We don’t know how to rest.

We think that resting is for the lazy, the inefficient and the ineffective.

Yet when we think we are resting, our eyes are entranced by the endless scroll of news, clickbaits and social media feeds.

When we allow ourselves into the territory of rest, it also comes with the neighboring challenges of learning how to be bored, how to incubate, and how to retreat.

In his stirring book Consolations,[1] teacher and poet David Whyte illuminates vital points on the topic of Rest:

To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given. 

When we say being “authentic,” what we really mean is what we perceive as the best version of our selves. Thus, it would make sense that if we want to allow who we really are to come to the fore, rest is the quiet preparation that we need.

David Whyte goes on to flesh out Rest’s 5 stages:

1. Stop

In the first state of rest is the sense of stopping, of giving up on what we have been doing or how we have been being. 

Besides the red-light at the traffic junction, when was the last time you intentional stopped yourself in your tracks to take a moment… to stop?

2. Return Home

If we have trouble stopping, we would have trouble seeing.

In the second, is the sense of slowly coming home, the physical journey into the body’s un-coercedand un-bullied [emphasis mine] self, as if trying to remember the way or even the destination itself. 

I am fond of the words of Whyte’s close friend, the late John O’ Donahue, “Stress is our perverted relationship with time.” 

This perversion manifests in forms of anxious productivity, as if everything at hand has an urgency that pushes you to the point that you are no longer free. We think we are are stealing time, but the truth is, the real thievery happens to you.

Back to David Whyte’s third stage of rest:

3. Heal

In the third state is a sense of healing and self-forgiveness and of arrival.

I would argue that without the conscious act of stopping and returning home to the inhabitant of our body “un-coerced and unbullied,” it is hard to heal; the tyranny of our speed of life is that it creates a harsh inner-terrain that is not conducive for repair, rejuvenation and re-vitalisation.

4. Breath

In the fourth state, deep in the primal exchange of the in-and-out breath, is the give-and-take, the blessing and the being blessed and the ability to delight in both.

Someone recently told me about their experience of their smart watch. It alerted her when she was tipping over to be over-stressed and reminded her to doing some mindfulness exercises.

With or without a smart watch, we all need little moments of catching our breath, to breathe the life that that we have.

5. Presence

The fifth stage is a sense of absolute readiness and presence, a delight in and an anticipation of the world and all its forms; a sense of being the meeting itself between inner and outer, and that receiving and responding occur in one spontaneous movement.

The call to presence is a gift-exchange between you and life.

Meanwhile, we wrestle with the tension that there’s always something more important than now. Yet, the existence of any future is contingent of the present.

Presence is a cumulation of our intentional act of stopping, slowing, healing and breathing. Try to force yourself to be present without a practice of the above is like trying to complete the Ironman triathlon without getting out of your couch.

Rest for Rest-Sake

Being an Asian born into a thriving place like Singapore, top performance, hard work, and little sleep are the lifestyle badge of honor. My wife says that I may have left Singapore, but I don’t seem to be able to leave the Singaporean in me.

But I’m discovering—especially as I watch my kids grow—that this side of me needs to be tampered.

The Japanese have a word for un-rest—when you overwork yourself to death, literally—they call it Karoshi.

I don’t want karoshi. Nobody wants karoshi. I worry about my friends back home who work like 12-hr days, along week long…

Rest need not be an instrumental reason to take a break (“I’d be more productive, or more focused, etc.”). Rest has goodness in and of itself, which is a true testament of its value and worth.

In periods of rest, we also need to cloister, as judge Raymond Kethledge and CEO Michael Erwin puts it, to have “no inputs from other minds.”[2]

So sleep, take a nap, go for a walk, hop on a bus, lay on the grass at the backyard and stare at the clouds that look like bunnies; do nothing. Learn how to rest by doing.

Stop being that amateur sportsperson who just keeps going and doesn’t know how that we need both stress and recovery in order to build strength, until he tears a muscle. Turn pro by behaving like the pros.

Stress is not the problem; a lack of recovery is.

Rest to recover. Honor Rest the way we give the badge of honor to hard work. Nature has it that we grow when we rest deeply.

When we fail to take heed of our natural rhythms, we expose ourselves to getting burned. Burnout is really cumulative and amplified stress plus the lack of recovery, multiplied by the unrealistic expectation of time and our biology.

Put in an equation,

Burnout = (high and continuous stress – recovery) x Unrealistic expectations

For more about how experts rest, read Instead of the 10,000-hr rule, why not the 60-hr rule?

And for more on Self-Care for practitioners, check out our Frontiers archives.

“Pause My Ambition”

Here’s a relevant journal entry I made some months ago.

I've been feeling exhausted the last few weeks. 

For every in-between pockets of time, I milked dry whatever I can complete. Reply an email, send an invoice, finish a case note before the next client, read a research paper, write a paragraph... 
I felt like a theft of time. 

So today, on a brink of my collapse due to my own undoing, I made a conscious decision: "pause my ambition."

It's an odd mantra. For one, I have never seen myself as an "ambitious" person. Nevertheless, this spoke to me. The truth was, over the years, I have been pushing myself to get too much done in a day. 

"Pause my ambition," when I am with my family.

"Pause my ambition," when I need to think clearly.

"Pause my ambition," when my body collapses; there's no other way.

[1] Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte
[2] Lead Yourself First, by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin.

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