Just Be: The Value of Constructive Rest

You've tried everything to cope with stress overload, and you still feel drained. But have you tried just doing nothing? In medical parlance, it's called constructive rest.

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You’ve tried everything to cope with stress overload, and you still feel drained. But have you tried just doing nothing? In medical parlance, it’s called constructive rest.

I’m balancing on my father’s tennis shoes, age eight. Some neighbor is talking—grown-up talk about gutters or football—but then he stops and looks down at me. “Third grade,” he says cheerily. “So, what’s your favorite subject?” I don’t hesitate: “Recess.” I flash a self-conscious smile.

Recess, I’m thinking, really is better than math and history—it’s what I’ve just learned, still swirling in my head, plus the freedom to digest it, plus the Jungle Gym, plus some rare emptiness. But I smile because at eight years old, I already know what’s expected. Although no one has ever sat down to explain it to me, I understand the requirements of a culture driven by a work ethic, the need to keep unstructured time in its place. So, I go on to say to the nice man that spelling’s pretty good too. I regret it to this day.

Twenty years later, I’m thinking about recess-ish things. And work ethic. And rare emptiness. Adult life suffers a conspicuous lack of scheduled recess; we just carve out rough approximations of it now and then.

Indeed, a few yoga practitioners might confess that their favorite part of class is Savasana (Corpse Pose), the silent minutes of lying still at the end (see “Find Serenity in Savasana”). They too might flash a self-conscious smile afterward. In a country that often measures its self-worth in productivity, who wouldn’t feel funny calling rest a worthwhile pastime?

But beneath the funny feeling, there exists something serious. And so it is that, as another overbusy American, I’m trying to imagine a full-bore Savasana built into our lives—not the yoga pose itself but rather something broader. Having remembered to call our dads on Father’s Day, we’d hang up and reflect before sitting down to pay bills. After an intense business meeting, we’d head someplace quiet to digest the experience. Instead of downing coffee and the front page before work, we’d indulge in the quiet of the morning. The possibilities are endless, not to mention diverting. On crowded street corners, one would see not just bus stops but people stops. Instead of iPods and cell phones, people wouldn’t leave home without their lavender-scented eye pillows. Yes, there would be laughing at first. But soon enough, someone would point out that laughing is a kind of rest too.

“The idea behind Savasana is to totally let go,” Tara Mathur, a meditation teacher at the international Art of Living Foundation in San Francisco, tells me. “The benefits of an activity only really get absorbed when you’ve done this. With Savasana, it’s physical—the position is designed so that no muscle has to strain—but also mental. It’s like meditation: being dead while you’re still alive. Death not as a morbid thing but as freedom and lightness.”

With Savasana’s freedom and lightness, it’s said, we find ourselves able to digest all the experiences and postures of the practice that came before. Savasana is a resting pose, but the resting we do is active; it is about integrating what we’ve learned—yes, a radical idea in itself. But most striking to me, Savasana is structured into the practice. We’re not left to find some quiet time later; we’re led to it by the hand. Were it not part of the drill, I’d simply roll up my mat and head home. I know this about myself. More important, yoga knows this about me, hence the built—in Savasana. We like a deliberate rest—need it, even—but most of us aren’t evolved enough to insist on it without coaxing.

From books like Juliet Schor’s Overworked American and Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness to national campaigns such as Take Back Your Time Day, a project begun last year by a group called the Simplicity Forum, the message of our own busyness has crept into the collective consciousness. Calls for slowing down in a culture exploding with productivity are, in a way, revolutionary. But they’re also becoming common—and are generally disregarded. “I need a vacation,” people whimper routinely, and then they keep right on working, as if the possibility of breaking free of the busyness, even temporarily, is only fantasy. “This year, I’m going to simplify,” we swear, but the new digital organizer we purchase to help us accomplish this grand goal ends up adding to the heap.

I see no need to make another plea for us to work less; you’ve heard them all. Nor do I feel drawn to launch yet another inquiry into our strange relationship to work, or to busyness. Instead, I want to consider the matter from the other side of the equation. Why is it that our nonworking hours don’t seem sufficient to rejuvenate us? What do we do with ourselves when we’re not busy? And when its time finally arrives, do we enjoy our “recess” at its active, deliberate, restorative best?

