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The Nectar of Rest
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The Nectar of Rest
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I'm reading
The Nectar of Rest
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28 November 2022

The Nectar of Rest

“When we actively choose rest over productivity, urgency and competition, not only are we directly countering the mechanisms of capitalism, but we are also building our capacity to hold the complexity of this time.”

Written by Jo Buick

This story originally ran in issue #65 of Dumbo Feather

Photographer: Chris Abatzis

When I think about rest, my breath slows and my nervous system settles. I feel my belly relax and the edges of my eyes soften. Something deep inside of me becomes heavier and more grounded. Internally, there is a realignment from wherever I have been (which is often somewhere not so restful), to a place that is more authentic and dignified. Simply thinking or saying the word “rest” has become a mnemonic tool for re-centring.

It hasn’t always been this way. For most of my life, true rest eluded me. First as a remedial school teacher, then as a policy advisor and social justice strategist, I hurtled through life at great speed. Frequently praised for the pace at which I produced both work and ideas, my sense of self-worth and meaning was tightly coupled with notions of service and productivity. In a fatiguing act of dissonance, I also felt shame at my inability to rest. Especially as a meditator, and later as a yoga teacher, I craved rest but was trapped in a narrative around “unearned” rest equating to laziness or wasted time.

I had been dancing around the practice of rest for a number of years when I finally experienced the mother of all burnouts in 2017. Over the course of a year, what began as a barely perceptible feeling of dread on a Sunday evening gradually permeated my entire being. Every system in my body sent warning signs, but it wasn’t until I was bone-tired, iron-deficient, immunocompromised and physically unable to sustain the pace of my life that I finally succumbed to rest. And in that surrender, something searing, challenging and unexpectedly sweet transpired.

Ever since, I have been captivated by rest – as a spiritual practice, a political act, a science, and as a doorway to pleasure. Embracing rest has challenged me hugely and changed the course of my life. Alongside facilitating rest courses and retreats, my role as a director of a small non-profit t supports a daily exploration of the intersections between rest, embodiment and social change. And whilst I am still in the process of decoupling the deeply embedded enmeshment of pace and worth within me, every day I feel a visceral shift in my state of being, moving me closer to a life that is more rested, engaged and embodied.

Rest as a political practice

One of the harshest truths that I awoke to via the burnout of 2017 was that my own habituation to productivity, stress and service had made me complicit in the sustenance of the very systems and structures that I was working against. I had become caught up in the paradoxical culture of urgency, overtime and pressure that tends to dominate the non-profi t sector. Despite being an embodiment practitioner, I was well practiced at ignoring the signals of my body in favour of deadlines and being on call. In this habituation, I expelled most of my energy on workrelated projects, leaving little remaining at the end of the day for those I loved or for joy and pleasure. It also meant that I had minimal energy to engage in the deep somatic work that true social change requires of me.

A political framing of rest requires different engagement and embodiments from each of us, depending on the unique intersections of our identities and our relative experiences of safety and ease in the world. In my instance, as a white, cisgendered woman, rest practices have been hugely healing in relationship to my own enculturated and intergenerational patterning around service, worth and gender. As a settler on unceded lands, rest practices have also supported me in accessing nervous system states that enable deep and challenging process work around race, privilege, white body supremacy and colonisation.

Somatic practitioner and healer Resmaa Menakem calls this process “somatic abolitionism”, and I like to think of it as a kind of spiritual tending that counters the spiritual bypassing that often dominates the circles that I move in.

Mirroring the features of trauma (too much, too fast, too little, too late), our contemporary world constantly catapults us between headlines, stimuli, responsibilities and uncertainty. When we actively choose rest over productivity, urgency and competition, not only are we directly countering the mechanisms of capitalism, but we are also building our capacity to hold the complexity of this time. When rested, we are more able to embody and act in alignment with our deepest values, which generates a sense of connection, ease and purpose.

Rest as a science

Whilst considering rest as a political act provided a lot of motivation and momentum, it was learning about the science behind it that supported me to actually change my patterns and create new ways of being in the world. A scientifi c perspective of rest is especially interested in the autonomic nervous system, which is a complicated but incredibly vital aspect of understanding rest as an embodied practice.

Capable of great intricacy, including a multitude of blended states, flavours and charges, a healthy autonomic nervous system is able to pendulate between activation, intimacy, play and connection. However, when life is consistently stressful and challenging, or when something traumatic occurs, the nervous system reacts by activating a survival response. For some of us, this might look like a dominance of sympathetic arousal – hyper-vigilance, being unable to “switch off ”, aggression or a short fuse, anxiety or distraction. Others might be more habituated to a collapsed survival response – disconnection, shutting down, feeling numb or unmotivated, or unable to access pleasure and joy.

In recognition of these common stress responses, rest practices focus on stimulating the “ventral vagal complex” of the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system. This nerve complex supports the body to access safety, relaxation and social connection. Activation of this nerve also supports you to be present and focused during times of challenge and complexity. It is here that we access perspective and connection amidst conflict and change. If we hang out in a ventral vagal state, we are better able to integrate and learn.

