In a progressive muscle relaxation meditation, the purpose is quite obvious: to become more relaxed physically. This will usually lead also to mental relaxation. Or actually, it is probably the other way around, with the mental relaxation that comes through meditation leading to muscle relaxation. It is very similar to a relaxation meditation, except that it is much more focused. This kind of meditation is excellent as an introduction to meditation as it is usually very easy to notice its effect and at the same time provides a good relaxation technique just by itself.
How does it work? Well, as always, it is best to try it an find our for yourself. I find it totally amazing though that by merely focusing your attention on a specific muscle it becomes more relaxed. On the other hand, it is obvious that this should work. After all, just ask yourself the queston: "How do I move my arm (or leg, or mouth, or eyelid..)?" Well, how DO you move your arm? The answer is maybe something like: "Well I just decide to move it and then it happens". That's the magical way of looking at it. How does a thought become an actual physical movement? I'll not go into this whole line of questioning, but this is the mind-body problem that philosophers have grappled with for as long as it (Philosophy) has existed!
Of course you can look into the arm, at the anatomy, the bones and muscles and nerves and come up with a scientific explanation of how all this might 'work' mechanically. But that does not get us any nearer to the link between body and mind. So let's stay with the observation that my arm moves when I decide to move it and not try and explain it. But the fact that it does happen makes it understandable why progressive muscle relaxation through the use of awareness does work.
By focusing on particular parts of your body, those parts somehow change, sometimes imperceptible, sometimes quite noticably. Progressive muscle relaxation sounds like a complicated exercise, but it is amazingly simple and it can be incredibly effective. I use this meditation almost daily. What happens is this: using your conscious awareness (your ability to mentally focus on one thing, your attention, your concetration), you scan your body, in particular areas where you feel tension. You then pour into those tense areas your mental energy, your focus, imagining a relaxing, a letting go, a warming of those muscles.
In my experience, just focusing your conscious awareness on a tense area of your body already has such a relaxing effect, but intensifying the focus can make this even more effective. Be careful though that your intention is mild, gentle, like opening a door. Leave your muscle free to relax, as if you are leaving a visitor free to enter through the door. Any sign of furstration, anger, or impatience means that probably you are trying too hard.
For this relaxation meditation to be even more beneficial, you may wish to adapt it so that before you focus on the particular area of tension, you do a more general body scan, that focuses on all the muscles in turn (in a global sense, no need to study anatomy, though a basic knowledge of muscles will help). After your whole body has become more relaxed you can then focus in on any specific remaining tensions. alternating the whole body relaxation technique with the more focused one will allow you to really maximise the benefits of this meditation technique. But again, please use common sense, do not expect miracles and be gentle with yourself.
Finally, as I have said elsehwere on this site, keep in mind that any one meditation technique may prove helpful to you and provide a level of healing. For example, being able to use meditation to become more relaxed is likely to also help with natural sleep and anxiety and possibly mental health more generally. Just try out different approaches and note what works best for you.
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Weekly artistic response to Rudolf Steiner's soul-calendar-37 with original German text, my translation and interpretation.
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Weekly artistic response to Rudolf Steiner's soul-calendar-35 with original German text, my translation and interpretation.