Word Magazine April 2001 Page 5-6
LEARNING TO RELAX
LEARNING TO PRAY
By George Aquaro
I’m sure everyone reading this has heard it said a million times, “You must pray daily.” Some people will tell you that you are not Orthodox unless you use their prayer book, while others will insist that you can’t be saved without a prayer rope tied around your wrist. Two hours, four hours, six hours: we are lectured at about how long each day to spend in prayer. If you are like me, then maybe you can relate; I can’t seem to put five minutes together of uninterrupted prayer. Thoughts come in, the phone rings or I just can’t sit still. Prayer is just another burden to carry when I’m already overworked. It is embarrassing to say that I don’t like to pray because it feels so uncomfortable.
My problem is that I don’t know how to relax. I want to do my job, read three books at the same time, build a shelving unit, write an e-mail to a friend, all at the same time. Very often I am anxious about my future and my present at once. Memories of past events swirl through my head and I begin to panic, wondering if I am making the same mistakes all over again. If this is my day, I can’t possibly drop all this and expect to enter peaceful prayer. I must relax first.
Our fathers and mothers (maybe grandfathers and grandmothers for some) didn’t have the easy life we lead now. They worked hard, often physically. The tension over worries they experienced were often burned off in heavy labor. These days, we tend to lead lives of physical ease, with no healthy vents for our frustration and stress. This built-up energy must come out, and it leaks out by frustrating our ability to concentrate and be still. So, if I want to pray and be at peace, I first have to get rid of stress in my body and my mind. This is a long process, and I am still only in the early stages of dealing with my stress in a healthy way. But, I am already experiencing breakthroughs which I hope to share with you. Here are the steps I consider to enjoy more peace in my life:
1) Realize that stress is hurting me. Maybe I’ve already had a heart attack or I suffer from high blood pressure. That is my body’s response to the stress I am placing myself under. Stress eats away the body when it cannot motivate me to take the right actions. When left with an unsolvable problem, the brain targets parts of the body and focuses the stress on a single organ. Whamo! A heart attack or an ulcer develops.
2) Take time to find the sources of my stress. Even though it might feel like everything is a source of irritation and threat, spending a little time thinking about what I am really worried about will yield very helpful information. I may discover that only one or two things that I can’t control are gnawing at me, but they are serious enough to change my personality and behavior completely.
3) Remember that God can help if I learn to trust Him. God wants us to have peace. He also wants what is best for us. Do I think He is torturing me for fun? Of course not. Then, there must be something to learn from our stressful situations. Maybe it is only to trust Him. I try to think about how things would be better if I really trusted God to take care of my problems. Wouldn’t life be easier if I believed God is taking care of all my worries? The truth is that He is. Now, I can see that most of my troubles come from not trusting God. If I desire to change this, God will give me strength to change.
Now that I have come to the stage where I know that I need to trust God and that my life is filled with stress I need to get rid of, what do I do? In some cases, due to past trauma, I may need to work with my priest or a counselor to help deal with my stress. Advice is always good when it comes from someone reliable that I can trust.
But, I must also learn to relax on a daily basis. I have to take time out once or twice a day to relax and step back from all the stress and worry to which I subject my body. It will take a whole life of practice to totally trust God and not experience stress, so I can expect that stress will naturally be in my life. What I can do is reduce the quantity of stress, and learn to stop stress once a straining situation is over with.
1) Pick a time (or times) during the day to get rid of stress and relax. If I am going to limit the effects of stress in my life, I’m going to have to set regular times to relax and remind myself of God’s efforts to protect me. Maybe in the morning before I go to work and in the evening before I go to bed (so I can sleep without a pill). Experts agree that I should do this before a meal, since digestion often makes concentrating difficult. Also, I can’t drink a lot of coffee or caffeinated soda before trying to relax!
2) Shut out the world. This means no TV and no phone. I must pick a room to be by myself. If there is too much noise in the room from outside, I can turn on a noisy fan or something which will make “gray noise” to block out the world. The object is to get rid of distractions.
3) Practice breathing. I take deep breaths using the stomach and not the shoulders. Breathe in, counting to three, hold it for one count, then out with three and hold for one. I regulate my breathing, and my body will begin to relax. Focus on the breathing and I will find fewer stray thoughts. When thoughts come, I let them pass and keep focused on breathing.
4) Pull the knots out. I should be sitting in a comfortable chair (lying down might put me to sleep once the tension is gone, so I have to be careful) and, starting with my feet, tense my muscles and then relax them. This will help remove tension in the muscles. I tense them as I inhale and release them when exhaling. I have to work each muscle as long as it takes to relax. I can’t forget the face muscles! They carry as much stress as the neck and shoulders often do. I have to keep focused on regulating my breathing and the muscles I am relaxing.
5) Concentrate on one thing. Now that I have removed all the stress from my muscles and regulated my breathing, I can concentrate much better. At this point I can then concentrate on something which builds my faith in God and brings me peace. Maybe an icon of the Theotokos, or the name of Jesus. The Jesus Prayer is my own preference. I can do this for as long as I want. If I find it too difficult to keep focused, I return to counting my breathing. I try to stay in this state for 10-15 minutes, or longer if I can. With time, I find it easier to remain relaxed and focused for longer periods.
6) Gradually come out of it. I don’t try to end this session too quickly. I should give myself time to come out of it slowly; gradually moving muscles and slowly opening my eyes before getting up is best. Then I enjoy the peace! You may not believe it, but I’ve just prayed! Prayer is not a burden after all, but a wonderful chance to enjoy the peace and love of God in the midst of a busy schedule. Prayer is not one more thing for us to do. In fact, it is a “break,” almost a mini-vacation.
Once I have learned to relax, the spiritual life that everyone talks about is now mine. Not only that, but my attitude changes. The world seems easier to deal with. I may stress out, but I get over it much more easily now. I urge you to try this if you are having the same difficulties with prayer that I have. It really works! If you are interested in learning more about stress, the book I use is A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response by George S. Everly, Jr. Don’t let stress separate you from God!