The science of rest also pays attention to brain wave oscillations, and the cultivation of alpha (meditation and relaxation), theta (REM sleep) and gamma (inspiration and flow) brainwaves. Aligned with this perspective is an understanding of circadian rhythms, and the secretion of hormones according to factors such as light, darkness, perceived stress and relaxation. Here, we might practice morning and evening rituals, daily activities of creativity and relaxation, and an awareness of the impact of stimulants (caffeine, sugar, blue light) on our attention and sleep.

Rest as a spiritual practice

Whilst the political element of rest provides motivation, and the science provides a map for practice, the spiritual element represents the heart of this work. It is here that we learn to hold a deep reverence for present moment awareness and the awakening of our senses to the divine in all.

When our lives are busy and overstimulating, we can become caught up in perpetual cycles of action, with little space to witness the divine in the mundane moments of life. Traditional non-dual Tantric practices teach us that it is only when we slow down and anchor in the present moment that the eternal essence that connects all is revealed. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of this beautifully in his description of washing a teacup with the same tenderness as if it were “the baby Buddha or baby Jesus.” Restorative practices such as yoga nidra, chanting and meditation are especially revered for their capacity to gently carry people from the noise and separateness of daily life, and into a sublime, quiet, and connected sense of being. Nature or candle gazing (trataka) are other ways in which we can connect with the divine in all.

Yoga also offers us a framework for deciphering healing, supportive rest (sattvic) from unsupportive or numbing forms of rest (tamasic). Defined by lightness and connection, “sattvic” rest is that which feels integrative and is nurturing of desire, pleasure and connection. Characterised by inertia and numbing, “tamasic” rest may feel heavy, dark or isolating. Examples of sattvic rest could include taking a conscious breath, a 20-minute nap to reset, a self-massage or a walk in nature to reground. Examples of tamasic rest could include endlessly scrolling on devices or numbing with food, alcohol, or streamed TV.

From the food that we eat to the company we keep, the visuals we consume through our eyes, and the news and music that we tune in to, humans are incredibly subtle creatures, constantly in a state of absorption and integration. If we expose ourselves to a constant stream of overstimulation, we become overstimulated beings, which in turn limits our capacity to rest, to hold complexity, to integrate new information and to access pleasure and joy.

Rest as a doorway to pleasure

One of the more harrowing realisations that I had during my experience of burnout was my inability to access pleasure and joy. At the height of my fatigue, I lost my appetite and my sense of taste, the sweetest of company failed to soothe, and I felt drained of sensuality, pleasure and desire. In my exhaustion, I gravitated to low-quality, tamasic forms of rest – numbing and succumbing, as opposed to relishing and resting. In my work with others who have experienced chronic stress, trauma and/or burnout, there is a common theme of grief surrounding pleasure (and its absence).

From a nervous system perspective, pleasure, intimacy and joy require a blended activation that involves the ventral vagal complex. This means that often, when we slow down and practice attuning to our bodies, pleasure and joy also return.

In the practice of slowing down, the invitation is to alter the speed at which you generally engage with the world. Gently over time, the impact of repeatedly slowing down anchors you in the present, providing access to more spontaneous and unplanned experiences of pleasure and joy. This is markedly different from responsive slowing down, as a result of burnout, illness, the end of the day/week/term, scheduled holidays or “earned” rest. It is also very different from the famine or feast variety of pleasure, when we abstain and then “treat ourselves” when we are “deserving” or can no longer hold out. Here, pace, presence and pleasure are intimately connected.

Embodied Rest Practice: Nature Gazing

This rest practice requires no special props or resources, and can be practiced inside or outside. Spending time in nature or gazing at nature supports a return to the ventral vagal relaxation response. For this meditative practice, you could either take yourself outside into nature, or position yourself at a window, looking out into nature. Your gaze should steadily fixate on either an object of nature or the space in between two objects of nature. Your focus point should be alive (not plucked or dried leaves). The energy or intention recommended is one of resting with, surrendering, and remembering. As you gaze out into nature, take in as much detail as you can, so that you become intimately aware of the object of your focus. Soften your eyes and your jaw.

Open up to the possibility that the gazing practice is, in a sense, mutual. That just as you are considering the object of your focus, it too is considering you. That despite the clear differences between you and the object, there is much that is similar between you. Can you feel the similarities?

This practice can be engaged in for up to one hour or more, or for a shorter period of time (i.e. 10 minutes). When you do exit the practice, take a moment and see if there is anything that you would like to take with you as an insight, a memory or an imprint.

Read this story in Issue #65 of Dumbo Feather or find us at your local independent retailer. 

Jo Buick

Jo Buick is an educator with an interest in the alchemising intersections between embodiment, social justice and healing. She is a meditator, yoga teacher and the co-founder and director of the non-profit organisation, Collective Being. Based between the surf coast and Melbourne, jo facilitates courses, retreats and experiences that support people and communities to return to the wisdom of their bodies – most frequently via practices of deep rest and connection. Find out more: @_collectivebeing_ / @jo.buick

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