Until lately when I have paid attention to my need to rest deeply, I have assumed that all I needed was that elusive good night’s sleep or two, or maybe an hour sitting in my chair reading a book, or maybe watching a movie. But I’ve been confused. There’s a fundamental part of resting I have missed for years.
I used to know how to rest deeply. I’m not sure when I lost the knack, but lose it I did. It must have been sometime into my adulthood. When I was a kid, I didn’t have to think about resting deeply. When I rested, I rested gently, sweetly, with that beautiful abandon you see on the face of a sleeping child.
Somewhere along the way, facing the various stresses I experienced in my adulthood, the ability to let myself go into rest the way a child lets go into rest was misplaced. Somewhere along the way that voice in my head, my internal critic, got involved in everything I did, including rest. You know that voice: the one that judges us and harshly directs the stories in our heads, the one that calls us names we wouldn’t be mean enough to call somebody else. That voice.
And when that voice became involved in my attempts to rest, resting became a task like all the other tasks in my day: something to measure, something to ration. Rest became something to do when I had had no other choice. I rested when, and if, all the work was finished. (There’s a secret I have learned in my 60s, by the way. Work is never finished. There is always more.)
When the internal critic took over, the part about rest I completely forgot was kindness. Deeply resting is an act of self-kindness. It’s a gentle, loving, compassionate practice. And that act is intentional. If we don’t intend to be kind to ourselves we won’t be.
We live in a world that isn’t kind a lot of the time. It’s a world that pushes us to greater and greater stress and judgment. With less and less focus on genuine kindness and compassion for ourselves and for others, we can and do turn any part of our lives into a way to be self-critical and give ourselves a hard time. Resting is a prime example.
Without an intention of kindness, I can take an hour off from what I am doing to “rest” and drive myself and my body to distraction in that hour – spinning stories, worrying about something that might or might not happen, filling my heart and mind with judgments about people, places and things. That’s not kind.
I had a fall a month and a half ago and I hit my head. There is little doubt that I had a mild concussion as a result. A month and a half ago I didn’t have much choice about practicing rest. Deep rest is the best way to treat a concussion.
Knowing that once again I had to heal my brain, I tried to rest. When I really tried to rest, I finally saw the pattern. I discovered that without a conscious, mindful intention of being kind to myself, I wasn’t really resting. I was grudgingly doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I was lying down, after all. Wasn’t that enough?
What became clear was that even though I was lying down, I was tossing and turning, sleeping and waking. I was being anxious, giving myself a hard time, full of unpleasant thoughts. Neither my brain nor my body was relaxed. There was none of that beautiful, childlike abandonment into sleep. I was revved. My brain and my body weren’t upright in a chair at my desk, but they might as well have been.
So I began to bring the practice of mindful inquiry to resting and I wondered: If I am not deeply resting even when I have to heal myself, what is in the way? What stops me? What keeps me from letting go? And I saw that on some deep level I didn’t feel safe. So I asked myself to notice what felt unsafe. And the answer I discovered that I wasn’t being kind to myself.
Then I got really curious: What would it look like if I tried to be kind to myself? What would happen if I set an intention about resting that was a deliberate attempt to cultivate self-compassion while I was lying down? Would that make a difference?
I began to see that I could take an extra minute or two to ask myself if I was warm enough or if the pillow was in a comfortable position. If not, I could arrange the covers and the pillow just so. When a fear or a judgment or a criticism arose in my heart and mind, rather than follow that story I could simply notice my anxious thoughts and meet them with kindness. I could give them a gentle mental and emotional touch full of intentional wellbeing and not get caught up in them.
If I hurt, and I did after that fall, I could meet that pain and acknowledge it, gently holding the places that hurt, resting them so that the pain was eased. I could allow myself permission to be with whatever I found, without judgment, one tiny step at a time. I could practice rest as a gift to myself, rather than a requirement.
As I did this, my rest changed. I stopped trying to make things be the way I thought they “should” be. I started opening my heart to myself and meeting what was present just as it was. This is kindness. In this space of kindness I could let go and rest.
After years of dealing with my stroke and teaching, I know enough about the brain to know that I could re-wire my approach to rest if I mindfully practiced an approach different from the one I had been using. It would take time. Practice and re-wiring always do, but it would be possible. What I didn’t know until I allowed myself to be curious was that the practice I need to help me rest deeply is kindness.