The Wisdom of Rest

A little while ago, a friend admitted that when we first met four years ago, she found me slightly intimidating. I was, she said, doing all these amazing things and well on my way to becoming like another friend of ours, who is often cited as an example of an Amazing Woman Doing Amazing Things. But these days I’m not doing anything noteworthy and a part of myself, my ego most likely, felt deflated by her words. “Oh” Tink’s Ego said “but I want to be amazing again…”

An even littler while ago, I had a dream about not being enough. I dreamt of familiar people who do exceptional things, busy as bees in a collective working space and I felt I should be there with them. Instead I was on my way to a leisurely lunch with my husband and I was conflicted, the familiar voice of my inner critic was fierce with her Shoulds. “You should be doing something worthwhile” she said.

What haven’t I been doing? I haven’t had a job, I haven’t been out saving the world, I have not aimed for fast and/or high growth for ElementAll, my online clothing business. Why? Quite simply because I haven’t been well. Savings, a very small business, a family inheritance and a husband have supported my much lower key lifestyle.

What have I been doing? I’ve tried to rest but I’ve also moved my mother into dementia care, sold a family home, got married, taken care of our animals, slowly cultivated my relationship with Peka Peka, equally slowly cultivated ElementAll, tried to recover from miscarriages and learned a lot about food as medicine. None of these things are ‘tweet-able’ (with the possible exception of the clothing, although slow growth is far from sexy). For me, of course, they’re all significant but as far as my tribe goes, they’re not noteworthy, they are in fact very ordinary.

Of all the things I’ve been doing over the last four years, the most challenging and – in my experience – the most culturally unacceptable (apart from not drinking alcohol) has been rest. I differentiate here between sleep and rest because there would seem to be widespread consensus now that good sleep is critical for health. Rest, however, is a much more slippery creature.

If you search for synonyms of rest you will find a list of verbs that describe actions which are mostly neither aspired to nor celebrated: Relax, ease up/off, let up, slow down, pause, have/take a break, unbend, repose, laze, idle, loaf, do nothing, take time off, slack off, unwind, recharge one’s batteries, be at leisure, take it easy, sit back, sit down, stand down, lounge, luxuriate, loll, slump, flop, put one’s feet up, lie down, go to bed, have/take a nap, nap, catnap, doze, have/take a siesta, drowse.

If you search for antonyms of rest, you will find a list of actions we reward with praise, money (although generally much less of that in the world of non profit endeavours) and social media attention: Advance, awakening, busyness, action, energy, employment, action, labor, strive, struggle, toil, slave, sweat.

However it turns out that rest is essential for a healthy mind. “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”  (See also Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime)

The body also needs rest. “Right now you’re reading. But for a minute your thoughts may wander (you’re reading about rest, after all) and your mind shifts to random thoughts. You’re doing “nothing.” Meanwhile your body is re-making you with extreme velocity.”  As Matthew J. Edlund M.D. pointed out in a piece for Psychology Today, rest is regeneration. “Inside each of your ten trillion cells fly a billion protein-protein interactions every second. Every one is an information event. Every one helps change you, remake you, so you never, ever stay the same. But as far as you’re concerned, you’re doing “nothing.” You’re just “wasting time.”

The stress of significant life events and decades of relentless doing have left my body and mind depleted. This has shown up as fatigue, digestive issues, allergies and anxiety. Test results this week have confirmed – finally a diagnosis – I have adrenal fatigue or adrenal insufficiency. This means that my body is producing much lower than normal levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) which influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress including immune responses, anti-inflammatory action, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and central nervous system activation, amongst other functions.

Adam has encouraged me, and my body has forced me, to rest. There are days where cooking meals, walking the dogs and vacuuming is all I can do before sinking into the sofa with a cup of herb tea. Until I find my attention caught by the long grass and drag myself outside to do twenty minutes of weed eating. Because it turns out I’m not very good at not doing and I’m very good at worrying about the things I’m not doing. I sit down and quite quickly become subtly agitated by the joint forces of my inner critic and busyness addict and within minutes I’ve thought of something which needs to be done.  A big house, an online business, animals and a spray free garden mean that there is never nothing to do and in case I run out of chores, I’ve also accumulated a huge pile of non-fiction books laden with information. Thus I get caught in a loop of needing to rest but resisting it and I end up doing everything – including the rest – in a kind of half assed way.

But finally I’ve had enough of taking one step forward and one backwards and slowly (everything seems to be slow these days) I am learning to rest, to provide myself with the essential space I need to heal.  Unexpectedly this space is teaching me other things. It is teaching me to befriend my Inner Critic,  thank her for The Shoulds and remind her that she is not in fact driving this vehicle. It is teaching me to befriend my fear, particularly of the unknown (being unwell for four years and not knowing why has done a stellar job of generating fear of the unknown). It is teaching me to find joy in the ordinary, in slow cultivation rather than instant gratification, and it is teaching me to unwind much of what my culture has taught me about growth and progress and success….It would seem that sitting in the vegetable garden and quietly observing has taught me as much as getting stuck in with tools and a determination to create order.

Poet, peace activist and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh has said that “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”  Slowly, one very mundane day at a time, I’m reconnecting with this wisdom, disconnecting from the addictive busyness, letting go of The Shoulds and allowing my mind and body to heal.

On the sofa, no makeup (hardly ever, these days), wearing a slight frown because Dio is photobombing.

 

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