We need to talk about rest.
In recent years, for almost everyone, our lives have shifted towards the binary state of full On or Off. We must be awake or sleeping – or at least attempting to sleep! Rest – the nurturing category of activities that refresh and restore us – has got lost along the way. Rest has been relegated and overridden by the intensive pace and the ever-increasing demands that keep us so occupied, so literally restless, in our full lives.
Let’s explore rest as an antidote to the busyness that consumes our every day. And in doing so, we can restore respect and understanding for rest, as worthy of our attention as all our other tasks and activities.
For rest in its fullness is an action, a choice to do something, not an abstaining. Rest is more than the passive, zonked out slump on the sofa at the end of a day.
Consider what really makes us feel rested. The dictionary definition tells us rest is a respite, breather, relaxation, recreation, time out, and, interestingly, freedom from anxiety. And sleep. (But not just sleep.) In rest we re-learn to replenish and reconnect with ourselves, becoming more centred and less fragmented.
A few years ago I wrote about my personal experiences with this state in what I called “The Laboratory of Rest”. Borne of necessity following an injury to my foot, I rested to heal. This is where many come to know rest — through injury, illness, and recovery. Yet typically these experiences are characterised by resistance and frustration, fighting against the directive to rest, longing to be active and “as usual”.
The rest we talk about here extends beyond the mandatory, the impatient, the lapse of “normal routine”, and opens up much richer possibilities for enjoyment and restoration. What began as research and experimentation for me in The Laboratory of Rest turned into a new appreciation and respect for the benefits of actively resting my nervous system and physiology.
And, what we mean now by “The Laboratory of Rest” is that rest is a personal discovery. We enquire, we do research, experiment with some changes and observe what happens, note how we feel. We find the practices we will enact, where our own experience is our guide, to restore us with rest from the inside out.
So, what needs resting and where and how to start? What happens to our energy levels, how does the body shift? Are there differences in sleep patterns? What helps us be rest-full?
The level of stimulation around us each and every day puts great demand on our physiology. This stimulation commonly enters our system via our eyes and our ears — vital organs of perception that need rest for their own health. In making choices that bring relief, there is the added benefit of rest for our nervous system and our mind.
The average person now spends over sixty hours a week looking at a screen. This number is increasing every year. Pause for a moment and let that statistic sink in; resist dismissing it as having no relevance for you. Resting our eyes has never been more important and it is simple to do. The human eye and brain are designed for a three-dimensional worldview that we experience as depth of field; so, to bring immediate rest, look away from the screen. Better yet, get outdoors and look at a range of distances, in natural light and natural colours.
Much is known about the benefits of getting outdoors and being in nature. However, nature does not always need to be the wild. Let “natural” be your guide, rather than big “Nature”. This can be a local park or garden, anywhere with natural colours, trees and plants, water and sky, even a farmer’s market. Regular and frequent win out over longer, infrequent trips.
Sound is a vibration and is multi-layered. The human ear is beautifully engineered for sound … and is more than a receptacle for in-ear headphones! Delivering sound directly into the ear is highly stimulating and deprives us of the full spectrum of hearing. Rest the ears by letting them be free, let sounds circulate and be of varying pitch and volume. You can also choose to spend time in environments where there is less noise. For example, step into a library or church; try driving without music or the news on; decrease the habit of constant background noise in the home.
Beyond our discrete senses, activities that absorb us rather than over stimulate are more restful. Typically they take us inward, and though they often require concentration, they do not strain. Sometimes we’d say we “lose ourselves” in them. Examples of absorbing activities include cooking and baking, gardening, reading a good book, making and crafting (a model, knitting, sewing, drawing), a game or a puzzle (not on the screen!) crosswords, patience, a jigsaw. These activities, where we participate rather than passively receive stimuli, are all but disappearing from our lives. Let’s be creative in our research and try some out.
Sleep and Rest
At The Soft Road we observe increasing anxiety around sleep; and sleep has received a lot of attention in recent years. Notably it is the lack of, be this through shorter hours available for sleep in our ever-busy lives, or the inability to sleep, sometimes through insomnia, or the broken quality of sleep. All lead to many people being sleep deprived and “tired all the time”. That the medical community now links lack of sleep and poor sleep quality with a variety of health issues, adds to our pressure to “get more sleep”.
The less we achieve sleep, the more stressed we become about not sleeping, which then further prevents sleep. This can quickly become a vicious cycle.
This is not an essay about sleep, yet it is impossible to write about rest without addressing sleep. The good news is that whilst we all need some sleep, sleep is not the whole picture.
As we learn about the bigger picture of rest and then do restful actions, not only do we feel restored, we often also find that our experience of sleep improves. As we take the pressure off ourselves to sleep, and gain rest by other actions, so sleep can come more easily for us.
End of day habits and routines are very important. These are tightly coupled with our quality of sleep. Switching off from all screen activities for even half an hour before bed is an essential experiment. Maybe select one of the absorbing activities above that can be done quietly in the evening as an alternative.
In making changes, have patience. Creating new habits takes a while, and finding the “alternative” that best suits can also take a few attempts. Remember this is The Laboratory of Rest – do research, experiment – and have some fun with this!
In the bedroom, removing all screens and devices to prepare for sleep can be the single place where you get the most return. If the phone is also your clock and alarm, you might invest in an old-fashioned analogue clock and observe the difference in quality of sleep. As a minimum, turn your phone to airplane mode, not simply silent, before sleep to reduce the level of activity through the phone that is also picked up by our brain. These simple actions create the optimum conditions for us to rest, to switch off and sleep.
Current thinking tells us to get up if we wake during the night and cannot easily fall back to sleep. If wakefulness comes, consider this and experiment. Whilst sleep is our preference, our bodies are experiencing rest by being horizontal and fully supported by the bed. For all our major organs and our biological systems, this horizontal rest is doing a good job. If you can shift your mindset sufficiently to relax and be at peace in bed, remain there and rest.
Of course, one of the most effective, efficient means of facilitating rest is the technique of Vedic meditation. This twice-daily practice promotes a level of rest throughout the physiology of between 2 and 5 times deeper than the deepest sleep. At The Soft Road we practice and teach this meditation, observing firsthand the benefits of this deep level of rest ourselves and for our students.
Wonderful experiences are gained when we rest: we slow down, and something interesting begins. There is space for settling and integration of our experiences, like swirls of fine mud settling in a pool, leaving clear water.
This is a natural, organic process, not an intellectual one. In the clear space, our creativity is recharged, unlocked, and insights come. Some are reflective, some, new ideas. Many are links, the joining of dots. In our increasingly active, task-oriented, input driven lives, rest helps us purify. What are we sacrificing if we do not take time to rest and make space?