The Skill of Rest

“Rest is a skill. It is the wellspring of life itself, to be able to rest. If you practice, you can get better at it.”

Rest of the spirit, and rest of the mind, is very often hard to access when our bodies are under slept. If we’re exhausted physically, the body demands its rest first. Have you noticed that sometimes when you’re exhausted physically, your mind is still racing?  Your mind can’t rest because your body is saying “I’m really, really tired … I’d better stay alert to survive! Stay alert! Stay alert!” It’s not a very high quality alertness, though.

Once the body is rested, the mind and spirit have much fuller capacity for rest, and this in turn can completely change our experience of our lives (or of ourselves). When unrested, you may have an outlook, or even personality traits, that you think of as fundamental to who you are. Maybe they are– but check again when fully rested.  You may be surprised. See who you are when you get a ridiculous amount of sleep, an un-American amount of sleep. Try sleeping until you are incapable of further sleep. For one week, make it your project to get to bed earlier and earlier until your body lets you know that you are incapable of further sleep. Then get into that bed a little bit earlier than you need to anyway, turn the light off, and see what happens.

We have two aspects of our nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic is all about fight, flight, response to the outer world, and outer world action. To balance this, we have the parasympathetic. When we go into parasympathetic dominance, this is the state of rest. This is the state of “never mind the outside world.” When we switch over to this resting state, we feel inactive because we are not doing outer-directed activity. But don’t kid yourself – when we are at rest, there is a lot that goes on. Many things happen only while we are at rest. What goes on during rest is a different kind of activity.

Why is it that you can go to sleep, and then wake up feeling very different? If there is something you can do for eight hours and feel completely transformed at the end of it, that’s not just inactivity. Something unbelievably profound is happening—something without which we could not survive, not even with all the willpower in the world.

Critically important functions take place during rest. On a physical level, tissue repair takes place. Other kinds of healing also take place. Healing does not happen through willed activity; healing is a resting state response.

nocturnal-animal-collageWhen we take a moment to be quiet and allow silence to gather on the inside, especially when we are physically rested, often these little, scurrying, seemingly random thoughts start running around in our minds.  I call them “the nocturnal animals of the mind.” The nocturnal animals of the mind start coming out when we turn off the light—unless we are completely physically exhausted. If we go to bed only when totally exhausted, when we turn off the light, we hit the pillow and we’re out like the light. However as soon as we are no longer so physically exhausted, the mind and the spirit start expressing their need for the same kind of down time. What happens when we turn out the light, if we haven’t had mental and spiritual down time in awhile, is triage-level mental activity from all kinds of nocturnal animals of the mind that have needed to scurry around, get a drink of water … a little bit of food …

When we begin to experience these “nocturnal animals of the mind,” we have a choice. Lying there in bed, we can begin will-directed mental activity again (“Oh yes, I should plan my day tomorrow; my child needs to see the doctor; I need to take care of blah blah blah”). We can do this, or we can accept the blessing of darkness and say, “I am not turning on the light. This is a time of darkness. The light stays off. I will lie here and let those nocturnal animals do what they need to do inside of me without interference from my will.”

Sometimes we don’t have to be fully physically rested in order to have this phenomenon of mental nocturnal animal zooming around as soon as we turn off the light. It can happen even if we are just a little more physically rested than mentally rested. This is the cause of at least 80% of the insomnia that I see in my practice. The person’s body, tired as it is, is not nearly so tired as the person’s mind and spirit. When this is the case, the person lies in bed, unable to go to sleep, with all kinds of seemingly unimportant thoughts and feelings whizzing around inside. Why? Because they had no waking time in which to finish up the tail ends of their thought processes and let them come to completion. There was no time during their busy day when they could just go, “Wow. Huh. Mmm.” There was no time to sit by a brook, or even look out the window and watch the traffic go by. Even during lunch break, they’re busy. There was no space in their waking life just to let the non-will-directed activity of the psyche take place.


