When Thoreau was on his deathbed, his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God, and he responded, "I was not aware that we had quarreled." Someone else once said—I don't recall the source—that "The most salient characteristic of an enlightened being is not what one might think—having great wisdom, emanating love, and so forth—but rather, that they are completely relaxed."
I have certainly had my share of restful times in hot tubs over the years, and have received countless wonderful and deeply soothing massages, but truthfully, I don't think I have been completely relaxed since I was, oh, say, two hours old.
Actually, come to think of it, those first two hours weren't so great either. On the contrary, I was the youngest person ever to suffer from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Syndrome; it came over me just moments after a rather terrifying and sudden expulsion from the safety and comfort of my cozy room, the only home I'd ever known, to be sent God-knows-where. Talk about a rude awakening. And now that I'm older and finally beginning to grasp where in fact I was sent, I believe that my response to being born was quite appropriate to the situation. Apart from the trauma of getting evicted, given the nature of what goes on here on this planet, birth is a bitch.
That's why, back in the New Age days of yore, Leonard Orr created "Rebirthing," a technique that uses deep and continuous breathing in order to regress and relive one's birth trauma and heal that primal wound, that original separation from what we knew to be the very source and home of our Being before we were summarily dumped off in a completely bizarre situation. As another figure from that era, Stewart Emery, once said, "Nobody told us when we were born that we were coming to the lunatic asylum of the galaxy."
Many spiritual systems would assert, however, that the actual birth process is only a physical mirror of a more primordial sense of separation that lives in our consciousness itself, a misperception of an illusory ego believing itself to stand alone and apart from the "All and the Everything," the "Unified Cosmic Field" that underlies and is the very stuff and substance of Being and existence. The birth process just makes the situation worse, because we retain a cellular memory of that original state we knew in the womb of absolute safety, the bliss of unity, and complete relaxation (barring cruel and unusual neonatal incidents); from that moment on, anything short of those feelings is never quite enough, and a perpetual sense of suffering and dissatisfaction—subtle or not-so-subtle—fuels the forward motion of our lives.
Those of us traveling a spiritual path have become more consciously aware of this basic, fundamental disturbance in our core, goading us onward toward an elusive goal that seems forever out of reach. And since the womb is obviously no longer available, we've spiritually upgraded the object of our yearning to God or Awakening, striving for union with the Divine, dissolving into the Light, merging with the Beloved, to open our hearts, get enlightened, or one of a myriad variations along those lines. A traditional description of this journey compares it to a fish in search of water; if the fish would just stop swimming around for a second and completely relax and be still, it might have a better chance of recognizing that it is always-already residing in the very place for which it is relentlessly searching. Every step towards the goal is actually a step away from it. Perhaps that explains those annoying Zen masters who are always saying, "There is nowhere to go and nothing to do." (Meanwhile, they sit on cushions staring at the wall for 40 years to prove the point!)
But actually, Zen, as well as many other spiritual paths, advise us to meditate, not to get anywhere, but to "be still and know," to re-cognize that our essential nature is already present and exists prior to our egoic identity and the concomitant underlying intimation that something's not quite right, that we're not quite okay, and that we need to do something to remedy the situation, ASAP. Again and again we are told by those in the enlightenment business that we need only "Rest in the Present Wholeness of your True Nature," that which lives outside of time and precedes even the womb; for who we really are, we are advised, is completely independent of this merely temporal residence in a body/mind.
And if being Eternal and not constrained by a body/mind isn't relaxing, I don't know what is! But what would being "completely relaxed" actually feel like, while we are here? This is how I imagine it:
1) Someone who is completely relaxed would probably never need Valium to take the edge off. The edge is off. (I refilled my RX today.)
2) There would either be a complete absence of fear and worry, particularly the fear of death, or, when fear or worry did arise, one's Relaxed Self would somehow remain unruffled, not worried about being worried, not fully identified as the one who is scared. And to take it one step further, even if this person did identify as the fearful one, and did get ruffled, he or she would be relaxed about that state of affairs as well. In other words, this dude is really mellow about "what is," no matter what's going on, inside or out.
3) The Completely Relaxed Ones would be free of the core, egoic disturbance of imagined separation from Source, and so would be likewise released from the driving force to "become"—anything—so there would be no anxiety-stricken movement toward a future that held out any promise for some anticipated state or situation that might arrive "someday" and improve the quality of their lives in any way. As Werner Erhard once bluntly put it to me, staring right into my eyes, "There isn't ANYTHING that is EVER going to come along that is going to make you happy. NOTHING. Getting that is the entrée into the system in which the truth lies, for the truth is always and only found now, in the circumstances you've got." That was quite sobering news for a truth-seeker.
It is also why "now" has become so popular; just "this," whatever is present right now, is considered to be the opportune moment—indeed, the only moment—and when we completely relax into that understanding, we will experience the present as sufficient, complete and satisfying. Or beyond merely "sufficient," the present moment, were we to gaze upon it with eyes "unclouded by longing," would be seen to be permeated by unfathomable mystery and unspeakable beauty. We are tripping over God with every step we take.
4) This possible human I'm constructing would have a deep and innate trust in the unfolding process of life, filled with a seemingly naïve and childlike certainty that we live in a benevolent universe and therefore, as Julian of Norwich asserted,
All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
If we experienced that to be an absolutely true statement, we'd be a lot more laid-back about all the evidence that appears daily to dispute that claim. We'd be relaxed and fundamentally okay with the moment-by-moment, unfolding life stories of everyone everywhere, both the good and the horrible, including those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune aimed directly at us. Recognizing the providential perfection of the moment, however, does not at all preclude experiencing a natural, effortless compassion for those in pain and suffering, as well as a deep desire to help. Or at the very least, we'd be committed to not making things worse for anyone while we're here. That seems like a reasonable goal for the likes of most of us.
But who among us will ever fulfill all these criteria? After 57 years of being more or less a nervous wreck about this whole living thing, it would be somewhat of a shock and a gift of Grace if I was suddenly free of fear and the race against time to "become" something or somebody, and just completely relaxed into a felt sense of satisfaction and joy with things "just how they are," in harmony with the "Way of Things," as Taoism describes it. I don't think I would recognize myself. Or perhaps that way of being would be more familiar to me than my own face.
I have learned this much: the meaning of the word "practice" in the phrase "spiritual practice" is exactly that: it's not something we do to get somewhere, change ourselves or become anything. It's to practice just being here, however things are. When we meditate, we're not trying to attain a better state of mind, although that is obviously pleasant and welcome when it happens. Rather, we are practicing the act of simply sitting and being relaxed with any and all mind states or life situations, all of which are forever changing and temporary, coming and going, including our bodies. As Dharma teacher Christopher Titmuss put it, "We are looking for that in us which does not arise or pass away." We sit inside a boundless, impartial, endlessly empty container—we are a Vast Viewing Station—inside of which all of life continues to strut about with great fanfare and drama...signifying nothing.
It just might be that the ultimate spiritual teaching, were we one day to come face to face with a Great Awakened One, would simply be, "Hey, take it easy. Chill."
And on the seventh day, God said, "Relax."