Finding space to rest is an essential part of our wellbeing. In modern life there are many things beckoning for our attention that distract from this basic need, so much that a considerable number of adults do not get a full night’s sleep. Yet, real rest goes beyond counting the hours lying prone beneath the sheets and it is vital for finding balance and fulfilment.
While many regard religion as inherently flawed, even baleful, spiritual thinkers encompassing all traditions are revered for relaying remarkable wisdom that guides us through the most basic questions in life. These teachers provide practical advice to us, threaded with the idea that there is something bigger that we can tap into, creating clarity and purpose. “Rest” is a noticeable theme in scores of mystical narratives and songs. It is this rest that brings fullness of strength – to connect with our family, engage our community, or simply be with our own emotions and thoughts.
Reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu scripted:
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever. (2)
Letting go is one of the most powerful actions a person can take because it rids us of unnecessary distractions in order to continually move forward. Ten thousand things may seem incredibly important at the time they individually pass before us. We must deal with them appropriately, but holding on to each for too long stalls the creative process that sustains life. Every spiritual tradition holds the basic understanding that the great mystery is one that is essentially creative – we are at the center of a complex process, created and creating. Lao Tsu lets us know that the decision to let go can seem like a big “not doing,” but in fact it sustains the most significant aspects of our being.
Rumi, the celebrated thirteenth-century Sufi poet wrote,
Silence is the language of god,
All else is a poor translation.
We sometimes feel as if we cannot handle silence, that our thoughts have a death grip on our minds, and to sit with them could be torturous. The flood of images, words, and emotions assails like a tsunami, sometimes louder than the real sounds entering our ears. Thoughts activate physical pain as well, creating knots in our stomachs, tension in our necks, and turning legs to jelly. It is no wonder we do not want to enter the quiet space! Sometimes we avoid it at all costs. If we plan to find “rest,” very often it is with television or computer screen for company or over a glass of wine and delicious meal – all to create distraction from thoughts, though none of these actions are inherently wrong. Rather, when we regularly seek distraction within the time of rest as a way out of real stillness we are only partially fulfilled.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the foundation for modern yoga traditions. The ultimate goal of a yoga practice is to reach a new state of awareness and oneness with Divine Love. Yoga Sutra 18 states:
viramapratyayabhyasapoorvah sanskarashesho anyah
There is another Samadhi which is attained by the constant practice of cessation of all mental activity, in which the Chitta retains only the unmanifested impressions.
Essentially, this sutra is talking about deep rest, in the body and mind. Early spiritual teachers insist that it is not through our own efforts that we transform, but through a surrendering rest that allows for deep changes. Anyone who is familiar with yoga will see this sutra revealed in savasana, the final resting post of a practice. Here the individual lies on the mat with as little effort as possible, letting thoughts pass like clouds floating by.
Austrian-German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke composed a work that pulses deep within my spirit and over the years its meaning shifts and changes for me as I read it. Sometimes it is a call to love. At other times it is a map to awakening. Here we can read it as an example of deep rest.
I am, you anxious one.
Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings.
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in stillness?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?
I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.
(from Book of Hours 1,19)
It is the stillness that allows us to open and receive whatever it is we need to receive. It requires moments of silence, in whatever form you can take it.
There is a passage in the gospel of Mark that can serve as an example of necessary rest and how it is challenged by real life. Regardless of one’s religious tradition, we realize, through this story, it is rest that sustains us. Jesus feeding the 5,000 is an oft-cited passage that is a call to faith in miracles and to believe that Jesus is authentic. It is also an invitation to avoid the complaining and worry the disciples exhibit as they suggest to Jesus that the crowd should disperse at dinner time. If we look at the conditions that bookend the miracle, we see it is also a story of finding rest.
After coming together again, the apostles reported to Jesus the things that they were doing (for an unknown period of time. Days? Weeks? Months? We do not know.) His first instructions to them are to, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31) Apparently, people from all over were desperately trying to come close to them, and after traveling in the boat “to a secluded place” Jesus and the apostles were surrounded by 5,000 people! (That’s a lot of people.) Jesus – being Jesus – “felt compassion for them” and so pressed the pause button on their spiritual leadership retreat to speak to the crowd. Mealtime rolled around and the people were hungry, but they did not want to leave. The disciples (probably hangry and tired as well) implored Jesus to send the people away so the leadership can get much-needed rest. It was the original goal, after all. This is the moment when Jesus says: Well, we have food. “You give them something to eat.” (emphasis added, Mark 6:37) Each of the apostles were instructed to go to a smaller group of about 50 to 100 and distribute the food, and “They all ate and were satisfied.” (Mark 6:42)
First, it is important to note the very obvious reference of communion between the Jesus (the teacher), the apostles (teachers in training), and the 5,000 people (the students/those in need). They ate together. They were all satisfied. This happened when the apostles were wearied in both body and mind, and probably desperately hungry as well. It is what we often call around my house, “running on fumes.” Where is that promised rest?
Directly after the great meal, when everyone ate the food and was satisfied, it continues, “Immediately, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of Bethesda, while he himself was sending the crowd away. After bidding them farewell, he left for the mountain to pray.” (Mark 6: 45-46) The rest came after a delay of many hours, but it is clear: of utmost importance is a time of rest. It is important to recognize the moments that he takes away from engagement with others in order to rest. It was key to his spiritual wellbeing. After he spends a few precious moments on the mountain, the astonishing Walking on Water event occurs.
It is not important that you believe in Jesus or claim to be a Christian to benefit from the story hidden between the lines in Mark. Just like the previous examples from other spiritaul traditions listed above, the importance of finding rest in the midst of daily activities is at the center of it all. Jesus – who for all accounts, lived a very busy schedule in his last years walking the earth – made space to rest deeply and this supported his physical, emotional, and spiritual life.
Find rest. Find rest. Find rest.
Perhaps for you it is simply difficult to find the time? What does one do when the time is revealed? It seems odd to just sit, but this is really the key. Find a place to just be. It can be anywhere and at any time (except, maybe, while operating heavy machinery.) Here are some suggestions to get the ball rolling:
- Sit in a chair and follow your breath, listen to the noises around without judgement, or take in your surroundings without judgement (even that pile of laundry in the corner.)
- Guided Meditation
- Yoga Nidra (this is one of my favorite forms of productive rest)
- Centering Prayer
This helpful article contains a list of suggestions: Different Types of Rest You Need + How to Get Them
 Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Vintage Books, 1972)
 Patanjali Yoga Sutras, commentary by Swami Vivekananda (p. 24): http://www.yogaincentro.it/uploads/file/PatanjaliYogaSutraSwamiVivekanandaSanEng.pdf
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996): 66.