Relaxation is the second core discipline in my creative agility practice. Deep creativity requires a relaxed state of concentration, focus, and discernment. States of mind that inhibit creative work include multi-tasking, false urgency, pessimism, inflexible scheduling, and distraction. Relaxation is essential in repairing some of the damage caused by our obsession with productivity and the mechanization of experience. A relaxed state of attention and awareness cultivates focus, quality of engagement, and a sense of “losing” oneself in work. Along with optimal breathing, relaxation is a core discipline in a creative agility practice.
Relaxation is an advanced state of awareness. Releasing physical and mental tension is vital to creative work. In a physical sense, relaxation is about calming your nervous system, allowing muscles to relax, and returning to neutral posture. With respect to the mind, relaxation cultivates generative energy by releasing inertia and negativity in your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Relaxation is a state of readiness. It enlivens concentration, attention, and discernment. Mindfulness, for example, cannot emerge when body and mind are tense. Nervous tension inhibits creative work. Relaxation is a way to reclaim body and mind to immerse your presence in work you value. Deep creative work hinges on the ability to optimize breathing and generate a relaxed, open, and fluid state of awareness. This can be difficult to achieve, especially during uncertain and volatile events in life.
Context: Liminality, Tension, and Covid-19
Sometimes, the situations and circumstances that surround you can make creative work difficult or impossible.
The Covid-19 pandemic introduces fear, uncertainty, and ambiguity into everyday life. There is no escape from it because it is everywhere all at once. Covid-19 has enveloped the world in the foreboding creative energy of liminality. We have lost a sense of “normal”, and now speak of a “new normal” yet to emerge. Our assumptions and expectations about life have become unhinged. Today, relaxation is an endangered species.
Many creatives have a strong felt sense of the world; that is, they often feel meaning in their body before they can articulate it in their mind. The pandemic is a powerful source of discord, turbulence, and disruption. Where I was once able to relax into a creative flow, the tension caused by the pandemic impaired my ability to engage in deep creativity. I felt an overwhelming sense of distraction.
During periods of lockdown, I wanted to use imposed isolation as an opportunity to get a variety of creative projects completed. None of that happened. I was unproductive in the sense of making things to share, but I was highly productive in privately leaning into uncomfortable and adverse states of being. The ongoing trauma and tragedy of the pandemic impaired my ability to relax, focus, and settle into a creative flow. It is not something you can resolve by doing a few breathing and relaxation exercises. However, I believe that this period of liminality will inspire creative work for years to come. In other words, sometimes the experience your need to engage in to facilitate creative work can take months, perhaps years.
A Simple and Effective Relaxation Technique
The purpose of relaxation is to release physical and mental entanglements so that creative energy can flow. One common technique is the body scan. The idea is to move through the various parts of your body and focus on the release of physical tension. I extend this practice to the mind and practice releasing undesirable thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise. It does little good to relax the body while the mind remains mired in negative energy. The key is passive effort; that is, you simply release tension in body and mind as you discover without dwelling on it. It is a simple two-part technique. First identify sources of physical and mental tension. Second, practice the art of effortlessly letting go of tension.
Unchecked negative energy never takes you anywhere you want to be. I use a physical cue to initiate the relaxation response. In formal practice, I always practice breathing, relaxation and visualization with my thumb touching my index and middle finger. Over time, the physical connection between the thumb and two fingers becomes integral to the relaxation response. When I become aware of tension, I immediately connect the two fingers together with my thumb, which redirects body and mind toward relaxation. With consistent training, it is a simple and subtle gesture that offers significant benefit.
The pandemic has altered my relaxation response; that is, I find it more challenging to relax. Where the body goes, the mind follows; where the mind goes, the body follows. However, this doesn’t change the fact that relaxation is a vital skill in high-level performance of any kind, from an athletic or artistic performance to creating wisdom from the foreboding challenges of life.
- The best work on relaxation I have found is by Herbert Benson. In his book, The Relaxation Response, he says that “The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response.” Here is a summary of The Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response.
- In Focusing: How to Gain Direct Access to Your Body’s Knowledge, Eugene Gendlin describes felt sense as “A kind of bodily awareness that profoundly influences our lives and that can help us achieve our personal goals. The ‘felt sense’ is not a mental experience but a physical one. It is an internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time”
- Government of Ontario: Covid-19 Zones and Restrictions: One of the problems with this system is that people living in a designated grey zone region (full lockdown) can still travel to neighboring regions not in a full lockdown and increase the threat of transmission in areas under lighter restrictions. The effectiveness of this approach is questionable while the stress it causes is significant.