… To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals. To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right; to rest is to fall back literally or figuratively from outer targets and shift the goal not to an inner static bull’s eye, an imagined state of perfect stillness, but to an inner state of natural exchange.
– David Whyte
Thankyou David Whyte. I breathe that in like cool morning air over the water. Thank you.
Finding our way to rest
Rest has been hard for me to learn over the years. I come from a long line of ‘do-ers’ – constantly busy bumble bees, people who collage, knit or do housework while watching television (if they can sit still long enough to watch it), people who catch up on phone calls while cleaning the fridge or making dinner, who quickly repaint walls after dinner and before dessert, who get fidgetey doing nothing, who like to do, do, do and make, make, make. We like to do lots! We like to do it fast! My own projects are often nested one within another like Russian dolls, an endless to do list of exciting things to work on. Whether or not it’s for some grand purpose (usually it’s not), whether or not anyone else will like the outcomes, whether or not the thing is even needed.
Are we hyperactive? Are we afflicted with ADHD or some similar set of letters capitalised and definitive, I hear you ask? Are we suffering some kind of existential angst that grips us in it’s leathery talons when we slow down and so fills us with fear of inconsequentiality, or death, we are propelled into movement? Quite possibly.
Are we ‘creative types’ always seeing a use for things; our minds skipping and jumping to what that discarded drink container, cork, fire hose, piece of rusty metal, lace doily, piece of string could be used for? Full of excitement in the possibility of making something new, propelled forward by curiosity? Yes and yes.
Or are we in fact just typical humans, playing out the arc of the 20th and 21st centuries and riding the waves of progress, the buzz of creating, changing, making a mark? Is it a standard issue part of being human, the happy busy of using our minds and hands together, and I’m just more aware of the particular way my family does this then I am yours? Possibly.
What I do know is that for me, I get such joy out of being ‘up’ and out of ‘making’ that sometimes I forget it is not the only way to be. It took me a long time to even believe that I might be a busy person – instead of seeing what I have already done, I would be looking forward at what I haven’t done yet, what still needs to be done, and my ideas yet to come to fruition. How could people say I am always doing so much, when I knew how much I had yet to do?
For me, I have had to learn, painfully at times, that what comes up must come down, and that like the fairy tale story of the girl wearing the little red shoes*, if we are not careful, we can be carried along on our states of ecstatic productivity or creativity, and left worn out and exhausted, the other parts of our life neglected, and that mysterious thing balance is nowhere to be found.
Sinking in to a deep rest periodically, or having longer periods of less active time as bookends to the most active, is a crucial way to restore. The yin for the yang, the fallow winter field before a productive spring, the waiting and not-doing as complement to creation. After years of grappling with this I came to realise that even much of my relaxation was active (making, doing), and whilst enjoyable, and creatively engaging, was not giving my system the benefits of deep rest. I have had to find easy ways to build in rest into my days, not only so that I can switch states (and wind down at the end of a busy day for example), but also so that over the weeks and months I am nourishing myself, and can sustain the activity and am ‘topping up the creative well’. If I was a tree this might be the image of accessing deep and fertile soil to support the growing branches and leaves.
Challenges on the path
In my own journey to embrace rest, I have had to look gently at what drives my activity and especially those areas that are propelled by fear of failure rather than joy of creating. I have had to sit with those uncomfortable feelings that sometimes arise when I slow down, or the words of judgement (like ‘selfish’ or ‘lazy’) that came up when I ‘do nothing’. In addition it can be a shock to realise that the structures of your life, or the amount of commitments make it logistically impossible to factor in downtime. Lately I have been taking it further and with the help of my own trusted teachers** trying to connect with the ‘wu wei‘ – learning to listen to my body’s wisdom about whether I am best being productive or restful in any given period. To do this I am having to learn to trust that honouring my tired feelings with rest, rather than fighting them, will help restore me to a state where I am propelled forward into activity gently and naturally at a later date.
I have come to learn that by embracing rest I don’t turn by back on creative activity, I simply add another tune to my repertoire.
Art therapy and rest
In art therapy, we try to create a space where the client is ‘met’ at whatever energy level they present at. They are walked slowly into relaxed state, or met and mirrored in their energetic state. If they are usually ‘activated’, operating with their sympathetic nervous system in full swing (either through happy excitement, stress or hypervigilence), then a more relaxed state can be an unfamiliar place to visit. We try to create a safe space where the client can have their parasympathetic nervous system activated – so they can experience rest, healing and calm. Meditation, guided visualisation, and art processes like sculpting and drawing are tools we use with the client to help them experience this. The process of slower diaphramatic breathing, the activation of positive emotions, the engagement with the senses, all helps to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. The physical space is also carefully constructed to look, smell, sound, and feel peaceful and safe to help them relax. In the therapeutic relationship itself, as trust and rapport grows and the client experiences acceptance and kindness, the defence mechanisms can be gently lowered, and a more peaceful state of being settled into. The parasympathetic nervous system, so crucial for healing, can be activated.
With our daily armour softened or left at the door and our pace slowed right down, we can find that place where we feel safe and connected enough to work on the issues we face in our lives. Art therapy is a little like a restful haven away from daily life, a space where we are accompanied in experiencing our strong emotions and reflecting on our own thinking and behaviour, with compassion.
* the story is a cautionary tale about vanity carrying someone away from their station or tribe, and their journey back to humility, but like all good fairy tales it can be read in multiple ways.
** by which I mean my own coach, mentors, therapist or teachers – yes, I have them too! Would you go to a Dentist who didn’t believe in brushing or going to the Dentist themselves?