Last week I promised to write about relaxation techniques. The three I mentioned – systematic muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, and guided imagery – come from the field of behavioral sciences. These routines help me to achieve a modicum of serenity when the noise overwhelms me or claustrophobia threatens to box me in. Although the methods are borrowed from the behavioral sciences, my application of them is unique to me.
Systematic Muscle Relaxation Many people use muscle relaxation unconsciously at bedtime to prepare for sleep and discharge the pent-up anxiety of the day. It is a means of releasing the tension that builds up in our muscles when stressed. One of the advantages of muscle relaxation is that it can be used discreetly in public without being noticed or thought strange. I like it, too, because muscle groups can be relaxed separately or in conjunction with the whole.
First, sit in a chair and put your feet on the floor and your hands on your legs. (You may also do this standing or lying down.) Begin with curling your toes tightly and keep them in that position for a few seconds, but not more than five, and gently and slowly release them. Next do the same to your foot muscles. Follow this procedure with each individual muscle set –calves, thighs, buttocks, waist, stomach and lower back, chest and upper back, fingers, hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, neck, and face – always working systematically toward your face. If you cannot do the whole body, you can work up from your toes to your waist, up from your waist to your face, torso only, arms and hands alone, or simply the neck and face. Systematic muscle relaxation is very adaptable to nearly all situations.
When each set of muscles releases, you will feel the stress and tension recede from your body. The situation may not change, but the physical bonds that imprison your body can be loosened.
Deep Breathing Deep breathing has the same advantages as muscle relaxation. It really helps me to regain control of my emotions, especially anger, when I am out-of-sorts. The preparation for this exercise is the same as for the above.
Take in a long deep breath through your nose. Deep breaths come from your diaphragm and fill the lower portion of your lungs. If your chest and shoulders move significantly, it is a shallow breath. With a deep breath your stomach expands and your chest and shoulders barely move, if at all. If it is hard for you to do sitting or standing, try it while lying on your back. Your body automatically reverts to deep breathing in that position.
So, take a long deep breath through your nose and hold it for the slow count of three. Then slowly blow it out through your mouth like you would gently release a balloon of its air. When done correctly the exhale will last for nearly ten seconds. Repeat and count to two. Finally, repeat and count to one. You can repeat this exercise in groups of three as many times as you need.
Guided imagery With this method you need a quiet and comfortable place where disturbances can be kept minimal. It may help to do some muscle relaxation and/or deep breathing exercises in preparation. Come go with me as I journey to and from a special place.
I close my eyes and imagine all the goings-on of a large city. People are walking here and there with determined purpose taking little notice of others or their surroundings. Cars, buses, and trucks rapidly move through one light only to be stopped by another. The whine of mechanical machinery delivering heated or cooled air into attached buildings and the hum of electricity traveling from transformers to illuminate and power the equipment of endless offices and retail shops join other obnoxious noise makers in a city. I am driving in the midst of this organized chaos attempting to leave town. The interstate is backed up and moving slowly. Drivers dash from lane to lane trying to gain an advantage while others creep along in the fast lane impeding progress. A couple of enraged drivers speed dangerously along access and exit lanes and use the breakdown lane in an effort to run from or catch the other for some unknown offense. Eventually, traffic thins as weary travelers take exits away from the madness toward hoped for tranquility. The city shrinks from my rear-view mirror and the road sheds some of its lanes as I follow my escape route away from the hectic pace of crazy metropolitan life.
Finally, I exit, too, away from the rushing interstate onto one of the four lane federal highways that still exist apart from the characterless freeways. The pace slows as I travel past open fields, lone standing businesses, and single family dwellings imprisoned behind shrubs and trees. A small town closes shops and rolls up sidewalks as I creep through the unwelcoming community. Parks are mostly empty; windows are shuttered against the coming night. The only signs of life is the seemingly ubiquitous convenience store and gas station assaulting the skyline with its brilliantly illuminated and invasive lights.
Just beyond the sleepy town I turn off the federal highway onto a tree-lined, two lane, narrow, state road. Straight stretches are rare along this want-to-be highway; curves and winding ways are plentiful. Deeper into sparsely populated areas and forested hills I travel. Another world from the distant past begins to reveal itself. On a curve is an old store, narrow and long, with an inviting porch and benches to support the rest of friends and the occasional visitor. Unpainted and plain, it seems to exist not for profits, but for community. On an empty spot along the road, the remnants of a small town exist with a lone bank and feed store staring at each other across the road. The town has stayed alive for the single purpose of hosting a multi-acre flea market and nationally sponsored muzzle-loading contests twice a year.
