I thought of a benefit to my DIY relaxation method that hadn’t occurred to me until yesterday. I was using my pulley setup for the first time, which simply comprises one strap borrowed from my gymnastics rings, and a horizontal bar not much higher than my maximal reach. A slipknot in the end of the strap can be easily adjusted, and a weight attached to the opposite end to minimise the amount of effort that the pulling arm must make. A bar is preferred over a beam for example, as the movement of the strap must be as smooth and friction-free as possible.
With my leg suspended at the knee to its maximum height, I realised that sucessfully being able to relax, especially quickly and in end-range positions, should really be a pre-requisite for trying to stretch in them. While this may seem glaringly obvious, it raises the question “what do you think stretching is?”, and I now realise that I had perhaps always associated stretching with not relaxation, but end-range resistance. The question then becomes “how far can I move (in which directions) while remaining relaxed?”, and this is something that the use of the pulley system can answer directly.
I have intentionally avoided the use of a training partner for two reasons:
- Working alone allows you to go at your own pace and to change the parameters to exactly match what you feel, without having to vocalise and constantly relay that information to an outside party.
- The ability to work alone means that this method can be used by anyone, and emphasises self-reliance.
What becomes increasingly apparent is that there are two different states:
“Feeling relaxed” can be thought of as “normal”, or our baseline. We tend to think of ourselves as being at ease when we are immobile, which means that by living sedentary lives we become disconnected from actual relaxation. If we return to my personal example of stress in which I had little or no conscious awareness of it, we could say that I had conflated feeling relaxed and being relaxed.
The purpose of this system therefore, is to create an acute awareness of the differences between tension (stress) and relaxation, and to re-calibrate our senses so that feeling relaxed correlates maximally with being relaxed.
When using the pulley system I worked slowly raising and lowering my arm for a maximum of two repetitions over the course of perhaps ten minutes. When working slowly it seems that we can be fooled by change blindness which essentially means that it is difficult to be aware of a tension that builds slowly, compared to suddenly. In this way, I would arrive at a point and then abruptly realise that I was not completely relaxed, and unable to pinpoint when exactly I began to create tension. When this happens I simply return to a previous position and slowly begin the ascent or descent again. With this in mind, a single “rep” is not really just a concentric and eccentric movement, but a series of back-and-forth explorations, constantly checking to see if and where there is tension.
There are different logical applications for this knowledge (sensitivity) and technique which encompass all activity and non-activity. This is because we often form habits in the shape of physical reactions and muscular tensions which are unnecessary and can be detrimental in the long-term. Frowning, squinting, clenching the teeth and tightening the jaw, hiking the shoulders up and even holding the breath are all seemingly small habits that amount to unnecessary tension manifested in an array of reactions and areas of the body.
If these are our responses to certain stresses and situations it seems possible that by undoing or eliminating these tension-reactions we can change our mental states and reduce stress. This idea is a logical extension of such experiments that show by making a forced smile (by holding a pen in the mouth) participants found comedies funnier for example. Furthermore, the experiments that found by recreating the conditions of attraction (increased heart rate for example), they could make someone appear more attractive, also seem to hint that human psychology is a two-way street that can easily be manipulated. It is as if the brain recognises that there is a tendency for conditions to occur in tandem, for example a smile often occurs when we find something funny, without there being an awareness of causation. Smile = Funny, and Funny = Smile as far as the brain is concerned they are linked, so we can either smile when we are amused, or exploit the fact that if we smile we will find our experiences more amusing.
In my own experiments I had already noticed this idea of “X appears in the presence of Y”, in the form of “a bent arm occurs in the presence of bicep tension” for example. Initially, by passively bending the arm, the biceps would contract, although they were not needed. But as I progress, instead of exploiting this two-way relationship, I am actually deliberately severing the connection.
From a psychological perspective this is exciting because if ultimately successful and transferable it could mean that we can train ourselves out of certain automatic responses that function in this way. This is a useful tool for those interested in self-defence against the dark arts, and may provide a starting point for further self-experimentation of this kind.
