Rest, The Winter, and the Lesson of Stillness
The flakes of snow seem to swallow ambient noise as they mosey their way to the ground covering the earth in prismatic beauty. Each frozen droplet adds its unique minuscule geode to the blanket of stillness; all the while knowing its impermanence in the face of the sun.
July seems like an odd time to be writing about Winter. Maybe it's because Jingle Bells was randomly being caroled in my home yesterday, but the odd intrusion of winterish notions are quite jarring to the mind preoccupied with the heat of summer. While we know that at some point, "Winter is coming," we generally even wait until at least the fall before forecasting such truths to each other. So why mention it here?
As a child growing up in the 80's and 90's, summer break always felt like a big sigh of relief. Nothing to do except lay around outside, play neighborhood night games, or just relax with some game shows on television. Bob Barker was basically my babysitter. However, as an adult, there is obviously no summer break. Instead, it feels as if this is the most manic time of year. Not only are we trying to maximize the short window of time in the form of vacations, activities, and/or outdoor adventures, but also parents of school-aged children are probably having PTSD flashbacks of the lockdowns. Should you be so lucky to afford it, you are also shuttling those adorable little ones to as many camps as you can find to maintain some degree of sanity, if there is any sanity left to be had.
It is important to understand that the four seasons have lessons for us. And those lessons are most pronounced and obvious when the season arrives. However, these lessons are also imperative in shorter cycles too, such as monthly, weekly, and even daily. The overarching lesson of Winter is "Rest" and its importance makes it one of the Four Tenets. While certainly our bodies and minds are programmed to rest every day in the form of sleep, it can not go understated that sleep alone is not the only form of rest that we need. In fact, the concept of Rest is so much more...
Winter is counterbalanced by summer; rest is counterbalanced by movement and activity. These two forces dance with each other each day, week, month, and year. They are a pure duality represented in our cultures throughout the ages such as with the yin and yang in Traditional Chinese Medicine and even in Ancient Astrology with the energies of the Sun and Moon. And even knowing that recovery is just as important as activity, I often ask patients and myself, "Is there a balance between the two?"
It must be stated that in today's western industrialized society, one of these energies is far more revered and rewarded than the other. There is no shortage of phrases, slogans, raises, or accolades for those who "have their nose to the grindstone" as their default mode. You likely have noticed that in 2022, it seems that we are all being pushed to do more within the same amount of time we have per day. Throughout time, humans have had major variations in how many hours they are required to spend working based on various historical events and life circumstances.
Last year in America, the average number of hours worked for a full-time employee was 1,820 hours per year. Nearly a hundred years ago in 1929, we worked roughly 2,600 hours per year. However, we are working more today compared to 2010 (1,736). But working hours are not the only factor. For example, census data shows that in today’s America over half of married couples are dual-income families. If you compare that to 100 years ago where only 9% of families were dual income that is pretty significant. And say what you want about traditional or untraditional roles, it is easy logic to suggest that having to spend 40 hours working compared to 80 provides a lot more opportunity to address needs at home compared the the flip side
Not only are couples working more, but we are seeing an incredible surge in the “side-hustle.” It is estimated that roughly 2/3rds of Americans have or are planning a side hustle. This trend is only likely to brownfield the current economic climate.
Lastly, what are we actually doing when we are not working? If you are like me, we are either training to keep going on projects at all cost: home improvement, maintenance/cleaning, exercise, childcare, or binging television. Suffice it to say, not exactly activities of restful living.
My point is that work/life balance (or rather move/rest balance) is a disaster in today’s world. Furthermore, rest and recovery are sometimes given an olive branch of awareness from society, but it’s never truly rewarded for the importance it plays in health and function. When it does get attention, we are usually just talking about the importance of sleep.
Sleep is one form of rest, yes, and it is incredibly important. Research is ongoing demonstrating sleep’s impact on just about every chronic disease. Sleep is our primordial rest function, but from the perspective of adaptive medicine it is just one layer of rest…and the most superficial. Sleep is the physical manifestation of rest.
What about the emotional, mental, and spiritual forms of rest? As with any tenet, there are domains of the experience. Each domain is related to each other but also have a degree of independence in how it processes the world. I can speak more on this at a latter point. But physical rest is but one domain, what about emotional rest or mental rest.
IN FACT, most times when we begin to wind down and slow ourselves from our busy work day we usually engaging in something that stimulates us emotionally or mentally. This is a a domain swap, and it does not hit the scale of actual rest. The lack of physical activity is not equal to rest. For example, research tells us that there is very little difference between the brain processing a hypothetical image (such as with a dream, a memory, or a television show) compared to actually experiencing it yourself. So while that true crime show might be part of your nite-nite plan, you are getting as much brain relaxation from that as actually getting attacked.
This is why the lesson of winter is important to remember dying the craziness of summer. What are you doing to bring yourself rest. How is your sleep? How is your mental rest? Are you giving yourself a break from your mind? This mental rest is what we generally call “relaxation”. And we do very little of it today. What is worse, if you go into the deeper domains such as emotions and spirit, we apply rest even more infrequently there. But, these layers are topics for a different day.
This is meant to be a gentle reminder to you and me and there is no healing without rest. Rest is a fundamental energy, a law of nature. Rest gets very little honor as we all continue to “burn the midnight oil”. But those who want to thrive and optimize the human experience will do well to evaluate their relationship with it.