The Art of Rest

Doing things is important. I am a big fan of doing. But on the flip side of the same coin is not doing and not doing is also important. As it turns out, it takes just as much energy, dedication, and grit to not do something as it takes to do something. For me, one of the hardest things to do is nothing. Makes sense, considering you are both doing and not doing simultaneously, which is hard to think about, let alone (not) do. As with anything challenging, it takes intense training to do nothing without getting injured so I’ve spent the last month engaged in a rigorous training routine of not doing. It has been exceptionally hard.

What convinced me to rest this month (one day off a week, full stop, non-negotiable) is learning about the ways that rest and idleness are essential to the process of doing; the alter I have worshiped at for my whole agnostic life. As someone who grew up believing that hard work was the only way to progress through life and be a good person, it’s possible I’ve avoided learning about rest for years, even when the data was right in front of me.

What finally shifted my thinking on the value of resting was the story of Sir Roger Bannister, the professional runner who ran the first sub-4 minute mile when it was thought by most of the world to be impossible. He spent the weeks leading up to the race – in which he was to attempt to make history – out in the woods of Scotland with some friends just kinda hiking around. When he returned to England he spent the last few days before the race doing some short workouts to keep his body loose but nothing major in terms of exertion. The day of the race he clocked in at 3 minute, 59 and 4/10 of a second and a new world record for the mile was set.

Now, Sir Roger had been training intensely before his jaunt to the woods two weeks before the race but he intrinsically knew what I have spent most of my life not knowing, which is when to take a break. He also knew that a break meant doing something uplifting and engaging, like hanging out with friends and being in nature, not binging tv crime dramas or scrolling through social media, though, granted, this was 1954. He understood that rest wasn’t passive, it was an active choice to engage with the world outside of one’s work and obsessions.

The periods of rest I’ve engaged in this month have been imperfect. I have caught myself thinking about work, lying to myself about what constituted work, and making excuses for myself that because I love work it really counts as resting. When I have buckled down to rest I have felt everything from anxious and guilty to profoundly peaceful and preternaturally happy. I’m still learning to not let work linger in my mind. Again, rest is not passive, rest is an active choice to engage with the world outside of one’s work and obsessions. I have also, in periods of work this month, made more progress on game development than I have in the whole fourth quarter of 2020. There are far too many variables at play here to chalk this up to a 1:1 cause and effect but the energy I’ve gained from each day off has been notable. 

For years I’ve built time to work into my schedule and I am now building in idleness, or rather active recuperation time. I have been turning off my phone (off off, not silent off), closing my e-mail, exiting slack, and, for the last five weeks, staying off social media. I’ve been present with myself, books, and sometimes joy-based screen things. I have been tasting my tea for the pleasure of the sip not the pragmatic need for caffeine to fuel the doing. I have had days when rest seemed too hard and I didn’t want to do it. This kind of training and pushing through discomfort required experimentation and patience. If reading wasn’t restful, I’d go for a walk, or vice versa. Once more, rest is not passive, rest is an active choice to engage with the world outside of one’s work and obsessions.

It takes effort to rest these days. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. And so it is, on Sunday night as I write this post that I put off yesterday so I could fully rest, that I leave you with one final act of restfulness, which is that I am going to do more of it right now. The moment I press submit on this article I am going off to rest. I hope you’ll join me : )

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