The Secret

April 29, 2009

This was one of the first “real” insights I can remember having. By “real”, I mean that first, I still believe it many years later, and second, it actually pertains to something significant (as opposed to some little technical thing).

Here’s the secret of success in almost everything, in one word: relax.

Nothing more. Relax physically, mentally, emotionally, and you’ll be able to control yourself. If you’re tense, you’re done – you have no control, because the “muscles” (which may be literal muscles if we’re talking physical tension, but may also be metaphorical for mental or emotional tension) are already tied up doing something else.

When I said “almost everything”, I meant it – whether you’re swinging a sword, cooking an omelet, playing a violin, or solving a differential equation, you’ll do it better if you relax.

Physical relaxation is comparatively easy to understand. I imagine that most folks reading this are familiar with this one already, but just in case someone doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, try this: make a fist, and tense the muscles in your arm as much as you can, until your hand trembles. Now, try to throw a punch. Hard, isn’t it? That’s because the muscles that ought to be extending your arm (notably the triceps) are already contracted, and have nowhere left to go. In order to extend your arm, you actually have to relax the muscles that are holding it bent (primarily the biceps). Relaxing muscles in order to cause movement is not a natural thing, so it happens slowly.

Mental and emotional tension are fundamentally the same as physical tension. If you’re concentrating deeply on something, your mind is busy, and therefore not free to deal with anything that happens. It takes a second to “switch tracks”, which is plenty of time to lose a fight. Similarly, if you’re all tangled up being angry and afraid, you can’t react flexibly when circumstances change.

Training physical relaxation is comparatively straightforward – you move, and concentrate on not tensing any more muscles than are required to accomplish the movement. As movements get more powerful, that gets harder (for example, it’s a lot easier to stay relaxed through a step than it is through a kick). As your relaxation improves, your perception of tension gets more sensitive, so it may actually feel like you’re moving backwards (that’s a more general phenomenon, and it’s worthy of a whole post of its own), but if you persist, you can reach a point where you can stay relaxed through almost any movement.

At that point, you have to work on mental and emotional relaxation, which is much harder. Oftentimes, mental and emotional tension manifest as physical tension – if you’re angry and afraid and confused, you’re likely to be tense, and you’re not in any state to calmly evaluate your tension and release it. The best method that I know of for training mental and emotional relaxation is simple experience. It’s a lot easier to stay calm when someone is throwing a punch at your head if you’ve had thousands of punches thrown at your head before and you know you can deal with it.

Experience, unfortunately, only gets you to your “base state” of relaxation. If you’re (mentally) tense when you’re walking down the street, you’re not going to be any calmer in a fight, no matter how much experience you’ve had. The only method that I know of to train relaxation beyond this point is meditation; at some point I’ll post my puny experience in that field, but if you’re looking to train that way, you should get in touch with someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s possible, even easy, to waste countless hours doing meditation incorrectly without getting any benefits at all.

Anybody have anything to add on the topic of relaxation?



  1. […] no way for me to write that down. In general, if you relax enough (see my very first post, The Secret), and do a lot of repetitions, you’ll find it on your own. Once you understand it, you can […]

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I just have a little comment on the topic of mental/emotional tension. You talk about experience as a manner of working with this; that after, say, a thousand punches, a punch has become “normal” and is no cause for stress. However, as you point out, often the state of “normal” already involves quite a bit of tension! (When I say mental tension, I don’t only mean anger/fear etc, but also the good ole’ mind chatter, anticipations, assumptions etc.)
    The best way I’ve found to work with mental/emotional tension is to track it into the physical. I believe our muscles respond very finely to our mental states, and that any emotional tension will have its equivalent into the physical, no matter how subtle. Once I’ve become aware of my mental tension I try to ask myself where I can feel it in the body. Usually I can find it after a bit of searching – even though it’s often in a part of the body where there is a blockage of energy, the parts of the body that’s hardest to feel! Anyway as soon as I can feel it physically, I can work with releasing it by consciously relaxing those muscles. Then I’ll find that my mental activity has stilled as well.
    I suppose that means to say that I agree very much with your statement – that mental/emotional tension is fundamentally the same as physical tension – inseparable!

  3. Sorry it took me so long to approve that comment, I didn’t get a notification on it for some reason. I agree completely – I tend to carry tension in my shoulders, so I make a habit of consciously dropping my shoulders any time I feel stressed. I can’t tell whether it really helps me relax mentally, but it certainly saves me from a lot of back pain caused by chronic tension; hopefully, in a combat situation, that reflex will help to keep me from tensing up and disrupting my structure.

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