I began my resting practice while I was recovering from pneumonia a few years ago. I had very little energy stored up and I found that I couldn’t push myself at all without taking steps backward on my road to health. So I began to pay attention to the signs that my body gave me to let me know I needed to rest.
I noticed that my mood was an amazingly accurate indicator of my energy level. As my need for rest increased, my mood dropped sharply. I was surprised to find that my feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness were brought on almost exclusibely by exhaustion, and that all I needed to do to relieve them was to rest. I also discovered that there wasn’t anything else that worked nearly as well as resting to give me relief from feeling overwhelmed. Resting, turning on my body’s relaxation response and switching off the stress response, also gave me a sense of groundedness and well-being.
At other periods in my life I had tried taking action (ie: doing as much as I could as fast as I could for as long as I could) as a strategy for dealing with feelings of overwhelm. I thought if I could just get everything on my list taken care of, then I would find peace. Then I would be able to relax.
I remember vividly standing in the middle of the dreary yet spacious kitchen in my third floor apartment in Portland, Maine when I truly understood that there was no way I would ever get it all done. I realized that if I thought I needed to cross out everything on my (never-ending) “to-do” list in order to be able to stop and relax, to rest and take a break, and to feel satisfied and happy, then I was screwed. I felt this reality deep in my dog-tired bones.
It was with that awareness that I began the search for a different motivation for my life. I was 26 at the time, and after living for that long in a culture that operated around the belief that the keys to the kingdom were hard work and productivity, it took a while for me to truly let go of the idea that “getting it all done” was my key to happiness and satisfaction.
One milestone on this journey occurred the day I realized that in any typical 24-hour period, I was only ever truly “on-task”, checking off things on my list, for about three hours. Usually more like two, and occasionally as many as four or five. The rest of my waking hours were typically spent taking care of my basic needs and possibly attempting to motivate myself to “get some work done!”, or alternately, distracting myself from what I thought I should be doing with what is sometimes called, “procrastination” (I now call this, “it’s not time yet”, and it causes me much less stress as I sort out why I am not doing the things on my to-do list. Sometimes it’s because fear. And sometimes it just “ain’t time yet”). This discovery, my relative lack of productivity, was a huge eye-opener for me, and at first it was a bit of a let-down. I thought, how will I ever get anywhere in my life if I’m only productive for 2-4 hours a day?
And then I realized that the only thing inherently wrong with the situation was that my expectations did not match my reality.
For years and years I had been putting enough things on my daily to-do list to occupy me for every single waking hour of every day, if not triple that amount of time. And for many years, with high hopes for success (read: productivity and accomplishment), I would jump out of bed most days and “get to work” on my lists. Or, on the other days, I would stay in bed in a fetal position and try to ignore the voices in my head that were screaming at me about how much there was to do, and how lazy I was, and how I would never get it all done if I didn’t get up right now, and I was already so behind and I was just “making it worse by staying in bed”. Those “fetal position” days would go one of a few ways: Sometimes I would get out of bed with a sinking feeling of dread in my stomach, and haltingly force myself to start taking action. Though what action to take was always another huge issue for me, as every item on the to-do list called out to me; I often couldn’t decide whether it was more important to cut my toenails, or to do my homework. I wondered, was I supposed to sit down and pay the bills, or clean my room? Was it more important to write a thank you note to my aunt for my birthday present, or to go outside and water the garden? This deliberation was often paralyzing; “what is most important?”, I would shout internally. Finally I would find myself just doing something, anything, and often it was something not even on the list, but it got me in motion, and then I would continue on into my day.
Or, I would stay in bed and feel numb and try to ignore the voices and the sick feeling in my belly until I finally had to pee, or I got so hungry that I would pop out of bed and roll on into the kitchen where food would take my mind off my hopeless situation. Or my alarm would go off for the third time and I would concede that if I didn’t get out of bed “right now!”, I would not make it to work on time and I might lose my job. I would drag myself out of bed, and feeling slightly ill and ungrounded I would dress and feed myself, and head out the door. On the walk to work I would often find my center, my groundedness. I would re-inhabit my body, and I would get out of my head where all the to-do lists lived, along with the beliefs that I will never be enough, I will never succeed, I am worthless and a failure unless I prove myself in my life by being perfect and productive. Ouch. My mind was not very kind, and I found that it was not a safe place to spend time alone.
