I used to teach "relaxation" as part of grade 8 drama curriculum in British Columbia. Whoever came up with this idea was brilliant!
Students would arrive chatty and full of energy---distracted by thoughts of lunch or love interests or just about ANYTHING other than school and I got to say:
OK--let's turn out the lights, lie on the floor and play - who can be quiet the longest!
The only other person who had it that good was the gym teacher who could start each class with laps and physically crush any excessive hyperactivity from their prepubescent bodies.
At first, I tried using soft music or nature sounds and asked them to breathe in and out, tensing and then releasing various parts of their body. This is called progressive muscle relaxation and while it worked well, I could sense the students got bored of this after a few sessions and started to get distracted.
When I asked for feedback on what the challenges were, the majority complained it was boring and their mind just started to wander.
HOW TO FOCUS A SCATTERED MIND
I did a bit of reading on relaxation and discovered a variety of scripts that could be used to "guide" people through the relaxation process by asking them to engage either their imagination or memory of physical spaces, smells, textures, sounds and flavors.
For those having a hard tie focusing on "nothing" this offered a great alternative. It allowed for the brain to keep busy but in a focused way, and it seemed fairly easy to change up the script depending on what you hoped to accomplish.
The first few weeks had challenges. Some kids found this technique helpful and immersed themselves in each scenario presented. Images and memory elicited the same brain responses as if they were real and flooded with calming brain chemistry, they were more relaxed, focused and productive for the rest of the time I had with them.
Most kids could relate to a known state: ie. imagine you are cozy and warm in your bed on a weekend morning when you have nothing to do.
However, when asked to imagine things outside their experiences they would get frustrated and shut down.
GOING BEYOND THE COMMON EXPERIENCE
I countered, by starting relaxation with a common memory or image and then slowly adding in pieces that might stretch their imaginations ever so gently.
I might start them off in their nice warm bed and then ask them to think about something they would like to accomplish; with family, or friends, or at school or sports or personally. I would ask them to envision themselves doing whatever it was they wanted to accomplish successfully while grounding them in the image of the safe place. Over time, we even tackled thing that made them frustrated, angry, problems they wanted to let go of and fears they had.
After each session, I would provide them with some time to journal and if they wanted, to share what they had experienced. Some kids gravitated to the process easily, some struggled at first but by the end of a four month period, EVERY ONE of them looked forward to these relaxation opportunities.
CAN RELAXATION BECOME MEDITATION?
Little did I realize at the time, we were really doing relaxation and meditation and as I taught drama sometimes 3 times a day, I was getting a very healthy dose of it myself.
This is where I solidified my own images that I draw on even now when I am looking for my "happy place" (eventually we moved beyond our comfy beds to identify other places that were calming.)
Some kids had memories of trips or weekends at the beach or laying out on their roof in the winter before snowboarding off (yeah, some kids did that).
Other kids drew on fictitious places they had read about in books or seen in movies.
We brought in pictures showed video clips to share our ideas which helped some and horrified others.
How can you find scuba diving relaxing! You could get eaten by a SHARK!
Kids experimented with sound. Rain. River. Waves. Hairdryer. Crickets. Train. Car engine. Wind chimes. Bells. Birds.
We even experimented with taste and smell.
With the room dark and students relaxed, mindfully smelling, feeling and then tasting--lemons! (Thinking about it even now causes me to pucker). It was not long before they could recreate the physical response, salivating, lips pursed in if I walked them back through the experience.
Then we each brought in something delicious. We looked first, smelled second and finally a small bite; rolling it around on our tongues. As with the lemons, focusing on the experience would bring smiles and sighs and grumbling bellies as they recreated the experience and the brain responded as if it was real; releasing chemicals that stimulated pleasure responses.
Our brains are AMAZING things.
SO WHY DON'T WE JUST THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS ALL THE TIME?
It would be great if we could spend our days imagining we are doing something that makes us feel good, or better yet, actually DOING something that makes us feel good but life doesn't work that way.
Work, home, family, friends....they are independent of us and therefore impossible to control. Stress at work or home often triggers the fight or flight chemicals that have no where to go---and our cells and organs are put through the ringer trying to manage the chemicals bombarding our system.
You can't exactly run away from your boss ---or punch him/her in the face---well you can but most of us stick it out, trying desperately to manage the physical response of our body!
So while finding that "happy place"---that delicious food---that soothing music---won't make our boss more understanding or our family all understand and accept each other in love, it can help you manage your reaction to these things.
And really, that is all we have.
We can't control others. We can't make them change either. The only thing we can do is have some sort of control over how we respond to the stressful moments in our life.
Because there will be some. A bunch of them. Sometimes more than not. Other times you might float along on the easy-breeze, but don't kid yourself....SHIT HAPPENS.
What I didn't know, when I taught all those years of drama, was that those classes with relaxation kept me grounded!
And it makes sense that seven years into my teaching career when they took those classes and gave them to someone else, and eliminated the classes I had developed myself that were an extension that I loved to teach, I felt like someone had thrown a rock through my life.
I walked out on a Friday afternoon--after discussions with the principal and vice principal ---unable to manage the tsunami of emotion---and I shut down.
I never went back---except to clean out my desk some six month later.
In between I saw doctors, had counselling an took medication. I was shattered into a million pieces and it took a long time for me to find the pieces and start to put myself back together.
Talking about it helped. Writing helped too. So did finding a way to take back some control by finding a new passion.
Thing is, changing yourself is almost as impossible as changing others. Almost.
I went back to school, got my Masters degree in Library and Information Science (while raising a five year old), met the Spouse, changed careers, had a baby and found myself back it the same spot in my new career. Things got taken away--which felt like parts of me--and the pieces left weren't enough to hold me together.
I went off work for two years.
And then I went back....to see if I could....
......and I could.......
and I did.
For over a year.
Until it changed again. And I am home once more -- trying to remove head from wall (where clearly I continue to bang it, hoping something else happens besides a headache......), using the network of mental, physical and spiritual resources I gathered three years ago in hopes of keeping the blackness away.
And this is part of the process.
Write it down. See it there. Read the words. Untangle the "stuff". Look for the patterns. Find a new path.....
...that includes a way to make relaxation, imagery and meditation who I am, not what I do.....