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A meditator asks for help because of muscular tension

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Hi everyone, new member here.

I've been redirected to this forum from the Facebook page of ST, I already knew this community and the reason why I didn't come here in the first place is because my issue has more to do with meditation than stretching. Or at least that was what I initially thought: I've read the “start here” section and know I think this could be the right place to ask for help.
This may be a long post and I'm not a native English speaker, so please be patient and forgive grammar/syntax errors.
Near the end of 2012 my path of self-improvement made me discover contemplative practices and by the start of 2013 I had established a daily sitting meditation practice. Being an anxious person, I immediately noticed a great improvement of life-quality and I felt such relieved that I thought I had found the Sacred Graal.
I kept the habit and gradually lengthened the duration of mi sits to 30 minutes, in the meantime I was reading a lot about the topic, as well as asking question on Reddit when I happened to face challenges. I did not have a teacher, at the time, but I felt I was progressing because my mind was becoming clearer every day and my body relaxation was improving too.
1.5 years ago there was a big turning point: a Reddit user, a complete stranger, became to me something close to a teacher; his suggestions were really on spot and the practice began to truly transform me. I was practicing two times a day, every day, for 30 minutes each: one session of Vipassanā and one session of Samatha.
What do I mean when I say “transformation”? Well, you have to know that since the beginning of my Path I've had troubles with posture. I sat in a chair, with my butt slightly elevated by a folded blanket and, although that was the only situation I could meditate in, I never felt really balanced and occasionally my spine would even collapse; those issues could make my practice really uncomfortable, but then again, I saw discomfort as a tool. All of that changed during one sit: I was practicing Samatha, putting all of my attention on the breath passing under the nostrils, and for some reason I was putting quite a lot of effort in the task. Suddenly the bell rang to announce the end of the practice and then something happened: I let go of all the tensions in my body and the activity of watching the breath became truly effortless for the first time.
In all of the following sits I brought the same quality of mind, as a result my concentration deepened as well as my relaxation. My posture suddenly wasn't a problem anymore, my whole body was perceived as something far away: when I was watching the breath, there was only the breath. Vipassanā practice also improved a lot because of my laser-like focus combined with muscle relaxation, I was able to dismantle every sensation into tiny vibrations; it was amazing. For the first time I was deeply enjoying every session, to the point I started to sneak in micro-meditations from time to time; 10 minutes of Samatha were able to rest my body-mind a lot more than 1h of sleep.
Those qualities weren't present only during formal sits: my daily life improved on so many levels. I was calmer, happier, more compassionate, my mind was clearer and negative events had less hold on me.
One day I reached my peak: during a 10 minutes Samatha session I felt pure joy rushing to my chest at every inhalation, while my head was becoming lighter; I'm now prone to believe I was near the state some folks call “jhana”. The most amazing thing was the aftermath, though: I was happy, I felt my body light like 20+ years of emotional baggage were suddenly lifted from my shoulders, my voice was deeper and I could see beauty everywhere. Those sensations lasted for six hours or so, until I went to bed. I replicated the same experience during the following session, but unfortunately things then got a lot worse.
I don't really know the cause, although I suspect it has to do with stress linked to some unfortunate events, the fact is is started feeling tension all over my face while meditating. Usually observing with equanimity is enough to soften every kind of tension, but that time didn't work. Those pressures made almost impossible for me to effectively focus on my breath, so I started to worried and wishing them to go away…of course the only result was they got worse. I lost my laser-like concentration, I lost my relaxation, I lost a lot of fruits of my practice. I still meditate everyday at the best of my abilities, but I feel stuck in a vicious circle.
That hindrance appeared a little more than a year ago and I've been tried to figure out what happened ever since. I immediately understood the problem was somewhere in my body, so I signed for a yoga course (best decision ever) and I discovered the main issues was in my neck-jaw: I have a lot of tensions there; oddly enough, I've always somatized stress in my stomach, but for some reason the pattern has changed now.
My researches made me aware of my postural problems and now I'm trying to fix them, hoping that will help with my practice. I've anterior pelvic tilt, and my head is leaning forward, I also have tight pectorals and tight scalenes (despite the weak neck flexors). Kit videos on YouTube and Vimeo have been really useful to address the tension in my body and I'm extremely thankful for them, I now stretch daily my hip flexors and my neck-jaw with great relief. That partly helps to improve my meditation sessions, but I still have way too much troubles, although not as many as one year ago.
I've also started meditating on the floor (burmese style), but with erratic results despite stretching my muscle as Kit explained in a dedicated video on Vimeo. I think I'll try a kneeling position with a meditation bench. I've also come to terms with my ego by admitting I cannot consider myself more than an “amateur(ish) meditator”, so I got back to the basis: now I just do one session a day of Samatha, trying to apply the technique instructions at my best.
Despite what may seem (or at least seems to me) a complete failure, I think I've learned something. During the time when my practice was smooth I used to think focus provided relaxation, but now I'm realizing it's not quite like that: relaxation is the basis to allow the development of a steady focus, that increased concentration will bring further relaxation into the body and this will allow the focus to become even stronger; moreover a tense body is linked to a busy mind, although I'm not sure what comes first.
In short: I need to relax my body and I need meditation tips. I don't have someone to ask this questions anymore, so I'm "begging" help here.
I've written a lot, so it's better to end here, but I can provide further information if needed.
Thanks for your time.
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Adding something to this (because there are so many potential things to say on this subject), the opening experiences cannot be controlled, directed, worked towards, or even wanted, too much. Yes, we have a loose set of orienting principles, and a 'goal' (otherwise we'd be doing or practising something else), but this needs to exist in the deep background, somewhere. The paradox is that what we want will guarantee that we do not get it. 