“TV is not Relaxation”

Following six straight hours of work, and preceding six more, I devote 30 nonrefundable minutes to Judge Judy. For but a moment—the length of a Ziploc bag commercial—I wonder if this is the best way to spend my work break. Then the 30-second spot is over and Judy is back.

The abiding and self-congratulatory myth regarding Americans and relaxation is that we’ve got too much on our plates to partake. But as a culture, clearly we have underdeveloped ideas about nothingness. While we’re indeed busy, we’re not too busy, not by a long shot, not by at least four hours of TV a day, according to Nielsen reports, plus Web surfing, excursions to the mall, and so on. We have, strangely enough, enormous reserves of ostensible leisure time. That we choose to use so little of it to actively combat the various ravages of stress suggests a relationship to downtime that wants rethinking.

Of the recent mainstream dabblings in the anti-busyness movement was a Redbook article called “15 Ways to Simplify Your Life.” Indeed, “Do nothing” made the list, but the Redbook idea of doing nothing seemed to lack the deliberateness of Savasana. “Maybe you’ll read old love letters,” the article suggested. “Maybe you’ll paint your nails red. Whatever.”

Not long ago, I started doing things that weren’t on my to-do list—stupid things, pointless courtroom TV-ish things—just to feel my RPMs cycle downward. I liked it. With diminishing guilt, I’d push back from my desk and sink onto the couch, or drift out the back door to fiddle with a passionflower vine. But by and by, I realized my deceleration wasn’t really improving my lot. It occurred to me that just as the newly reformed smoker soon finds himself hooked on coffee, I’d swapped busyness for virtueless recreation, the Wonder bread of rest. Simply doing nothing isn’t without merit; it’s putting down the pencil, and that’s a start. But nothingness alone can restore only so much of the flustered soul.

“The majority of Americans are doing what I call default relaxation activities, which yield lower levels of process benefits,” says author Schor, who’s also a professor of sociology at Boston College. Process benefits are the pastimes correlated with higher levels of human satisfaction. “Watching TV and shopping, for example, are shown to have low process benefits,” Schor says. Mathur, the meditation teacher, says, “In modern society, when we say we’re tired, we usually mean our mind is tired.” Often, though, we fail to listen up and give it a rest. Instead, we hunker down on the couch with the remote in hand. “With TV, you’re adding input rather than clearing out or cleansing. In a way, your mind is going to be even more tired when you’re done.”

Liz Newby-Fraser, academic dean at the California Institute for Human Science, explains this in physiological terms. “Watching two hours of television is not relaxation. With TV, there are stimuli that activate the sympathetic nervous system, rather than the parasympathetic, which is associated with real rest.”

The medical case for deliberate relaxation has gained prominence in recent years. Americans might not demand longer or more frequent vacations just to have fun, but our ears do prick up at health warnings. According to the National Ag Safety Database, a repository of agricultural health, safety, and injury prevention materials funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “Medical research estimates as much as 90 percent of illness and disease is stress-related.” And there’s no shortage of studies linking psychological stress to heart trouble. In 2003, for example, it was reported at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions (four days of lectures and investigative presentations) that the number of heart attacks in a Brooklyn hospital rose dramatically during the two months after September 11. And Joe Robinson, founder of the Work to Live Campaign, has written that taking an annual vacation reduces the risk of heart attack by 30 percent for men and 50 percent for women.

A Relaxed Workaholic?

And yet I’m skeptical—or, rather, unmoved. I long for a less stressful existence but seem incapable of making the necessary lifestyle changes. Do I want to have 10 friends over for an elaborate dinner tonight? Yes! Will I rip out the backyard concrete and amend the soil myself? Yes! Did I accept the assignment to write this story despite a mountain of other work? Yes!