There’s a closely related type of insomnia in which the person is genuinely more physically tired than mentally or emotionally tired when they go to bed, and so they hit the bed and they’re out cold after a last little bit of mental activity scurrying down into darkness. Their body just says “I need repair now.”  Then around 2 am, 3 am, maybe 5, their body gets past that triage level. They’ve got just enough rest physically – now their mind and spirit are saying, “I can’t wait anymore. I need conscious down time, too. I need to lie awake and think about how I felt when my boss said that. I need to lie awake and think of things to say to my girlfriend I wish I’d said. I need to lie awake and just stare into space.  Whatever passes through my mind, I need to take the invitation of darkness and not turn on the light; I just need to be here and let this whole parasympathetic non willed-directed activity take place.”

older-white-dude-chillinI can’t tell you how many people’s insomnia has resolved when I’ve said “Doctor’s orders: at least one hour a day, do nothing productive.” Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go online. If you really need some help getting into this parasympathetic space, you can turn on some peaceful music, but nothing that will engage your will. Just be unproductive, because the healing of the psyche takes place during the down time.

When we begin to allow ourselves to truly rest, at first seemingly petty things come up. Often we wonder, “Why am I thinking about this?” It may not be profound, but if we’re thinking about something then it’s still there in our nervous system. We didn’t have time to discharge it before the next event happened right on the heels of the last one, and there wasn’t time to finish the last process before the next process began.

Don’t get impatient with the nocturnal animals. Go ahead and watch and wait and let the darkness deepen. If we allow it, eventually the chatter settles. When this happens there’s this incredible feeling of quiet inside. How long the quiet lasts is different for everybody, but it’s not as long as you think … before the next level of nocturnal animals comes out; some deeper unfinished business starts floating up. There’s a whole level of nocturnal animals that only come out when it’s clear that no one is going to be flicking the light on any minute. There are places we can go on the inside in a quiet moment, but there are other places that we’re not going to go to until we’re sure that somebody is not about to call, barge in, or do something that is going to draw us back up and out to the surface. We’re waiting for the safety of true dark, deep dark, extended dark, silence and rest.

milky-way-co-for-siteThis is a deeper land, this place of the deeper nocturnal animals. The deeper nocturnal animals want to know, “Is it safe for me to come out yet? Is there time for me to finish feeling all that I didn’t have time to feel before?”  Who knows what will come up? Notice, and let the healing happen. Let the inner images and voices crescendo and resolve. Let connections be made that might not have been made if we hadn’t had the time. Once again, these images and voices too resolve into silence. And it’s such a satisfying silence. It’s the silence of having moved through what has been held in abeyance. We’ve been allowed time to heal, time to truly finish a feeling or a thought.

When that profound silence bubbles up, it may last for a little while longer than before. Maybe it lasts for a long while, but then up comes the next layer. Up come things that we haven’t thought about in a long time. They may be things that haven’t come up since we were snow-bound six years ago and got bored out of our skull and finished cleaning everything and did every project we could think of doing. In that deeper silence, things may rise up from very long ago. It could be that the last time you had this kind of rest was when your family drove back from New Hampshire to New Jersey and you were only seven and got bored out of your mind and went really deep into rest.

afr-am-girl-in-carThe healing that happens when we have times of true rest lead to insights that we can’t make happen. We can’t deliberately cause revelation, intuition, or the making of connections between seemingly disparate events in our life. And yet when we rest, we can say, “My God! That’s what was going on for thirty years, and I never noticed.” This is the blessing of the parasympathetic: to go into the dark and stay there long enough for that which we cannot do with our will to take place inside.

Rest is a skill.  Some of us are better at it than others, and it is a wise skill to cultivate because it is a survival skill. It is the wellspring of life itself, to be able to rest. If you practice, you can get better at it. Some people can spend a week on a beach and not come back truly rested. Others can take a 20 minute cat nap and be completely replenished. The difference is in how quickly we are able to drop into parasympathetic space, and this is something that we can learn.

Thea Elijah, Whole Heart Connection

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Photo credits: tontantravelJulio MuleroMark Yokoyama  / Tony Madrid Photography / Roy / Joel Tonyan / Clotee Pridgen Allochuku