As my training continues, the next step, after total relaxation through all ranges is achieved, is to gradually increase the speed of the movement. At present there is no sudden force being exerted on my limbs that may cause them to tense up in response, but as the speed of the movement, and consequently the speed of the transition from being still to being manipulated increase, there is an increased chance of re-action to that force. This is why it is important to begin and remain at slow speeds for the muscles (and brain) to properly adapt to these new states. Once the limbs can be passively moved at high speed, incorporating active tension and relaxation can truly begin.
When lifting my hand with the strap I noticed that there was a split-second where the strap went from loose to taking up the slack and beginning to support the weight of my hand, and my muscles sort of “flinched” in response. This is the same reaction I had when passively touching objects with a relaxed limb – it would tense up and try to take over the movement, to be the one in control.
If the stretch reflex is fundamentally a built in safety mechanism in order to prevent damage to the joints and soft tissues, it seems reasonable to suppose that automatic tension and therefore movement, has at least some basis in preventing damage and even death of the entire organism. Blinking, flinching and curling up or ducking are all untrained movement responses that did enough to significantly aid our ancestors in surviving longer.
Humans are experts at re-purposing and manipulating their environments and everything in them, and martial arts are just one example of how for centuries people have been using our innate biology to adapt the body for our own specific goals, strengthening the bones and training the reflexes. Now it seems that if we are unable to change our stressful circumstances, or vacate stressful environments, in order to survive we must change our knee-jerk reactions to the stressors themselves.
By realising that stress and the ability to experience it without long-term negative effects is relative, that there is no universal standard for what is or should be stressful or stress-free. It allows us to set our standards high, while accepting our current levels. Looking around at all the manner of seemingly stressful things humans are capable of doing; bungee jumping, public speaking or even just leaving the house, we should get a sense of how fluid this ability is and understand that we too can alter where the metaphorical ceiling is for our own benefit.
If for a moment we allow ourselves to thing metaphorically and consider muscular tension and stress to be “strong” reactions, with stress being a state of chronic tension arising from such strong reactions, we could think of hatred as being a strong reaction too. We are all familiar with emotional over-reaction, melodrama, hyperbole and generalisation, but what if these were all just inefficient responses?
There is an emotionally different quality to hating something compared to simply disliking it, but beyond that, both are just labels. As in the case of the manufactured smile, what if the act of labelling, verbally or otherwise, became the source of our emotional responses instead of the other way around? We could effectively alter our reactions by consciously choosing our language. Just as clenching our teeth can become a habit, so too the act of using certain labels to describe our common experiences becomes habitual (labelling itself is often a habit).
Another, more abstract example of overreacting is how we deal with information. Do you immediately believe or even disbelieve what you hear? Seen in this way, contrarianism is a specific overreaction to believe or think or do whatever is opposite to the stimulus, and gullibility is the strong reaction to instantly believe.
We could therefore draw a parallel between my psycho-physical relaxation method and the purely psychological domain of rationality. From a rational perspective we must allow ourselves to be moved by evidence, but not more so than is justified. Biases are tensional tendencies that are at work automatically whether we are aware of them or not. By achieving and beginning from a relaxed, unbiased state, only then can we have appropriate reactions to all manner of stimuli.
I see this state as being akin to the selfless emptiness which certain religions use meditation to try and achieve, except that in my case the physical relaxation and rationality skills have their techniques not only well-defined and free of metaphysical connotation, but they are grounded in empirical findings and not esoteric tradition.
Taking the metaphor of strong reactions further still, we can easily begin to see how we live in a society that habitually overreacts. We eat too much food as an overreaction to hunger in the face of abundance. Did you hear the joke about the man who went to the all you can eat buffet and only satiated his hunger? [Side note: it is well documented that trying to go food shopping on an empty stomach will greatly increase your chances of falling victim to hunger-related strong reactions.]