None of this is to put you off, in any way. Look at it this way: there is just the practise, and the goals of the practise (in one of them to maintain awareness of the breath passing the nostrils), and so we practise, with only this in mind. Whatever else happens, whatever changes occur in you, are out of your control. Just the practise.


And if you get stuck on one practise (because I note you are doing both Vipassana and Samatha) switch to the other. Relax more, and do not worry about the outcome. (As another teacher once said, if worrying was helpful, or led to where you want to go, we'd be learning 'how to worry better/deeper').

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Thank you for your reply, Kit.


You're definitely right about “expectations”, I sure fell into this trap and maybe I'm still there. As far as my experience goes, during meditation every thought is just a thought and every sensation is just a sensation, in that sense you're right when you say




There are no failures in this process; you are noticing distractions, and that is what the practise is about.


For some reason, though, the tension I often feel in my face brings the challenge to a new level. I can't be sure about the reason why, so I'll just speculate: maybe it has something to do with the perceived “locus of control”. Usually I feel my sense of self behind the face, so I can observe sensations coming from the rest of my body with a more detached fashion than I do with those manifesting themselves too close to my mental eye. During the first two years of practice the only persistent thing I perceived around my head was the stream of thoughts, while now physical sensations feel almost interlaced with it and I feel overwhelmed.


And yet I know (or at least I think I know) every sensation is just a sensation, I know I can still watch and if I'm overwhelmed I can watch myself being overwhelmed. Maybe now it's so difficult because meditation was once the practice that helped me to put everything into perspective, while now it's often source of frustration (again: expectations ehehehe).


A couple of things to add




And if you get stuck on one practise (because I note you are doing both Vipassana and Samatha) switch to the other.


Sometimes I do that. Unfortunately I'm realizing my concentration is not as strong as once was, so it's too easy to be carried away while practicing Vipassanā; that's why recently I've decided to step back and re-learn the basis, that is to say just practice Samatha at the best of my abilities.




Relax more


I truly have no idea how. I've read some of your posts here where you talked about something like an “emotional armor” or “character armor”…well…I think mine is really hard right now; I have to soften it.




Simply bring your awareness to the breath, and relax as much as you can while trying to keep a gently upright head–spine.


My posture is far rom ideal. My head keeps coming forward and my back is prone to slumping while sitting, this doesn't help relaxation. Funny thing is: it's always been this way, but only now I'm seeing it as a problem to fix. Or maybe it's just another thing to let go of, I can't really tell the difference.


Hope this comment makes sense to you. Feels good to “talk” with someone who can understand the topic.



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