In Zen there is an adage that says to do one thing at a time. Finish what you are doing before starting the next thing.
I learned the true power of this, once, during a particularly stressful time. It was a time of emotional crisis, when I found myself operating from a place of fear and worry, unlike anything I had known before. I found myself jumping from one worrisome thought to another, before any single thought could be adequately processed by my mind-body system. Each new thought would ramp up the tension in my body, and, instead of taking the time to slow down and feel it, and allow that tension a natural release, I found myself spinning off into the next worrisome thought before the first one was even truly complete.
This destructive thought pattern had all of my intuitive health alarms going off. Stacking tension, on top of tension, on top of tension, I knew this pattern could cause me serious harm if I allowed it to continue.
Thankfully, interrupting the cycle was actually quite straight forward. It involved slowing down, enough to allow the feelings and physical sensations that were in my body, at that moment, to be recognized and given the space needed to settle. The technique I used, based in yoga, is also validated by modern understanding of the nervous system as well as some types of trauma work.* It wasn't hard, and who among us can't use another tool for an emotional and spiritual reset during a time of stress?
What was this magic cure? I simply retreated to a quiet area, and lay down in Shavasana, the rest one takes at the end of a Yoga class. (See below for full instructions.**) By bringing my attention to any physical sensations, and allowing them to be what they were, I could begin to relax. I could begin to sink into the support of the floor beneath me. As I lay there, in a growing sense of allowing, I was allowing my nervous system to drain out the stress that it had accumulated. (I was also allowing myself to enter into a growing sense of wholeness, more on that in a bit.)
It is well understood in exercise science, that the nervous system requires ample time to de-activate. It is also well understood by yogis that taking Shavasana works, in this regard, reliably.
What is less understood, is that emotional strain, stress, even joyful excitement, also activate the nervous system, and, just as you would after exercise, a period of well timed and sufficient rest is required to allow the system to de-activate and return to balance. We can't get our system all worked up, and then just tell ourselves, "I'm relaxed!," before running off to do the next thing, if we want to operate from a place of balance. It simply doesn't work that way. We have to actually provide the space for the deactivation to be allowed to happen.
A bicycling accident I had in college illustrates this point well. I had been riding my bike up to a stop light, when the passenger door of a car unexpectedly flew open, caught the handlebar of my bike, and caused me to wipe out. It wasn't a bad accident; I might have had a single bruise as a result. But the surprise of wiping out onto the pavement naturally caused a strong activation of my nervous system. I told the people I was fine, and as the light changed to green, we all went on our way... but I soon realized that saying I was fine, and actually being fine were two different things; I really just needed to give myself a minute! (Or ten, or twenty! Whatever it takes.) So I pulled over to a patch of green and sat in the shade. I felt my body shaking. I allowed some tears to come and go. I took the time I needed to simply be, in my body and in my experience. And then I was fine!
This is about finishing the process. Allowing the completion of our cycle of getting worked up. Physically, it is a deactivation of the nervous system. To the spirit, it is far more.
For, shavasana also provides (and here's a bit of Psychosynthesis theory), a chance to come into balance with all 6 of our psychological functions. By being caught up in my thoughts, I was in crisis not because thinking is inherently bad, but because I was cut off from the spectrum of wisdom that is my fully functioning psyche. For we know ourselves not just through thinking, but through the body, through the emotions, through the guiding pull of desire, through the imagery of imagination...and, ultimately, by really clearing the slate so that the insight of intuition has a chance to be heard through any of these functions.
Bringing attention to the sensations of the body during Shavasana is almost always the easiest first step out of the gravitational-like pull of an overactive thinking function. Or, perhaps the grip of another function; in grief, for instance, our emotions can really dominate. When we bring out attention to noticing, and fully allowing, our physical sensations to be what they are, we are taking a step out of any overactive function, and we can then enter a more receptive state, guided by intuition, which will naturally lead our attention through any neglected psychological functions. Whatever is waiting for your attention, a new insight, an emotional awareness, a growing sense of purpose...these have the opportunity to arise, as we step out of the dominant function, and simply enter our wholeness through the grounded awareness of our bodies. We don't need to try, this is just what happens. After exertion, whether physical, mental, emotional, we simply "take rest." By doing so, we come into our wholeness.
That difficult day of thinking anxious thoughts was a great blessing for me, because I learned so much, not just about how to handle my stress, but about cycles of activity, taking rest at the end of any cycle, and by doing so, finding the point of peace amidst the activity.
By bringing awareness, to body, mind, and emotions, as sensations arise, and by allowing time for the full integration and completion of the cycles of activity, we can not only stop anxiety and stress, but we can enter our true wisdom. We become like a mountain. Rooted enough to be able to handle life's storms. And also elevated enough to enjoy the heights at the same time.
*Special thanks to Sara Vatore, who has generously shared with me, based on her years of training in Somatic Experiencing, insights into how the nervous system works, and how the body processes trauma. This article is inspired by my conversations with her. I believe she would want me to note that, as effective as focusing on the body's sensations can be for releasing trauma/nervous-system-activation, it is not recommended for all kinds of trauma.
**Instructions for Shavasana
Lay down in a dim, quiet place. Bring your shoulders up to your ears, back toward the floor, then lock them down once again. (This will bring a protective arch into the lower back, to allow one to comfortably extend the legs and arms.) Lay with your legs slightly opened, and your arms as well. Feel the support of the floor, and let your body begin to sink into that support. Notice the sensations in your body. Allow them to be what they are. Breath deeply, allowing the belly to rise and fall. Stay here for ten minutes, or until you feel rested.