To Be or To Do, That is the Question: The Reality of Relaxing

Relax verb : ‘Make or become less tense or anxious.’

The concept of relaxation seems simple really. Everyone’s idea of it might vary slightly but generally we could all agree on what it looks like. ‘Chilling out’, ‘getting some down time’, ‘recharging my batteries’; all those familiar idioms we use interchangeably to paint a picture of relaxation.  And yet, it appears to be one of the most difficult things to do. I have recently found myself in a situation where I have been forced to relax. The very idea seems contradictory. ‘Force’, that is to apply pressure and ‘relax’, to relieve pressure, two opposing terms, put together to form one illogical notion.

Now, that’s not to say I’ve been handcuffed to a chair in a lavender-scented, candle-lit room with meditation muzak on loop. The handcuffs are, of course, metaphorical. I have allowed myself to become so crippled by anxiety that I’ve had to completely ground to a halt.

As I relay this to you, I am sitting on a chair outside. The sun is shining – a rare occurrence. I feel the heat of it against my skin. I observe the gentle breeze and the scent of freshly cut grass. I hear the occasional buzz of a bee doing its part for civilization. I note the cars further afield and imagine all those people coming and going. This scenario sounds like the ideal backdrop for relaxation but, sitting here, a casual observer, I do not feel relaxed; instead, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. Why is that bee working harder than me? You don’t catch bees sitting around observing the noises we make. Surely, I should be in my car heading somewhere important to do something important. How dare I sit by idly and watch the world go by? The handcuffs now feel real. “Let me go and do something.”

I spot weeds, I tear them out (this is my new favourite thing). That breeze is perfect for laundry. There’s the ladder we borrowed from my father-in-law: I wonder could I wash the windows without killing myself? And with these thoughts come the not-so-sudden realisation but rather the stern reminder – I am completely incapable of doing nothing. The closest I can get to this is by putting these frustrations onto paper or, more accurately, my phone because I seem to have lost the ability to function without my phone. No doubt another contributing factor. 

I am, of course, not alone in this plight and daren’t suggest I’m in some way hard done by.  Given the fact that I have two young children, I am offered more “free time” than your average parent thanks to the support of my extended family. And yet, I find myself sometimes under the most pressure when given this opportunity. What can or should I be doing to make the most of this time? I might adopt an unconvincing guise of relaxation and wear a face mask while simultaneously hoovering or take a really long shower but only on the condition that I also clean it. It seems then that time is only well spent when in pursuit of some superficial goal and that it cannot simply be “free”. We are not afforded do not afford ourselves this luxury.

Whether this mind set is human nature or a product of modern day society I do not know – I’d imagine it is a combination of the two. All I know is that given my recent opportunity to relax I have found it almost impossible. When given a choice ‘to be’ or ‘to do’, the latter appears to be the option we’re more comfortable with which, seems to me, a very sad state of affairs.

Unlike that bee and his comrades, who we are so largely indebted to, we were not designed to buzz at a rate of 11,400 times per minute. We’re only human. And with that comes a need to buzz but also a need to just ‘bee’.





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Walking Without Music

Going for a walk to clear your head is not an uncommon suggestion.  With the wind in your hair, the rain on your face and the (very) occasional glimmer of sunshine on your skin, you are at one with the elements and at one with yourself; free to breathe in the fresh air and take in the sights and sounds of the outside world.

Sort of.

Chances are you noticed none of that shit. Bar the rain, of course. There’s no way you weren’t somehow shocked and disappointed that it decided to rain on you, despite the fact that it rains almost EVERY SINGLE DAY in this place.

I realise that I’m going to sound incredibly lazy when I say that I am not a fan of walking. I never have been. I view it as a necessary evil to get from A to B, not some kind of leisure activity in itself. But now that I have a child, I feel obliged to step outside every once in while – to ensure Caleb meets his minimum intake of vitamin D more than anything else. Sure, if the weather’s nice I’m much happier to take a stroll but that isn’t exactly a regular occurrence in drizzly old N.I. One day last week however, when quite possibly experiencing our entire summer, Caleb and I ventured out with little resignation.

Like most ‘walkers’ I insert the headphones, stick on shuffle, and head off totally unaware of what’s going on outside of the song playing. Listening to the music on my iTunes can only be described as a singular experience. During last week’s walk for instance I was greeted by a medley that ranged from The Last of the Mohicans theme song to Haddaway’s ‘What is Love?’ to Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ (my musical taste is admittedly slightly dated). This blend of genres and eras had the effect of creating a rather messy mixture of memories and emotions as opposed to providing some kind of cathartic walking experience akin to the likes of a Robert Frost Poem.

One song might remind you of a loved one who’s no longer with you. Another might bring back memories of an old flame you’d much rather forget. Or one might just painfully force you to remember the time poor Hawkeye lost his brother (The Last of the Mohicans reference). It all depends on the hand that ‘Shuffle’ has dealt you. In any case, if you’re anything like me, you end up feeling less like you’re on a head-clearing walk and more like you’re on some emotionally exhausting trip down memory lane.

This is not necessarily negative. The splendour of music lies in its ability to transport us to forgotten moments of the past; evoking our senses in a much more powerful way than any other medium. In my experience, it’s just simply not conducive to clearing your head. It’s what we do when we explicitly want to ‘feel’ something. Whether you want to wallow in your own self pity alongside Sinead O’Connor or psych yourself up to lyrics of ‘We Will Rock You’, music has the power to flick that emotional switch for you.

Isn’t the whole point of clearing your head though the exact opposite of this; being able to abandon the past, shut out the future and focus on the sheer wonder of the ‘now’. It wasn’t until I took out my headphones and replaced them with the ‘here’ and ‘now’ that I realised how much more relaxing a walk could be. Rather than feeling emotionally fucked by Jeff Buckley, I was free to observe the pleasant chirping of the birds, the occasional outburst of gibberish from my son and the warmth of the sunshine against my pasty skin. I was granted rare permission in the chaos of today’s world to fully focus on what is – not what was or might be.

This is not to say I will be shunning music from now on in favour of chanting ‘Om’ to some unknown deity but rather that when I feel the need to escape, I will do just that. I will put Prince (God rest his soul) on pause until the next emotionally drunken night with the girls and save the sweetness of Simon and Garfunkel for another time. But for those walks – the kind of walks you take when you really need one – I will resist the urge to get lost in the music and instead embrace the breeze, trace my footsteps, and watch the world. After all, sometimes all you need are a few drops of rain and a gust of wind to really clear your head.