“The greater the tension, the greater is the potential.”
— Carl Jung
When I first began to write this article it took on the voice that tension is ultimately a negative thing. Digging into the topic deeper unveiled a much more fundamental role in the natural world for tension.
Tension allows humans to move and stand upright. It allows us to convert built-up energy into a form of action. It plays a role in mechanics and invention. It can exist between two people as a form of competition, pushing each other to achieve greater things.
In these places, tension is needed. Rather than explore whether tension is bad or good, I believe it better to pursue whether tension is necessary.
I was walking recently, thinking deeply about something, but if you had asked me about what and what thoughts had lead to this intense thinking moment, there was no answer.
Furrowed eyebrows, wrinkles on the forehead, looking straight down at the ground… The tension came from nowhere, it served no purpose and was not necessary. At least in any way that I consciously understood.
It was nature that eventually woke me up. Somehow nature always does a fantastic job of driving attention to the present. I imagine there is some primal piece, deep in our human genome that recognizes ignoring nature can potentially get us killed.
Suddenly I am looking at the trees, rubbing the wrinkles out of my forehead, and marveling at what a beautiful day it is. In this calm state, my thoughts are coherent and smooth and I feel as though I just relinquished loads of mental processing power. My mind begins to pull thoughts off a large mental queue that has built up throughout the day and process each one by one. There is no longer this single random thought hogging all of my CPU and somehow I feel more at peace than I did 2 minutes ago.
It is my hope that you have experienced this moment and if not I can tell you it’s a pretty beautiful state to be in. Once you have addressed all those backed up thoughts in your mental queue things get internally quiet and peace melds into freedom and deep mindfulness. I can focus on my breath, feel my feet on the ground, and be without a worry in the present moment.
Note: I’d like to pause and address something really quickly. This post is not really about productivity or exploiting mindfulness, relaxation, and focus to achieve higher levels of productivity. I have nothing against productivity, but I believe that productivity is at its best when it is a byproduct of peace. You are not measured by the amount you produce, nor tethered to the fact that the modern world glorifies high output as potentially “arriving” somewhere. I undoubtedly glorify high output (mostly not intentional) and it creates loads of tension because I try to pursue too many things at once.
In the words of another…
“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
This post will discuss… the benefits of holding and pursuing mental and physical relaxation throughout the day. It will explore what a good amount of tension is. Lastly, we’ll review techniques for cultivating the habit of relaxation.
For a moment we are going to do a little exercise and while we are doing it we will explore our capacity to think and recall. If you are injured or might be at risk from physical activity please refrain from this exercise.
- Begin by squeezing your hands tight, pulling your arms in and squeezing them against your body, then bearing down on your core, and tensing your legs. Increase the tension and contraction so that you are squeezing with everything, as hard as possible.
- Tell me what you had for breakfast?
- Keep squeezing harder and harder.
- Who is the president?
- Keep squeezing as hard as you can.
- Whats 7 * 8?
- Let it all go and relax.
- What’d you have for dinner last night?
Maybe it was hard for you to come up with answers quickly when putting out effort and easier after relaxing, maybe it wasn’t. If someone asked me to deliver a time estimate for a particular feature while I was running an all-out 400m dash, I would either give up on the thinking and keep running, or I would slow down and think about the estimate.
Obviously what I mentioned above are the extremes, but even on a small, not extreme scale, when the mind asks the body to do something, even if it is as simple as wiggling a finger up and down, the action requires some level of exertion or CPU from the mind to execute on it. That tension, however small, demands a portion of your ability to think and process.
What if you had so much tension that the brain did not have any available resources to process thoughts, it simply paused processing all new information. You are left pondering something in an endless loop, which when finally broken, leads you to think about what or why you were pondering that thought in the first place.
What does it mean?
I believe that by relaxing the body you’ll burn less physical energy, blood will flow to the peripherals easier, you’ll develop less habitual tension patterns, and you’ll release less stress hormone.
Relaxation is like garbage cleanup, you’ll be aware of what is actually flowing through your conscious mind, you won’t get stuck on the random attention grabbers or the unnecessary rabbit holes… you’ll be more aware and free to direct your attention where you please… to let your imagination wander and immerse itself in the action of creation.
Or Not to Relax
What does it mean to be intense?
Is it the brain’s form of tension?
Is it highly focused, emotionally revved up, slightly over the top energetic, or driven?
Some of those are negative and some positive. It’s a slippery slope between too much and too little. Too much tension can cause you to pull a muscle. Too little and there is not enough energy to summit the peak. The Goldilocks of tension is just right.
Create the Goldilocks of tension in a mindful, iterative process that adapts each new day.
For example, at the squat rack, I put on 45lb plates and do a few reps to understand how this feels in my body. Then I put on more, adjust my expectations around how much tension I need to generate, and execute.
On a physical level this is pretty intuitive, but what about a mental level? What if you were doing a task that requires the maximum amount of brain potential… a so-called, mental max? Are you in the right environment to max out? Is your mind fully recovered? Did you do some smaller tasks to assess your readiness for the big task?
Unlike a mental max, failing an attempted physical max out will literally crush you. I would argue that you are much more likely to back out if you are not ready when approaching a physical max than a mental max.
It’s easy to pile another mental task on because it doesn’t carry any weight. The point that I’m trying to make is that a mental task absolutely DOES. If you bust your back you cannot max out the next day, maybe that is the mental equivalent of burn out.
