I have been resting.
I have been resting hard, resting audaciously, resting with gusto. I have been giving myself permission to do less. I haven’t quit my life—I’m still seeing clients, still doing laundry, still grocery-shopping, still parenting. But all the extra stuff? I’ve been letting it go. Closets that need to be cleaned, PowerPoints that need to be created and videos that need to be recorded, doctor’s appointments that need to be scheduled, emails that need to be written, websites that need to be tweaked—I haven’t been doing any of it.
At first, I’ll admit, I felt guilty about it. I kept shuffling items around on my to-do list, bumping things from today to tomorrow, and then to next week, promising myself I’d get to them soon. Then, somewhere along the way, I just realized: I need to rest. The brain chatter, the procrastination, and the exhaustion are my body’s way of telling me, “Slow down. Rest. Take time to just be. You need this.”
Since then, resting has been keeping me busy. Here’s what resting has looked like just in the past week: First, rest was a stomach flu that forced me to cancel all my sessions and just lay on the couch, not working, not multi-tasking, not even thinking. Then, rest was a weekend with my daughter, followed by a holiday, followed by a snow day; we wore our pajamas from breakfast to bedtime, made cookies, got out a few special toys, snuggled up and took naps together, played hopscotch on the living room rug, and got lost in deep play. Rest has been coming home from work and reading for hours, going to bed late in order to finish a book about dragons (and dragons don't double as professional development). Rest has been using an hour in the office during a canceled session to write a love story instead of working on my taxes. Rest has been a trip to Walmart to buy art supplies and new coloring books, sort of for my three-year-old, but also unapologetically for me. Rest has been hosting a nacho party at my house, sitting in a circle of friends, laughing until my face hurts. And it has all felt so good.
Rest is not optional.
As human beings, we are biologically required to spend about a third of our lives asleep. Think of it! If you live to be 78, that’s 26 years of sleep. But those years of sleep are not wasted time or lost productivity. During sleep, the body repairs itself, the psyche processes emotions and experiences in the form of dreams, the brain consolidates memory, the nervous system rids itself of waste, and the immune system recharges. The body does a lot of hard work while we sleep!
Sleep is not the only way to rest our bodies. The goal of rest is rest-oration. Taking a walk, enjoying a leisurely meal, stretching out on warm sand, making love, dancing alone or with others, and getting in water are also effective ways of resting our bodies. These activities (and others like them) create endorphins, recalibrate our nervous systems, and soothe our senses. But physical rest is only one aspect of resting; our bodies are not the only parts of us that require rest. Our minds and hearts also need rest. Our very souls need rest.
I once thought of rest as the absence of work; I believed that rest meant doing nothing. I have since learned that long periods of doing nothing are not relaxing. In fact, when I do too much nothing, I feel stressed, stagnant, heavy, more lethargic than I was before, and generally disgusted with myself. Proper rest requires balance. Just as recovery from severe illness or injury entails both extra hours spent lying in bed and plenty of grueling physical therapy, so true rest is a blend of doing less and doing a lot. Rest is meant to nourish us, and nourishment requires input.
So if rest is more than just stopping work, what is it?
I like to define rest as a return to my true nature, the core of who I am. Rest is coming home to myself.
We can all lose ourselves in our work and responsibilities; they can easily become the things that define us, and over time, we get so used to adulting that we forget who we were when we were kids. But inside, I am still the little girl who loved to look at the clouds, run barefoot on the grass, read books, write stories, play silly make-believe games, talk in British accents, and listen to orchestral music while imagining myself in dramatic movie scenes. For me, rest is anything that gets me back in touch with that little girl, anything that helps me remember that that is who I still am—even, perhaps, who I really am, until the demands of the world get in the way. It always amazes me, how little time it takes once I have stepped away from those demands, for that little girl to come bubbling to the surface with a quivery, joyful energy.
Rest requires intention. Let’s say you spend an entire Saturday on the couch, watching television, texting with friends, and listening to your favorite podcasts while scrolling Instagram—but the whole time, you’re avoiding a long list of tasks. You will probably not find that Saturday very restful. By the end of it, you’ll be feeling the mounting stress of having all the tasks still left to do, along with the depletion of energy from the mental effort of putting off the tasks, berating yourself for putting them off, trying to motivate yourself to get going, and then continuing to put everything off.
Imagine instead that you go to bed on Friday night with a clear intention: Tomorrow is a day of rest. You wake up when your body wants to. You allow yourself to do whatever you desire all day long. You have no guilt. You have no expectations of productivity. If a task occurs to you, you write it down to return to it another day. Your intention is rest. At the end of that day, you will have the satisfaction of having accomplished exactly what you set out to do. You will feel well-rested rather than behind on life.
Your response to the necessity of rest is a clue about your relationship with yourself.
