Last summer, in the middle of a chaotic house filled with half-packed boxes, I racked my brain to come up with a life plan. I was moving out but didn’t know where to, while considering leaving my job, deciding to go back to school, and also trying to plan my wedding. I was in a big transition, and I wanted to have it all figured out now. I wanted control and certainty when there were none available. Trying to analyze my way into solutions, my thoughts wound tighter and tighter, like a thread around a spool. When I sat down to meditate, my efforts seemed to only wind the string tighter.
In instances like this, meditation teachers will often say “just stop.” Stop seeking, stop trying so hard, just let go. While this statement is powerful, it can also become self-critical. It’s easy to take these words and use them against ourselves, to beat ourselves up for thoughts and emotions that run rampant as we sit down to meditate. “They make it seem so easy, how come I can’t stop worrying?” Then, we’re not only wound up in thought, but we feel there’s something wrong with us for it.
But what if “just stopping” could be an act of love, an empowered act of surrender? What if it could be a powerful stand for that which we are deeply committed to, that which we know deep down is most important to us? Later that same day, I remembered that it can be.
I took a break from moving to go with my friend Anna to an open house for our friend’s holistic health clinic. Inevitably, lounging around a clinic led to conversations about our health. At the top of the list for both Anna and I were stress and adrenal system concerns.
Anna mentioned her habit of clenching her jaw as a response to stress. She had been stressed lately and was finding it to be so intense that it was hard to relax at night. It was affecting her whole body as the stress spread into her neck and shoulders.
“Oh, I used to do that,” I remarked. The statement surprised me, because I had forgotten I ever had that habit. “I clenched my jaw so intensely I had tension headaches all the time. I would notice myself doing it, and that just stressed me out more, and I’d clench down harder.”
“So what did you do?” she asked.
“I just stopped.”
After saying this, I questioned myself. “Just stopped” seemed so easy, as though I had turned off a light switch. I paused and searched my memory for more information.
“I first realized how destructive it was when my dentist pointed out that it was affecting my teeth. So one day, I just decided—enough! I decided to stop. Every time I caught myself doing it, I would concentrate all of my awareness on my jaw. I would massage my face, breathe, and actively relax my jaw, along with my whole face and neck. I had to do this over and over and over throughout the day, every day, all day, for months. Many times I would discover I had been clenching my jaw for who knows how long. But eventually my commitment to my own well-being won out. I retrained myself.”
I rarely clench my jaw at all now, and my tension headaches are gone. It wasn’t some magic formula, though. It came from my commitment to love—not from a place of beating myself up or telling myself I should be different.
After the open house, I got back to packing moving boxes and obsessing on my thoughts. Reflecting on my conversation with Anna, suddenly those words popped into my head, this time in the encouraging voice of spiritual teacher ShantiMayi. “Just stop.”
I closed my eyes and, like relaxing a clenched jaw, I relaxed my awareness. I allowed my attention to drift from my struggling thoughts out to the sound of birds chirping. Every time my mind tried to grab ahold of something, I relaxed again, like a muscle relaxing. It began to rain outside, gently at first, caressing my ears with the sound and my skin with the cool breeze coming in through the window. Then it came more forcefully, overwhelming my senses with downpour, thunder, and lightning. I no longer needed to try to stop; I was being stopped. Like a fully relaxed face, my awareness just rested, receiving the sounds, giving me a much-needed rest from control.
It was out of this place that I remembered again, for the millionth time, to listen for deeper wisdom. The decisions I needed to make no longer seemed so daunting, and I moved forward into my day with a feeling of lightness, happy to re-remember that it is possible to just stop, right now. Over and over and over again.
“A Cold Sunset” photo by Anemone Jones, licensed under CC BY 2.0