Ask These Questions…
The million-dollar question: Can you come back and do the same thing tomorrow?
The billion-dollar question: Are you leaving feeling accomplished with what you did?
If we don’t have a million dollars we can’t get a billion dollars. If we can’t come back and do the same work tomorrow maybe we’ve overdone it and crushed ourselves. We do not get to ask the billion-dollar question if we have crushed ourselves because that is a bad habit.
Bad Habit: Don’t crush yourself, leave enough in the tank to come back and do the same thing tomorrow.
We want to answer yes to the million-dollar question and yes to the billion-dollar question.
That’s goldilocks tension.
Pursue what is just right… enough work to feel accomplished and relaxed, with the self-knowing that you can wake up tomorrow and do the same thing again with nearly repeatable results. Additionally, allow yourself to be happy with the work you have done. You do not need to crush yourself to say yes to the million-dollar question.
For most, generating tension is not a problem, relaxing is.
How to Relax?
There are a few methods I turn to for creating a relaxed state. Some take more time and produce a deeper state, some are faster and help with eliminating quick tension. The techniques that help with quick tension are ultimately leveraged in creating a deeper state of relaxation. We will explore the quicker techniques first.
Directed Muscular Relaxation
- Draw attention to your left eyebrow, and wiggle it.
- Take a deep breath in.
- Exhale and let your eyebrow sag under the weight of gravity.
Notice the effect this has on the global tension in your forehead. Do the same with your right eyebrow. After both take another deep breath, exhale and notice how you feel… notice your state of mind.
I love this approach because it’s so simple and can be done anywhere. In a stressful meeting, conversation, or working on a stressful assignment? Do this every 5–10 min, it only takes seconds. The added benefit of this technique is that when applied to these situations it will pull you out of emotional reactivity and put you in a relaxed space to think about the issue as the details are coming in.
Have trouble focusing on your eyebrows? Pick any piece of your body, cheeks, ears, eyes, nose, forehead, hands, arms, legs. It all works!
Breathing Techniques and 4–7–8 Breathing
Breath is a very common tool for generating mindfulness and relaxation. This technique, similar to above, can be leveraged at any time of the day.
Simple Mindful Breathing: The most simple application of this is to close one’s mouth and monitor the feeling of the breath as it enters and leaves the nose. Take slow deep inhales and exhales 5 times.
4–7–8 breathing: The numbers correspond to seconds and each number is a different phase of the breath.
- Start with a 4-second inhalation through the nose. (try not to force in too much air, keep the inhale natural)
- For 7 seconds hold the breath. (try technique 1 here and play with relaxing different muscles during the 7 count hold)
- For 8 seconds exhale slowly through the mouth. (pursing the lips helps, otherwise, air will release too fast and the exhale will complete before the 8-second count is up)
4–7–8 is great when switching contexts in daily life. Finished a task? Do 3 rounds of 4–7–8 before moving on the next one and your head will be clear. Often doing a single round of this makes me want to smile.
Just lie on the ground and relax. Easy peasy.
Getting it to actually work requires a bit of process.
- Lie on the ground
- Set a timer for 15-20 min
- Repeat techniques 1 (Directed Muscular Relaxation) and 2 (4–7–8 Breathing) until you either pass out or are really relaxed.
Doing nothing is a skill acquired through practice. When doing lying relaxation its important to give the mind something to do as you bring it into relaxation. Just lying there will not lead you to relaxation if you are new to it. You must first release the tension in the body and process the backlog of thoughts before the mind will have peace.
Alternate techniques 1 and 2
- Start with lying on the ground and directing muscular relaxation to the feet and toes.
- Then do a 4–7–8 breath.
- Repeat this process all the way up the body, legs, belly, arms, neck, and head.
- Once you have touched on every point simply focus on the flow of air in and out of the nose, and the rise and fall of the belly.
If you are tired chances are you will pass out until the timer rings, which is 100% ok. Otherwise, this practice may cultivate a great space for calm thinking or reflection. Thoughts from the backlog can pull you from your relaxed state, if you feel tension start to build up then simply repeat technique 1 or 2 to come back to peace.
Remember, in a relaxed state you choose what thoughts you wish to entertain. If suddenly you remember that you need to feed the dog, kindly dismiss it for another 10 min. Occasionally pressing things come up, or novel thoughts arise that I want to remember. It is helpful to have a small notebook or paper to jot something down on. Once I’ve removed it from my brain to paper I lie back down and repeat the techniques.
Disconnect From Technology and Spend Time in Nature
This one is really simple and awesome.
Leave all forms of technology at home and go for an all-day hike. Multiple days makes it better. You will burn off some physical energy and experience the replenishing qualities of nature all without the ability for your mind to be distracted by repeated notifications and technology habits.
Doctors in places like the UK and Scotland have the ability to prescribe time in nature to their patients suggesting that somewhere out there is research that shows positive benefits on a scientific level (not going to dig into this potentially speculative claim though).
The Beautiful Cycle
Ultimately we are all caught in this ever-flowing cycle of energy contraction and expansion.
Toward certain goals the build-up of tension can help propel an individual along a certain path; however too much can debilitate one’s ability to function and create an environment for unexpected blowups.
From a personal perspective, understanding tension as a tool can lead to greater levels of peace and happiness in daily life.
In closing, as with all tools, the more the wielder practices the greater their confidence and expertise grows… eventually one is no longer an unconscious participant in the cycle, but an observer of its beauty.