Relaxing into the Hard Times

I recently found myself between a rock and a hard place.  Literally…. Between a rock … and, well, another rock…. Trying to shimmy and squeeze my way down the narrow crack, hovering 10 feet over a pool of murky water, held only by the tension of my body between two sandstone walls.


It was by choice, kind of.  My partner and I decided to hike a couple of slot canyons in Utah, successfully navigated one, crossed overland and dropped into the second one, and … well, it was a bit more than we had bargained for.  So here I was, stuffed between two rocks, trying to control my frantic breathing, my shaking legs, and even more frantic mind, talking out loud to myself (“It’s okay.  Okay.  You’ll be okay. Okay”) and gazing down at what seemed like certain death below me.

Now, I must confess that while I had a ‘climbing phase’ as a young adult, I am quite afraid of heights, falling, breaking my bones, etc., and tend to not manage my emotions very well when I get really scared.  And, after having already squeezed, shimmied, jumped, balanced, and dropped over one ledge with a rope, my nervous system was pretty well taxed by the time we got to this particular “problem.”

stone between canyon wallsBut, like a good therapist, I pulled out all of my skills:  I was using my breath, and making the exhale longer (this ‘lights up’ the parasympathetic and calms the nervous system); I used some EMDR-esque self-tapping to strengthen feelings of strength and grounded-ness; I had spontaneously found my mantra and positive self talk, “Okay.  I will be okay.” (who said it had to be something fancy?); AND I used my container to put away the fear until we got out and I was in a better place to let it process through.

And, then, here’s the thing:  when we are confronted by fear, and our systems are not resourced enough, I believe our true nature emerges.  And my true nature – I’m not going to lie – is to panic and freak out.  To push against the discomfort and to try to get to safe ground as quickly as possible.  The irony is, this doesn’t work when you are stemming between rocks; what holds you securely is the natural tension of your body between the rocks, so if you push away, you are actually much less secure.  Instead, you need to lean into the rocks, to actually relax into them – and this is where you find your most calm and stable position from which to navigate your next move.

canyonAs human beings (bless our hearts!) we spend so much energy pushing against our own lives, trying to avoid the pain and discomfort and fear, and grasping towards some sense of certainty or solid ground.  On this same trip I was reading the words of Pema Chödrön, who very eloquently speaks to this human conundrum, naming the root of our suffering as “our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation.”  She continues:

“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness.  When we resist change, it’s called suffering.  But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness.  Another word for this is freedom – freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human” (Chödrön, 2012, p. 6)

freedom by balonja on stockxchange
“freedom” by balonja on stockxchange

What if …? What if we could just relax into our difficult circumstances?  Perhaps we would find, paradoxically, a place to rest, support, and a solid place from which to make our next move.  I encourage you to look at the places in your life where you find yourself pushing away from your present moment experience, and instead, to lean into that moment, that experience, and let it unfold, let it support you.

“leaning in” with the breath – a practice

Fortunately, we have so many opportunities during the day to notice ourselves pushing away from our actual experience, and to recognize the choice to do something different – to relax into it instead.  Here is a simple mindfulness practice:

  1. Notice yourself resisting your situation, emotion, experience – that is, avoiding discomfort or reaching towards pleasure (easier said than done, I will admit)
  2. Create a “Pause,” to tune in to the present moment.
  3. Take three deep breaths, and just notice what is there.  Be curious.  Practice elongating the out-breath, and finding just a little more space to open up and relax.

 “We have a choice.  We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.”  (Chödrön, 2012, p. 14)

 Recommended Reading: 

  • Chödrön, Pema (2012).  Living beautifully with uncertainty and change.  Boston, MA:  Shambhala Press.
  • Chödrön, Pema (2010).  Taking the leap: Freeing ourselves from old habits and fears.  Boston, MA:  Shambhala Press.