Rest is a core human experience; better rest leads to better immune systems, less inflammation, lower stress, slower aging, greater creativity, and greater satisfaction.
Without rest, we would quickly age and die, yet many of us are unable to rest, to feel relaxed, to give ourselves the permission to slow down our frenetic activity.
Why is this, and what can we do to support our own ability to rest?
The word “rest” has a Germanic root that was a measure of distance: after traveling a certain distance, one needed to stop and rest. The very concept of rest, then, was inseparable from movement. When we depended, for travel, on our bodies, or the bodies of other animals, rest was built in. One could, literally, only go so far without stopping to rest.
Today, however, we can board a plane and less than seven hours later arrive 3,000 miles away. In our automated, electric world, we can not only travel without rest, we can do just about everything without needing even to pause.
Factories make our goods around the clock, and strawberries and asparagus are available whenever we want them. At night, after dark, we just flip on the light. Many of us living in cities hardly ever see the dark anymore.
In all kinds of ways, subtle and not so subtle, we get the message that we are not supposed to stop. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us have a hard time resting. We live in ways that the human body is not built for, yet we have so internalized the message of our ceaseless world that we push ourselves, push ourselves, and then push ourselves some more.
As a teacher and coach, I see the internalization of this message in my students and clients all the time: we measure ourselves by our accomplishments. Even we writers, whose work clearly comes from the depth of the unconscious mind, push ourselves to write more, to produce more, to be more active on social media.
Even as mothers, we often measure themselves by how much we give — to our homes, to our children, to their schools.
In these measurements there is no resting point — no point at which a built-in stop is expected, considered necessary.
But without these stops, instead of getting more of what we want, instead of getting closer to our goals, we sabotage our health, our relationships, our creativity, and the quality of our lives. Paradoxically, by trying to be more productive, we sabotage our very ability to be productive.
So what can we do?
Fortunately, we are learning more and more about the importance and value of rest. From Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution to Sara Mednick’s Take A Nap, Change Your Life, more and more studies argue for the vital importance of rest.
Here are four essential things we can all do to get better rest:
1. Listen to the natural rhythms of our bodies, and of the days and of the seasons. As organic, living beings, the more we tune into the organic world around us — and within us — the better and deeper our rest can be.
2. Change our framework of thinking about rest. Rather than think of rest as time away from what matters to us to, instead, we can think of rest as the crucial support that we need to live the lives we want to live and travel the distances that we want to travel.
3. Prioritize rest. We may need to start by literally putting rest on the calendar. Take a day off of work. Don’t allow ourselves to go on our computer after a certain time in the evening. Go on a retreat. Think of these things not as indulgences, but rather as necessities that fuel everything else you do.
4. Find rest throughout our days, even our busiest days. We can think of rest not as the “other,” in contrast with our busy lives, but instead as a quality that we can carry within ourselves, all the time.
We can cultivate a peaceful resting place within us that we can return to. Practices like returning to our breath or coming back to the present moment help us find rest even in action.
There is a beautiful song from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition which celebrates this natural resting place. Here is the song:
“Breathing in, I go back to the island within myself. There are beautiful trees within the island; there are clear streams of water; there are birds, sunshine and fresh air. Breathing out, I feel safe. I enjoy going back to my island.”
This island of rest is not a desert island, but instead a fertile place, full of life-giving element.
We can all learn to inter-be with our resting state, and as we do that, we will learn better to awaken to the fullness, vitality, and creativity of who we really are.