The Art of Rest

by Jennifer Louden

I recently spent four days alone in a rustic cabin on a bluff on the wild Washington coast. I worked on my novel, read, napped, did yoga, ate huge salads, sat in the sunshine, and watched eagles eat crab scavenged from the ocean’s edge. It was one of the most truly restful retreats I’ve ever savored.

It wasn’t so long ago, however, that I would have taken this time to rest but instead stayed in a bound-up, edge-of-frantic mood. At the end of my stay, despite my good intentions, I would have driven away feeling cheated, shallow, even more scooped out. Why? Because it’s taken me years to realize, in my body and mind, that genuine rest, the kind that recharges us so deeply that the furrows between our eyebrows disappear (well, at least soften), is connected first to wholeheartedness, and then to a silken collage made up of listening, pleasure, and freedom.

You may wonder what rest has to do with living wholeheartedly. Maybe everything. I’ve begun to think that our epidemic exhaustion and chronic complaints of “I’m too busy to ever really rest” have as much to do with a disconnect from purpose as with the pressures of modern life. Rest is not sincerely recharging if it is always an escape or retreat from engagement or action. I love a chick flick and a tub of buttery popcorn as much as the next gal, but if that’s all I ever did for rest, I’d quickly become brittle and burned-out. Genuine rest—not just vegging out—requires integrity and commitment to something bigger than ourselves in daily life if we are to recharge in the deep way that many of us are so fiercely hungry for.

This leads to a scary, exhilarating thought: What if when we can’t get the rest we crave, when we can’t get to that territory where our minds slow and our shoulders drop away from our ears, it’s because we aren’t authentically spending our precious gifts, we aren’t making noble choices, we aren’t living by what we treasure? In Nora Gallagher’s beautiful memoir, Practicing Resurrection, she relates how social activist and Episcopal bishop Dan Corrigan, then in his eighties, responded to one of his parishioners when she casually says, “Take care of yourself, Dan.” “No, I don’t think so,” he replies. “I don’t take care of myself. I spend myself.”

What if to access genuine rest we must be spending ourselves in life, giving the most we are capable of giving—not in a martyr-like way, but in a way that genuinely fits us? What if genuine living and genuine rest are intimately entwined?

Of course, living a genuine life is far from a straight and clear path. We all feel hounded by our unmet obligations, our false promises to ourselves and others, our struggles to live with purpose. True rest requires us to be in tune with ourselves, but if something is amiss inside, our tendency is to run the other way. In other words, rest is blocked when we get a little out of sync with ourselves—either because life has been crazy lately or we’ve done something we aren’t proud of or because we are judging ourselves for getting out of balance.

But there’s something that can bring us back, time and again, to the place where real rest is accessible, the place where wholeheartedness begins—that triumvirate of listening, pleasure, and freedom, which is the basis for one style of retreat I defined in The Woman’s Retreat Book as “springing from and guided by your inner knowing.” When we grant ourselves the time to listen for what would give us pleasure, what we really want right now, in this moment—versus what we think we should do or what we have always done in the past—and then grant ourselves the freedom to act on what we hear, we strike gold. This combination untangles the twin tyrannies of habit and identity, allowing us to stretch into a more organic, more open sense of ourselves. So one day rest might look like painting and then a bath and then dancing to salsa music, and another day it might look like cleaning your closet and giving clothes to the battered women’s shelter, chatting with a friend, then taking a nap between fresh sheets.

By following our inner knowing, we find ourselves naturally reconnecting back to wholeheartedness—doing what gives us the most joy and allows us to most effectively offer our gifts to the world, and this continues to unfold and expand as we grow and develop. Think about it: When you truly rest, after a certain period of time—minutes, hours, days, depending on how long you have and how long it has been since you really rested—that raggedy feeling of need begins to fade away; gradually, tantalizing flashes of ideas about how to extend yourself into the world begin to shimmer by, teasing you, making your mouth water and your heart expand with possibility.

The truth is that the more we are truly living with purpose and integrity, the more rest and self-nurturing and relaxation become a mood we live in more of the time—a satisfying texture of action and calm, expansion and contraction, giving and replenishing, spirit and matter. Genuine rest becomes part of our lives not because we have to make time for it or force ourselves to do it in some prescribed way, but because we are spending ourselves with verve and integrity, are replenished by that…and know when to cease doing and lie in a hammock. Life, in other words, has become indistinguishable from genuine rest.

Return to Center
What gets in the way of genuine rest?

Getting out of sync with ourselves—the whirring voices in the back of our minds, the voices of guilt and haste saying “I should be answering e-mail, I should be weeding the garden, I should be making that hard phone call.” Try this step-by-step process for centering yourself and getting back in sync.
1. Take a moment to review what you are proud of in your life, from drinking enough water yesterday to not yelling at your coworker.

2. Breathe deeply, releasing your belly fully, and then ask “What is standing between me and peace in this moment?”

3. Keep breathing and asking, without expecting an answer but trusting that one will come.

4. If the din of self-criticism or denial is particularly clamorous, write down what is roaming through your mind, keeping your hand moving until the babble exhausts itself (which actually doesn’t take long, as it is boringly repetitive babble).

5. Investigate any twinges that arise about what is not right in your life and name the action it would take to make the situation right. If you can’t name what is amiss or bugging you, just sit with that feeling of not knowing, without pushing it away and without wallowing in it. Beating yourself up or resisting what is is never conducive to rest—or anything else for that matter.

Jennifer Louden is a best-selling author of five books, including the classic The Woman’s Comfort Book and Comfort Secrets for Busy Women. She has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs, including Oprah. She’s also a certified coach, creator of learning events and unique life balance products. Visit Retreats.

Also from Jennifer Louden:
Comfort Queen Books
Life Organizer Companion CD
The Mood Changer and Comfort Wishes PLUS Audio Sacred Pause Retreat: Listening to the Questions
Audio Sacred Pause Retreat: Listening to the Question
Mood Changers and Comfort Wishes
Comfort Cafe
The Soul Deliverable Inner Organizer