How To / Relax

Excerpt from the Dharma talk by Sister Chan Duc (Sr. True Virtue) on 7 January 2024 in Lower 
Hamlet, Plum Village France

Relaxation and Stress Go Together

Thay said that stress is a great cause of suffering in our time. Someone who is under prolonged stress is endangering their own physical and psychological health and may say and do things that can cause damage to those around them. This is a reason why we see the importance of knowing how to relax.

At the same time we know that stress is a very necessary part of our makeup; relaxation and stress go together. Relaxation is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system and stress is connected to the sympathetic nervous system; they balance each other out. 

Sr. Chan Duc shares her insights

The Black Bird

This morning when I was leaving my room I saw a black bird. It was sitting on top of a plant that my sister planted and happily eating all the berries on the plant. On the one hand, the bird really wanted to have its breakfast but on the other hand it saw me coming so it looked and it may have thought ‘when she gets close I will go quickly and but for now I just have to eat as many berries as I can before she gets here’. I was asking myself ‘how close do I have to get’ and actually I got closer than I thought and then suddenly the bird went very fast.

Black bird assessing conditions

The Science of Stress

The way the bird reacted has something to do with stress. Somehow a message gets sent from the hypothalamus and the message gets sent to a tiny little gland just under the hypothalamus. This gland is called the pituitary gland. It’s only the size of a chick but when it gets the message from the hypothalamus ‘something dangerous is upon us’ it will send a hormone into the blood and that is called cortisol.

This hormone is sent into the blood and reaches the adrenal gland which is on top of the kidney and the adrenal gland sends out the adrenaline. The adrenaline makes the heartbeat fast. In the case of the bird – it sends the blood to the wings and the eyes of the bird which really needs to see where it’s going and blood in its wings to fly away. 

In our case it will send the blood to our legs and our arms and our eyes. We need all the energy in our legs to run away or to maybe fight and this means that we have to take the energy out of other systems in our body.

We take the energy out of the immune system and the digestive system and they close down until they’re not working anymore. It’s not good for us to spend a long time with our digestive system and our immune system not working, is very bad for our health.

In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, smile, release

In the case of the black bird, once I had gone out of the way the black bird relaxed and the parasympathetic nervous system came into play and all the other systems, like the nerves, the digestive system, and the immune system started working again. That is very lucky for the bird as it keeps the bird healthy.

In the case of us humans we get a signal that something is ‘dangerous’ and our heart starts beating quickly, our digestive system and the immune system shuts down and we don’t run away because we are caught in our office, for example. 

We just stay there and let our body suffer and then before our parasympathetic nervous system has really helped us to relax again something else will happen to make us get the stress symptom again. And so the stress builds up in us without us being able to let go of it.

Walk as if your feet are kissing the earth

Relaxing and Releasing Stress

Sometimes we say to the children when we’re teaching them what to do when you are angry, because that is very stressful, ‘when you are angry go outside and run because the blood is in your legs, now you can run and then when you’ve run for a bit the parasympathetic nervous system can start to work again.’

When we teach the adults we say, ‘when you get angry go outside and enjoy the walking meditation’ the walking meditation is also a very good way for you to be able to relax.

The most important thing is, as a practitioner, we recognize ‘now I’m under stress’ and we recognize ‘now I don’t need to be under stress anymore’ and we do something to relax

Even reading an email can bring some kind of stress to you. You are just sitting there, you don’t run away or you don’t fight with the person who sent the email but you feel the stress and at that time you have to know how to bring back relaxation into your body and your mind again. 

Sitting meditation is a time to relax, walking meditation is a time to relax. If you’re sitting in front of your computer and you have some kind of stress, shut off the screen and take care of your stress.

Deep Relaxation
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