It bears repeating: Rest. Is. Not. Optional. Pause and notice—does that fact make you scowl or rejoice? Is it a relief to acknowledge it? Or do you feel resistance, an urge to deny, argue, or disprove that statement? Do you feel longing? Sorrow? A sense of wistfulness, or perhaps even fear? Pay attention to what you’re feeling. If you have difficulty accepting your body’s need for rest, you are stuck in hypervigilance—and hypervigilance is a response to a wound.
Maybe you have internalized the belief that your worth is in your productivity, and to stop being productive feels like it puts your belonging at risk. Maybe you’re afraid to slow down because of what might surface inside if you do. Maybe you feel so empty inside that constant motion, constant stimulation, is the only thing that gives you a sense of reality or meaning. Maybe it’s hard to accept yourself as enough, just as you are, without bringing anything to the table. Maybe avoiding rest keeps at bay the voices that are screaming at you about what a fat/lazy/selfish/worthless/stupid/disgusting failure you are. Maybe you feel like you haven’t done enough to be able to rest yet—you haven’t earned it; you don’t deserve it.
In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath, the day of rest, comes at the end of the week. This can lead to the natural assumption that we are meant to work first and rest later—that we must earn our rest. But if we go back to the roots of this Sabbath rhythm, we find ourselves in the Torah's Creation poem. God creates the heavens and the earth, the plants, the animals, and finally, on the sixth day, humankind. And then, on the seventh day, God rests. But take a moment to notice where human beings enter the scene. In this sacred origin story, humankind’s first day in the world is the day of rest. Adam comes to life, and immediately, he enters into rest. The first dawn he sees is the Sabbath. Before he has pulled a single weed in the Garden of Eden, named a single animal, or done any work whatsoever, Adam is given the gift of rest. He has done nothing to earn it; it is his birthright.
We are not meant to work and then rest; we are made to rest and then work. How much would your life change if you made this one shift in your mindset?
Rest returns us to ourselves—or, in the language of Internal Family Systems, to our Self. Self-energy is characterized by compassion, curiosity, and creativity; when we are grounded in our Self, we are calm, confident, and able to connect deeply with others; the Self is our center, our core. And rest gets us back in touch with that center. When we are fully rested, we are tucked safely inside our Window of Tolerance, able to tolerate daily stressors without getting lost in fight-or-flight or hypoarousal. Our attachment system is relaxed, allowing us to operate in our relationships with maximum secure attachment. Our Wise, Kind Self is effortlessly available to us and we can live out our highest values.
Rest can change your life—but you have to choose to do it.
I have had the wonderful fortune of being forced to learn rest from years of coping with chronic illness. In 2017, when my health was at its lowest point, with no guarantee of eventual recovery, I remember lying on the couch one day and realizing that there was a possibility that this would be my whole life. No ability to keep a job, barely enough energy to carry my laundry up the stairs, humiliating dependence on others for basic necessities… Poised between terror and acceptance, I realized that I would have to find a way to build a life that was beautiful and meaningful regardless of my productivity; I would have to cultivate an identity that did not depend on success—or even effort. As hard as that season of disability was, I emerged from it with the profound gift of knowing that I am more than what I do. And that has allowed me to choose rest when I need it.
Choosing rest has always meant choosing creativity and connection over productivity and independence. On January 1st, I journaled about what I want for this year:
“I want to spend less energy on work and more energy on reading books, writing, investing in friendships, getting to know myself, healing from trauma, getting my body healthier. I want to think less about money, worry less about the future, feel less exhausted, less preoccupied, less drained. I want to be more present, live more aligned with my values. I want to spend more time outdoors and get better sleep. I want to spend less time surviving and more time enjoying.”
In reflecting on that list after a few weeks of allowing myself to rest, it’s suddenly clear. I was writing about rest. Throughout 2023, I worked so hard; for twelve months, I was constantly striving, and it left me with a deep longing for rest. Now, I am ready to live differently.
How much longer will I let myself dwell in this season of rest? Honestly, I don’t know. A few more days? A few more weeks? I only know that my intention is to rest until I no longer feel that I need to. I want to rest until it feels good to stop, until my body—and my heart—tell me that it’s time.
I hope that 2024 can be a year of prioritizing rest for you, as well. If you want to join me, here are a few ways to get started:
Build rhythms of rest into your life.
Create a regular Sabbath for yourself, even if it’s just a few hours once a week.
Choose activities you enjoyed in childhood; play, make art, go outside, read stories.
Find a creative outlet.
Use your body; work with your hands, move in ways that feel good, enjoy what your body can do.
Engage your mind with topics that bring you pleasure. Extra points if they're not particularly useful.
Connect more often with the people who make your life mean something; do it face-to-face as much as you can.
Find some form of spirituality that makes sense to you, and practice it regularly.
Surround yourself with beauty, whether that’s moonlight on snow, or a Tchaikovsky symphony, or a new book of poetry, or a trip to the art museum.
Play with children, to remember how it’s done.
...And get just a little more sleep.