The tendency to rely on medication is an overreaction of not just the healthcare system and its providers, but of individuals everywhere who self-medicate with everything from off-the-shelf stimulants to off-the-street narcotics and surgical interventions. We could become vegan for ethical reasons or we could do so because we heard that meat causes cancer. Same result, different reaction.
Politics is a system of strong reactions that relies on the fact that people vote favourably for politicians who are seen to have strong reactions. “The war on_____” is an obvious example of the type of response that wins voters, and in true form, elicits a strong contrarian reaction from others. It’s as if politics were a system for creating answers that only allows minimal picking and choosing from two extremes and absolutely no dilution.
Careers themselves are often strong reactions to the fact that we need food and shelter to survive. Once our basic needs are well met we begin veering into buffet territory, and our consumption habits become an inappropriate response to an abundance of financial wealth. The modern job is the knee-jerk reaction to the various perceived threats to our security and that of our status.
We must remember that strong reactions are unnecessary, automatic, and therefore often unconscious, and harmful to long-term physical, mental and epistemic health.
It appears to me that there are two distinct methods for achieving whatever goals we may have, and I call them “acute” and “chronic”. Having an operation to staple your stomach and remove a portion of your intestines in order to lose weight is the acute solution. Changing your diet, exercise, and ultimately lifestyle in order to accommodate weight loss and healthy habits is the chronic solution.
In every case there is an instant or “shock” treatment that is often violent and drastic in its implementation, and a “soft” treatment that relies on small, incremental changes over time. With this in mind we can examine the behaviour of modern civilisation in a new light.
We all would like to change at least something about ourselves, and with advancements in technology it seems to be our appearance that we are most biased towards. While plastic surgery is the epitome of the acute solution, we are increasingly tempted by other acute methods, or at least those claimed to be, for becoming the person we want to be, or at least for looking like them.
Do you want to lose 20lbs in just 2 weeks with this one simple trick? Do you want to have washboard abs without dieting OR exercise? Then you have bought into acutist ideology, where anything can be obtained near-instantly, without the need for hard work, especially, god forbid, physical labour.
While false advertising abound, the sentiment is clear: people don’t want to spend their time and effort on achieving things that would normally take time and effort to achieve. If a healthier, happier you is only 1-click away, then that’s 1-click too far.
Beyond being lazy and devaluing that which is achieved or obtained, the acutist mindset fosters overconsumption, an over-reliance on technology, and a diminished appreciation of the self and one’s own capacities.
The most common, or perhaps just the most radical, and therefore noticeable form of transhumanism is the acute branch. Here, technology in the form of pills, implants, gene therapy and other theoretical solutions are awaited with baited breath like apple fans queuing for the latest iteration of their favourite gadget.
Acute transhumanists see the problems or lack of features on current humans, and see technology as providing the right answer, or perhaps just the quickest fix for them.
Not every problem has an adequate chronic solution though. If we take our health for example, we wouldn’t want to wait to overcome cancer or aids even if that was an option, we’d prefer the instant, heal-me-now kind of treatment. But this kind of scenario seems relatively rare compared to all other possible uses for acute transhumanist interventions.
I see myself as a transhumanist from the perspective that humanity has the potential to be much greater than it currently is, but where I differ is the why and how.
I see humans as collectively expressing an amazing range of ideas, capabilities and characteristics – we are as impressive physically as we are intellectually, yet on an individual level many, if not all of these facets are underdeveloped, unrealised and repressed. I see the totality as being a marker of what the individual is capable of achieving without having to dedicate their life to being a specialist in a single domain. We are born with an array of mundane special powers that eventually atrophy through non-use, and so we default to the external power, the internal upgrade, the technological add-on. If we haven’t even scratched the surface of our current form it seems misguided and even condescending to think that an artificial enhancement is necessary or will help. I think the danger is twofold: that humankind never explores or even discovers its current greatness, allowing its abilities to wither and become a historical mirage, and that we continue down the path of technological dependence, instant self-gratification, laziness, and a devaluation and de-emphasis of humanity, until the day we become self-worshipping robots.