are all at risk for heightened levels of adrenal arousal and exhaustion from sustained stress. While vigilance is natural and has succeeded in protecting our gene line and ensuring the survival of the species, we may want to experiment with the idea of safety to bring more ease, joy, and concentration into our lives.
One of the best ways to bring more relaxation into our lives is to consciously give permission to experience safety and relaxation for a specific period of time. Taking five minutes, find a place where you can consciously know safety and attend bodily feelings. Is there a sense of expansion, of heaviness, or lightness? How is the body when we let it know it is safe? Is there some happiness and delight in this feeling? As we become more practiced with the somatic sense of safety, we may find that relaxation and ease in the body naturally become more accessible—it is like knowing the taste of salt, we can identify when it is present and when it’s missing. We can add a sense of safety and relaxation into our daily tasks; how safe and relaxed can I feel washing dishes, eating, or driving?
The words, “you are safe,” are wonderful to hear and even better to believe. Do we have a place and a time when we can let ourselves know this? Looking at how we want to be calm, centered, peaceful, approachable—and physically and emotional safe—how much of our protection gets in the way of what we want? How much of our guarding robs us of the ability to feel kindness and care for ourselves and others? We can use our wisdom to guide us and recognize that there are situations in our lives that require vigilance. We don’t want to be so relaxed we miss the cues that our body gives us about danger and warning. If we are living with violence or work with those who have little physical and emotional regulation, it’s wise to trust the body and mind’s natural protection system.
If we experience physical and emotional threat in our life and work, we will need to bring more attention to consciously creating opportunities to experience safety. If we do not learn how to bring this quality into our lives, we will lose our ability to feel safe and relaxed. We will be distracted and ill at ease and never know the peace of true homecoming. When we learn to entrust ourselves into our own wisdom and love, we create a good home for ourselves where we can rest, knowing we have permission to be safe, to relax our body and touch the stillness that brings joy.
May we all trust our light,