The Painful Approach to Quiet Calm

November 19, 2023

Natalie Zeifman (she/her/hers), Low Entropy Volunteer Writer

You would think that discussions around rest should be relaxing and soothing, but the opposite is often the case. These discussions can ironically be filled with even more things you “should” be doing, like changing your long-ingrained habits. No biggy, right? And yet, why do I feel like I might have to apologize in advance for contributing somewhat to this problem? Because resting better can take a little bit of work, as paradoxical as that may seem.

Lately, my relationship to rest has been contradictory, confusing and filled with self-eviscerating judgment. I seem to rest too much, but also not enough, and not in the right ways. Is my rest actually relaxing and nourishing, or am I just disconnecting? Do I actually really let myself rest or is there always a guilting voice in the background asking for payment for time off? And why do I have to rest so much, or at all? It’s very inconvenient to my goals. Is there really value in not being that idealistically hyperfunctioning robot consistently focused on getting the next task done? If one part of me knows the answer, the rest of me could sure use some reminding of it.

It was about a year ago that, in an attempt to be a healthy person who gets out of the house more, I stumbled into the firelit basement of a yoga nidra class. Yoga nidra, for those who don’t know, is also called sleep yoga. It involves very little physical stretching and a lot of you lying down and paying slow attention to the sensation in every single one of the parts of your body. You are guided to stay as present as possible. You may then also be asked to imagine some idyllically pastoral scenery and how you would act within it. For me personally, this gave me the sensation of being a real life sim in a virtual reality, and then the realization that I had the same power and control in my own reality, that my life was not simply done to me.

I left that class thinking it was a nice enough experience, but it wasn’t until I was actually walking home that the true effects of being present in my body hit me. I felt everything so much more strongly. Music sounded incredibly cathartic. My mind was calm and not clogged with what I should be doing, or should have done, or what could have happened. It was then that I had the realization that I had not actually been present, living in the now, for a very long time. And if I’m honest, it’s been a struggle to be so since.

There is something about the quiet calm of truly being present that feels painful when we’re approaching it. We have so much to do! So much to worry about! To reflect on! We tell ourselves that by filling our focus with all of these things, we’re actually being closer and more connected to ourselves. But that’s often actually not the case. In fact, another realization that I’ve had to face recently is how much of the rest I take doesn’t actually nourish me. It’s often been making me feel more disconnected from myself.

Our lives are filled with dissociative, restful escapes from reality. Social media feeds, TV, books, gossip and games. And there’s nothing wrong with engaging with these things. There is, however, just a bit of irony in the way that we can live what is basically a “to-do list life,” and then in order to rest, we may feel like we have to disappear from ourselves, because we have become the to-do list.

I think for a lot of people, facing the quiet with just yourself for company often feels threatening. Maybe because we know in reality that we’re not very good to ourselves, and it’s easier to keep sweeping that under the rug. Or maybe there are negative aspects to our lives or ourselves we’d rather keep distracting ourselves from. Or maybe it is just that that quieter space feels boring because we’re so habitualized to proving our worth or fulfilling our existence through achieving and gaining new experiences. But it seems in many cases that our rest is far too often subconsciously focused on disconnecting from the self. And how much of that kind of rest is really nourishing us, if we’re honest?

Personally, I’ve recently had to face how this kind of escapist rest is actually taking more than it gives me. It’s made me feel drained, lost and less myself. While watching a few hours of TV would often make me feel more rejuvenated afterwards, it would also become my excuse for avoiding other restful activities like just taking a nap. In fact, I was so regularly using the excuse that scrolling the internet would help lull me to sleep that, in reality, I was sleeping less! I then became more tired and dependent on my “restful” activities. Oh dear.

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to how we handle rest, our goals and being present in life. I think encouraging more awareness about why we do the things we do and being honest about how it affects us can be a great step forward for our mental well-being. It helps us attune to our needs and make our rest more nourishing when we ask ourselves these hard but meaningful questions. For example, is a life so focused on the past and future that we can barely feel the present truly fulfilling? What’s the point of working so hard towards goals we never truly live in? How can we make the now feel more safe to be in? And are there activities out there that rejuvenate us that also make us feel more in tune with ourselves?

But for those who just really need a break, I fully support you taking a step back from any and all of this, because sometimes what you truly need is to give yourself that space where you are free to just be, without any “shoulds.”

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