Relaxation Therapy

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Once upon a time, a client came into the community mental health clinic where I worked, checked in with the receptionist, and, instead of sitting in the waiting room till I came to get her, went straight to the lady’s room and slit her wrist. She had slit her wrists many, many times before and had dozens of hospitalizations for suicide attempts. She was the toughest, most frustrating, most hopeless case known to all the therapists in the clinic, given up on by all, and recently transferred to me. When I heard what she had done, I began to believe she was beyond help, too.

Someone had seen her do it, wrapped her up in paper towels, and ran to get help. They called an ambulance, and, while waiting for it to arrive, brought her to sit in my office. The client was in no mood for talking.

Not knowing what else to do, I led her in a simple relaxation exercise, slowly and softly telling her to breathe in and out, slowly and deeply. Soon the medics were there and they took her away. One thing led to another and I didn’t see her again untill a year or two later. I had taken my car in for an oil change and she had just gotten a job as a mechanic.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that was the last time she had been hospitalized. “I’m sorry I did that,” she said. “As soon as I spoke to your receptionist, I started having a panic attack about having to see another therapist. When I started to breathe the way you taught me, it was gone right away. Whenever I get anxious, I do that breathing instead. I don’t need to try to kill myself anymore.”

That’s why people do relaxation therapy.

The funny thing is, I hate relaxation therapy. Lots of therapists are big on it and, when you go to as many conferences as I do, led by therapists, you’re subjected to a lot of leaders beginning a conference by telling you to close your eyes, get comfortable, and pay attention to your breathing. Some try to lead you on visualizations that include forest glens, peaceful waves on the beach, warm sunshine, and gentle breezes. I want them to get on with what I came to learn and don’t want to be reminded that I’m not at the beach.

Some therapists begin every session that way and make it the cornerstone of their therapy. I don’t do that because I figure my clients come because they want to tell me their story, not to listen to me drone on, boring myself half to death. If they wanted to frolic with the forest animals in a leafy glen, they wouldn’t be sitting in my office. I chose to use relaxation therapy in this case because there was nothing else to do.

Relaxation therapy and its close cousin, mindfulness, is very popular these days. Hardly a week goes by when I do not get a flyer advertising another mindfulness workshop. I got suckered into attending a mindfulness workshop a couple times. The first thing they want me to do is get comfortable and close my eyes.

I’m positive I was not the first therapist to try relaxation therapy out on that client. With as many therapists and hospital visits as she had, she certainly had to endure hundreds of hours of monotonous voices counting down from ten. She may have felt the same way I did about it and never followed along. If she had, and if she had found time to focus on her breathing every day, it might have lowered her baseline anxiety enough so that when something really scary happened, like going to see a new therapist, she wouldn’t freak out. Then, if she did freak out, relaxation would have been second nature.

To be able to relax in any circumstance at a moment’s notice is a skill everyone should have. If you don’t know how to do it, you should learn. It’ll take you five minutes before you catch on and maybe two minutes a day to keep your skills. You don’t need to see a therapist to do it, which is why I still don’t do it very much with clients.

As powerful as relaxation is, I don’t believe it alone is all you need for a thorough life transformation. In my client’s case, there was something else that made the lesson stick. Something much more mysterious and ungovernable.

It’s called kenosis.

Kenosis is a Greek word that means emptying out your own will and replacing it with something new. AA talks about hitting bottom; but just hitting bottom and experiencing consequences is not enough. In my client’s case, she hit bottom many times before and it never did her any good; but this time when she hit bottom and lost her will, something else came along that made more sense and gave her a way to carry on.

She discovered that, by taking a few deep breaths, she could make herself feel a little better. But she never would have known that as vividly as she did had she not first been totally emptied out. The two movements, together, adds up to kenosis.

So, is there such a thing as kenosis therapy? I don’t think there can be. I don’t think you can deliberately let go of your will at will. It has to happen to you for it to be real. When you find yourself at the end of your rope and you let go and grab another rope, you’ve got kenosis.

I also don’t think another person can do it for you. No one can cut you off the rope so you have to grab another one. It would be unethical, not to mention, mean.

By the way, I had my own kenosis moment that day when I felt powerless to help her and tried a therapeutic method I loath. In normal circumstances, I still loath it, but I’ll use it now, before things get real hairy.

I don’t have a website that will link you to your own kenosis experience; but, if you would like to learn to relax click here.