Learning How to Rest: The Paradox of High Performance
True rest is not stagnancy. It is rejuvenation, recalibration, balance, and poise. It is psycho-spiritual neutrality. It is release from the necessity of forward progress—and paradoxically, it’s exactly what allows for the most meaningful progress.
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We live in a world that values activity far more highly than rest.
Our culture is programmed with a deep fear of stagnancy—perhaps because of the ingrained belief that “when you stop growing, you start dying” (a biological fact that somewhat misses the point of living).
But true rest is not stagnancy. It is rejuvenation, recalibration, balance, and poise. It is psycho-spiritual neutrality.
It is release from the necessity of forward progress—and paradoxically, it’s exactly what allows for the most meaningful progress.
Try to forego sleep for a couple nights and see what happens. Acitivity can only be effective when it is tempered and shaped by rest.
Rest takes many forms. Obviously, optimal-quality sleep is its most basic form. But our society’s excess of activity affects our minds and hearts, as well. We are led to believe that the wheels of the mind must keep turning and the strings of the heart must keep vibrating.
We are taught that a moral life is one of striving—that it is one of movement toward an ideal, which thus requires the postponement of present contentment in order to approach what we “should” be doing, thinking, and feeling.
Surely, there’s some folks out there who have the opposite problem of resting too much and not acting enough (I envy them a little bit). But what most of us need to learn is the ability to rest.
Let me clarify something before we continue: I’m not talking about Buddhist non-attachment or non-doing (which is all well and good, particularly in the context of a meditation practice). I’m not talking about resting for the sake of resting.
Instead, the focus of this article is the transition between activity and rest (or vice versa). Masterful living, high performance, and overall well-being are all directly connected with our ability to balance these two states of being.
The more we can optimize our experience of both states, and the more effortlessly we can move between them, the more leverage we will have in our lives.
It’s just that most of us have way more practice being active than being restful (because the former is valued more highly). Therefore, your balancing process will most likely need to be weighted toward effective resting.
So how do we teach ourselves to oscillate effortlessly between activity and rest?
The body is our training ground
In case you need to be reminded, the physical body is a miracle. It is the confluence of matter and spirit, a liminal space that allows for psycho-spiritual learning and experimentation on an incomprehensibly sophisticated level.
As such, there’s no better way to learn the art of rest than to connect with your own body.
Physiologically speaking, our activity is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, and our rest is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. There are myriad practices that we can use to practice switching from one to the other.
Perhaps the most straightforward exercise is the yogic posture Shavasana, or Corpse Pose (most yoga sets and classes are concluded with it). It has been called the easiest pose to practice and the hardest pose to master—simply because it requires perfect balance between rest and activity.
Yoga focuses heavily on this balance, but much of it is still activity-based. While physical asana and pranayama clears the mind and focuses it on using the body with restful flow and grace, it is still activity.
In Shavasana, on the other hand, there is no activity to keep the mind occupied. Too much focus on remaining present will stop the parasympathetic nervous system from engaging, and too much surrender will either lead to an unquiet mind or a spontaneous nap. It takes a special mastery to remain fully present, and yet fully released.
Even if you don’t practice yoga, try using Corpse Pose to test your own state of being. You’ll discover very quickly whether or not your body is adept at transitioning from one state to another.
Take a cue from elite athletes
World-champion jiu-jitsu competitor Marcelo Garcia prepares for his matches in a pretty unique way: directly before entering the ring, in the middle of all the venue pandemonium, he takes a nap.
He has trained his body to drop immediately into a state of restorative sleep, and upon awakening, he just as quickly jumps into a state of peak performance.
Granted, he’s been engaged in professional somatic training for most of his life. But whether or not you’re an athlete, you can apply this basic principle in your own life.
How quickly are you able to fall asleep? How long do you need to sleep in order to feel completely rested? Experiment a bit, and see what you can learn about yourself. Take short naps during the day (to see how quickly you can drop into restful sleep), and keep track of your nightly sleep cycles.
A quick note: I’m always skeptical of the lifehackers who claim that they can “do just fine” with four hours of sleep per night. I’m open to the possibility that some humans are wired differently, but every conclusive sleep study that’s been conducted suggests that if you’re getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, you’re pushing your luck.
So, I’m not suggesting that you sleep less, but rather that you learn to sleep more effectively, so that you can perform more optimally during your active states.
And by the way, this whole process isn’t just about body optimization.
Studies have demonstrated that people who can easily transition between parasympathetic and sympathetic states tend to be happier, calmer, and less anxious.
As you become better at rest, you paradoxically also become more capable of being active in a psycho-spiritually healthy way. You become less rigid, more composed, and more focused. It becomes easier to slow down. Your actions are driven by the weight of each moment, rather than the compulsion of moments to come.
As I intimated at the beginning of this article, the consciousness of activity often traps us in the black-and-white world of “what we should do.”
Let’s explore how the art of rest can soften this kind of dogmatism, so that we can live more freely, more lightly, and more happily.
Activity as moral compulsion
The conquistador mentality of the modern world—that which values movement, activity, and accomplishment over all else—is intimately connected with moral rigidity.
According to this belief system, struggle is necessary and good. Striving is synonymous with the will to live, and anything less is viewed as a divergence from what is good and right.
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know that I’m fully in support of healthy striving and self-development. But all this “work” becomes meaningless and ineffective if it prevents us from rest: resting in our bodies and resting in momentary pleasure.
In his fascinating book, The Discipline of Pleasure, James Bampfield discusses the inherently balancing nature of well-intentioned pleasure: “Pleasure…brings us back down to the earth of our bodies. Pleasure takes us out of pretense; it releases us from the pinching grip of our lofty notions as to what should be good for us and others. Pleasure brings a lush humility.”
Rest is the visceral surrender to our momentary experience, our momentary needs, and our momentary desires. It is indulgence in our body-mind system’s need for balance.
Such balance allows our activity to be driven by inner vitality rather than external obligation. It allows us to shed the dogmatic programming of the external world, so that we may become self-organizing, sovereign, and genuinely fulfilled.
Perhaps most pragmatically, it reminds us things don’t have to be so serious and difficult. It encourages us to remember the words conveyed by Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
So take the time to cultivate your relationship to restfulness. Become better friends with your parasympathetic nervous system. Enhance and activate your active, personal projection by mastering its opposite.
As long as rest remains focused on balanced and beautiful release, it will always serve you well. As long as it premised upon positive immersion in the world rather than escape from it, it will always lead you to places of profound actualization.
Only through this actualization—this becoming real to oneself—can real progress be made.
 James Bampfield, The Discipline of Pleasure (Belgium: Lannoo Campus, 2013), p. 20.
 Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 110.