by Rabbi Josh
I write this the day after my return from a 10 day spiritual wilderness retreat in the Chiracahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. The experience included a five day solo “sacred passage” in a secluded valley, where our teacher, John Milton, has been taking people for over 30 years. John has created a wonderful spiritual path called the Way of Nature (www.sacredpassage.com), distilled from his many years of solo time in the wilderness, as well as his deep immersion in some of the world’s most profoundly enlightening, earth-connected lineages, such as Taoism, Dzogchen, Tantra, Vedanta and shamanic traditions.
There were many wonderful insights from my experience, but one I’m inspired to share with you now is the profound importance of relaxation on the spiritual path. Yes, relaxation--not something I’ve generally thought of as “spiritual.” I’ve done qigong and tai chi for a number of years, and the first principle of both these systems is: RELAX. Often though, on the spiritual path, we don’t think of the centrality of relaxation. We might be working on cultivating a deeper connection to the Divine, seeking to open our hearts in prayer, to touch stillness in meditation or to remain present and “in the flow” with whatever arises, but until these last 10 days, I had really overlooked the profound value of relaxation as a foundation for all other spiritual practices.
Think of how focused we have become in American spiritual culture on cultivating presence: witness the meteoric rise of mindfulness practice or Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now selling over 2 million copies. These are important developments that are having a profoundly positive effect on our broader culture. Yet, the part of John Milton’s point that really struck me is that “relaxation” is just as much of a core principle in spiritual practice as “presence.” Deep relaxation is not a “side thing” we might do (or not) on the way to the main event of our spiritual life, but is absolutely central and foundational. When we prematurely jump to the cultivation of presence, John argued, the stress, tension and contraction that we habitually hold act as a great barrier to full presence.
He suggested that perhaps our culture emphasizes presence to such a great degree because it is so obviously helpful to work productivity. When we are focused and “in the now,” we are much better at getting the job done. The workforce productivity payoff is not nearly so clear with relaxation; people are generally not yet encouraged to do shivasana (the yoga deep relaxation pose) instead of an afternoon coffee break at the office.
Our most profound and regular Jewish opportunity to cultivate relaxation is, of course, Shabbat. The Hebrew word for deep rest and relaxation is menucha. The Shabbat menucha we celebrate and seek has the sense of deep and restorative rest. As a traditional Shabbat afternoon prayer puts it, “You’ve given us a menucha of love and giving, a menucha of truth and faith, a menucha of shalom and well-being, a menucha of calm and trust. A menucha of wholeness, one You take pleasure in…” (from the siddur).
We need to, and are invited to, take that deep relaxation we cultivate on Shabbos into the rest of the week, and in fact our tradition teaches us to have a little bit of Shabbos in each day.
The core relaxation practice we worked with on our solo/sacred passage was doing a thorough body scan. The instruction was to first scan through the entire body, starting at the head, moving down to the feet, noting and discovering any areas of tension or contraction. Then we would go back to each area we found tension, allow the mind to rest with the tension and gently relax into it, and allow it to soften. Ten minutes would probably be the minimum for this practice. A half hour would be more powerful. If you fall asleep while you’re doing this (as I often do), when you wake up, just pick up where you left off in the body scan.
It is important, if at all possible, to do this practice lying directly on the Earth, or on a natural fiber blanket or mat placed on the Earth. (Synthetic fibers block much of Earth’s vital energy, called chiut in Kabbalah, or chi in the Chinese system.) We can then feel the incredible support of Mother Earth below us, as we feel our tension being received by the Earth and used by her as fertilizer through this wondrous, transformative capacity that She has.
In Kabbalah, Divinity is understood as expressing itself through ten emanations or attributes, know as sefirot. The Earth represents the 10th sefirah, called malchut, and is understood as the full flowering of the Divine creative capacity. So when we are offering up our tension in this way, we can visualize it being received by the Divine as an offering, an offering that liberates us.
Ideally, we can do this relaxation practice at least a few times during the week, and then take some more spacious time on Shabbat to go more deeply into rest and relaxation. If you already have a meditation or prayer practice, this is a simple, yet powerful complement that can open new doors to deepen your practice.
May we all bring a deeper sense of menucha into our often hectic lives!