“How shall I live?”
This is a question that has been asked by many contemplative writers, spiritual leaders and philosophers throughout the ages. This question is also asked by many people after receiving a diagnosis of cancer.
There are many ways to answer this question. In fact, since every one of us is different and unique, there are infinite answers to this question. Some might choose nutrition, some exercise, some healthy communication, some all of these, as their focus when addressing this question. However, one element seems to weave a common thread. We will explore this element in some depth in this article. The common element is: Rest. We may well begin to ask, “How shall I rest?”
Very often, people share with us their desire to ‘slow down’, to ‘practice self-care’, to ‘rest more’. But what does this mean? What does this look like? It is difficult or even impossible to rest when we don’t necessarily have a definition to work from, other than a picture in our minds of spending more time in bed or booking a vacation. Unless we have a working definition of what rest means, and until we have a felt sense of how important rest is to us, we may well ask for some support to figure out how rest might look in our life and how it might benefit us. There are many ways to rest and we all need to learn to rest. Worded another way, we need to unlearn our habit of creating full-to-overflowing lives.
Why We Might Resist Resting: Some Obstacles…
Some equate resting with being unworthy, ’not good enough’, ’can’t cut it’, ‘giving up’, admitting defeat. When contemplating prioritizing rest, some imagine criticism from family, friends, co-workers or community. Some feel guilty. Some associate rest with being sick or getting sicker. When resting, some feel uncomfortable, undeserving, selfish or unproductive. It is a heart-breaking and sorry state of affairs that we, as a culture, view resting as something we only do when we are ‘old’, ‘sick’ or ‘burnt out’.
Resting takes intention and practice. Resting also requires courage because thoughts such as, “I’m going to slow down” or “I know that I need to rest” fly in the face of internalized and societal pressures and norms such as pushing on, being productive, performing, or trying to live up to an unattainable standard of productivity and ‘having-it-all-together’.
Our Body-Mind Needs Rest and Knows How to Rest
There is a part of our nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, that is responsible for our stress response (‘fight, flight and/or freeze’). Our stress response is almost continually activated as we try to live up to our own and society’s unattainable standards. The balancing part of our nervous system, known as the parasympathetic nervous system, is responsible for helping us to rest, digest and heal. Our parasympathetic response is not a ‘nice-to- have’… it’s a ‘must-have’ … for our survival. Not resting, and being regularly in fight, flight or freeze mode, has many consequences. We need to experience restful states to not only digest our food, but to digest our experiences, our feelings, our emotions, our inspirations, intentions and plans.
“How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterward.” — Spanish Proverb
Doing nothing, as the Spanish Proverb encourages, is one definition, one way to rest. There are many ways to rest. Here are some examples.
More traditional forms of rest would include: sleeping, napping, restorative practices such as meditation, yoga nidra, praying. Some find movement restful; some find baths or long showers restful. Others might find art and music restful. Many people value the restorative support of time spent in nature. Some find a resting place in community, some prefer solitude. Less obvious ways to rest would include giving oneself permission not to be helpful, taking a break from responsibility and/or being ‘unproductive’ ‘lazy’.
With the darker, colder days of late fall and winter, comes an invitation from nature to slow down, to rest and to hibernate.
During the holiday season, let’s give ourselves the gift of rest.