I’m not alone. To assess our cultural attitudes about leisure time is to confront our true feeling about it: We don’t want that much relaxation in the first place. Former labor secretary Robert Reich wrote in The Future of Success that are only 8 percent of us (compared with 38 percent of Germans and 30 percent of Japanese) would prefer less work if it meant less pay. A Lou Harris public opinion poll showed that Americans’ leisure time had decreased 37 percent over a 20-year period. In the September/October 2000 issue of Utne Reader, Joe Harrison claimed that in the mid-’90s, the United States passed Japan as the most overworked nation in the industrialized world; according to a report published in 2001 by the International Labor Organization, Americans work 137 hours (about three and a half weeks) more a year than Japanese workers. The 2002 book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic describes “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

Such investigations into work and leisure in this country lead to impressively befuddling questions about human nature itself. If our default relaxation activities do us little good, and a more thoughtful mind-body awareness makes us more effective, why do we still choose Survivor over meditation or yoga or just a few minutes of real quiet? One line of thinking suggests that we can’t bear to face the cluttered barrenness of our hollow, online, box-store, early-21st-century lives; we don’t dare glimpse the abyss. Schor, for her part, sees it more simply: Television’s easy. “Meditation requires a skill,” she says. “TV requires none.”

But developing skills for better rest needn’t be an insurmountable task, I’m told, nor must our vast to-do lists be entirely discarded. Many people are looking for a counterbalance to the stresses of their lives, says Michelle Adams, fitness and movement therapy director at the popular Canyon Ranch health resort and spa in Lenox, Massachusetts. “You can achieve that relaxation in a number of ways: three minutes of music, a few minutes of purposeful quiet in bed after the alarm goes off—even running, if you learn to focus on how your body is feeling. People think meditation has to take place in a quiet, dark place, but that’s not the case.”

Schor agrees that a more restful, reflective life and old-fashioned American productivity needn’t be mutually exclusive. The increased effectiveness of a healthy worker isn’t hard to imagine, and other related benefits have been demonstrated too. “One study shows that people living with what I call voluntary simplicity leave less an ecological footprint,” Schor tells me—a righteous thing, certainly, and also economically beneficial to those people in the long term.

But will Americans ever really opt for a more restful life? There’s inertia and habit to contend with; plus, there seems to be an unspoken echos that the hurrying and the vegetating are America at its bipolar best. Some of the greatest art, achievements, and fun seem born of imbalance. Doesn’t our mix of frenetic and leisurely give us Friday night, give us New York City after all?

Newby-Fraser puts it this way: “America is very obsessed with achievement and addicted to certain negative stimulation. But it’s still possible to be a workaholic and to factor in regular relaxation. I, myself, am a workaholic and I don’t watch myself.”

When I tell Schor, Mathur, Adams, and Newby-Fraser about my idea for incorporating a kind of generalized Savasana into daily life, each responds with something like guarded optimism. “Most people don’t live life in an actively intentional way,” Schor tells me, but adds that some do: “You’ve got some polarized trends now. The majority is doing this dominant thing [TV, shopping, and the like], but a growing minority is starting to do something else, to do this voluntary simplicity. You go to places like the Pacific Northwest and see more and more of it. It’s about changing attitudes toward consumerism, a tendency to be more reflective and conscientious.”

In theory, anything can be meditative, from lying quietly, to sitting in church, to many kinds of movement. The main thing, Mathur says, is deciding that rest is a worthwhile enterprise in the first place. “There are still one or two in each yoga class who get up and leave after asana practice,” she notes. “It’s about seeing Savasana as an equally valued pose and activity.

I want to experience the value of Savasana. So, after taking in all the research and opinions of the experts, I walk my overworked self to the hallway outside my home office. For the next 10 minutes, my metaphor of generalized Savasana is going to be a literal Savasana for me, as best as I can manage. My busyness awaits me, back at my desk, and I find it oddly liberating to accept this. I won’t vow to less work; I’ve tried it and it doesn’t happen. Instead, I’m going to “not work” better.

At one point in our conversation, Schor told me her vision for the first step: Americans, whose productivity grows roughly 3 percent a year these days, should trade the time they gain for vacation, for leisure. Upon reflection, this seems like another way of saying recess. Which long ago really was one of my favorite things.

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