A few miles past the village I turn off the state highway onto a county road. It is a “no-fault” road. The usual white lines along the side and yellow lines in the middle designating lanes are absent. Fields of pasture and crops lay on either side surrounded by fences and posts that mark my progress. Pavement gives way to gravel as I draw near another turn. Slowing down considerably I am careful not to miss the dirt road covered in a canopy of trees. I have entered an area where ghosts of pioneers past inhabit the hills and valleys and where time stopped about two hundred years ago. The path meanders along the bank of a creek. I always smile at the cardboard cutout of a man staring out the window of a cabin that hovers near the road intimidating all who pass. A little farther down I have to judge the depth and swiftness of the ten yards wide creek before crossing through to the other side. Safely navigated I climb the opposite bank and leave the heavily forested hills and swiftly moving creek behind to enter a wide and welcoming opening in the trees.
Stopping in front of a gate I pull out a key to open, drive through, and close the out-of-place barrier. I have arrived at my “happy place.” Car windows come down and welcome the scents of clover and alfalfa mingled with wild flowers and blooming trees. The pleasant aroma fills my car conquering the stale and odoriferous smells of the city. Mist from the nearby creek moistens and freshens the air. The lane passes through fenced in fields. On the one side is a finishing pasture and on the other a hay-field. Beyond lies open ground and in the distance newly planted corn waiting to break into the light. Trees cover the surrounding hills on all sides eager for an opportunity to claim the emptiness. An unnamed creek steadily babbles past the property flowing first west and then south to continue its journey to an unknown destination. A low fence, hand-made with rocks harvested from the creek, line its bank for over a hundred yards.
Nearby is a barn supported by adze hewn girts joined together by mortise-and-tenon joints and wooden pegs. An original one story log cabin, built with Block House Ends corners supported by large rocks stands alone in the middle of this pastoral setting. Blond chinking make for alternating dark and light stripes decorating the outside walls. A “good sittin’” porch faces north and bids all to come and rest awhile. Inside the house you are greeted with an enormous rock fireplace, a single bedroom, and a loft for sleeping. A primitive outhouse stands a few steps out the back door. All the material to build this ideal place was harvested from the land it sits upon.
Resting on the porch as the darkness swallows the light I hear the sounds of nature. Crickets are rubbing their legs together and bullfrogs are croaking, both in hopes of attracting a mate. Other wild lovers join the trumpeters of the night. Clear skies open to a panorama of the stars. The moon reflects light in an attempt to penetrate the night. The peaceful setting rocks me into a sound and invigorating sleep.
Drinking morning coffee on the porch before the break of the dawn, I listen as the sounds of the forest come alive to greet me. Chirping squirrels and cawing crows break out with other animals in a melodious chorus. And the wind causes the trees to sway in unison and musses my hair with tender approval. Contentment and peace hug me tightly on this perfect morning.
Behind the barn is a deep spot in the creek sufficient enough to submerge and bathe. The cold water of early spring shocks my body awake and intensifies my senses. Oh, how glorious and refreshing is the feeling of being alive. Walking through the forest discovering anew my surroundings, I am willingly lulled into a fully relaxed state. Every tree, bush, vine, and flower I pass reach out to tenderly caress and welcome me. I feel safe. While running my hands along the hewn logs that make up the house and barn, I indulge my imagination to make myself a skilled craftsman participating in building this farm in all of its order and raw beauty.
The food I prepare in the open-hearth is glorious. Sweet and tender morsels dance on my tongue and succulent bites melt in my mouth. Pure water from the deep well cleanses my system. Occasionally I pluck a blade of grass or another early green plant to chew and add to my stew of satisfying tastes.
As the second day passes into evening I see a figure approaching. It is my dad stirring from his six years of rest to visit with me, listen to my story, and share his wisdom. Watching him drift back into the night and his silhouette carried away on a whiff of wind strangely leaves me comforted and reassured.
The morning finds me preparing for the trip home. Passing through the gate onto the single lane path I carry the effects of my “happy place” with me in my mind and spirit. In and out of the creek I begin to retrace the steps of my journey. The card-cut-out man faithfully watches from his window and waves a friendly “goodbye.” Onto the gravel road and past the grazing animals and recently planted fields, I feel rested and revived. The paved county road falls behind me as I turn onto the state highway. On the other side of the two-door town, I stop to patronize the little store. I am blessed with a hearty welcome, friendly banter, and make a courtesy purchase of something that looks promising. Before I merge onto the federal highway I acknowledge the contentment I feel and give thanks to my Creator.
As I pass through the little town, it demonstrates its vitality as Sunday afternoon pleasures and activities abound. Moving past the nature guarded homes and not-so-lonely-after-all businesses; I make my way with confidence toward the busy interstate. It feels friendly today as I confidently glide with the traffic. The city welcomes my arrival and home embraces my entrance. All is at peace. All is at rest.
*picture from tinyhousetalk.com