When I began to understand that no matter what good intentions I had for being productive, in my life as a self-employed business woman I was truly only ever “on-task”, working away at my lists, for a few hours a day, I began to get a clue. Somehow I went from incessantly smacking the whip on myself to looking at what was actually happening, and I realized that it was insane to argue with reality any longer. Slowly I reigned in my expectations, at least on the days I was home or doing errands with unstructured time. I still scheduled myself up to five massages a day on some days and then I would find myself exhausted by the end of the day. If only my revelation at that time had been this: “Holy Shit! If I only ever spend 2-4 hours of my day being productive, whether I like it or not, that means I have a helluva lot more time available for playing and resting than I thought!” I took me a couple more years before I made this leap. I was no longer beating myself up so much, but I didn’t yet comprehend the joy and freedom that was actually available to me.
In the spring of 2011, at least four years after the kitchen, never-gonna-get-it-all-done revelation, I was healing from a case of pneumonia I’d had in the winter; I was following a strict diet to control the levels of yeast in my body, and I gave up all stimulants in an attempt to help my body to heal on a deeper level. I hadn’t ever been a big coffee drinker, or stimulant user, or so I thought…until I gave up caffeine and sugar completely and I got to accurately feel my body’s energy levels. I was shocked to find that I needed so much more rest than I thought a normal person should need. I felt like a baby. I needed to nap every afternoon and most mornings as well or else I would find myself falling down the slippery slope of overwhelm, hopelessness, and self-flagellation.
I was flabbergasted at how little energy I had. I had used up all of my energy reserves living life in the my version of the fast lane, playing the productivity game, and my adrenal glands were shot.
Then summer came and I was beginning to feel better. As I had for the last few years, I booked myself a full schedule of massages. Then I had a reality check. I couldn’t actually do four or five massages in a day without feeling completely wasted; I literally felt like I wanted to die. I would say that to myself and I had never remembered hearing that kind of self-talk from me before. And yet, I continued to book my schedule full because that is what I thought I needed to do to be successful and ultimately to survive.
I found that I couldn’t stick to my healing diet while I was working that much. I had gone back to eating sugar and chocolate because I couldn’t figure out how to make my life work any other way. I would get so sleepy in the afternoons, and would take a nap in my car between massages, but I literally felt I would not be able to move, much less give a massage, with out the help of some chocolate or sugar to get me going. I don’t remember if it even occurred to me to work less. At the end of that summer I realized I had made an admirable attempt to move my life in the direction I knew it needed to go, but I was still “far from home”.
The following summer I felt committed to taking it easier. I stopped doing as many house calls; I lived near my office so I could walk home for lunch and take a nap between sessions, and I continued to heal my body. Along with healing my body, I realized that I needed to heal my mind.
I had recently graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition as a certified holistic health coach, and as I began to work with clients I was able to see how strict I was with myself. I saw the high ideals that I held myself to, and found there was not much room for self-love. I remembered a conversation I’d had with a friend the year before. She told me that she was feeling really judged by me; she felt like I judged everything she did and it was making her uncomfortable. That helped me begin to see that not only was I judging her, I was judging myself…all the time.
I began to pay attention to the way I treated myself.
After watching an interview with Dr. Christiane Northrup, a hero of mine, in which she said that the most important thing anyone can do for their health is to truly love themselves, I posted a reminder on my bathroom mirror and ever day I would tell myself, “I love you and I accept you”. This practice began to shift my relationship with myself.
I continue to listen and feel for what my body is asking for, and I make choices in my life by noticing what feels good, what makes my body happy. I have slowed my drive for productivity and loosened my attachment to achievement. As I learn to love and accept myself, I am able to commit to taking care of myself. I am learning how to rest.