by Judy Kirkwood
“How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterwards.”– Spanish Proverb
The first time I found myself on a small island without a cell phone signal or wireless computer access, no husband or children, and a few idle hours on my hands, I thought I’d go mad. I was at Kamalame Cay Resort on Andros Island on assignment to write about the Out Islands of the Bahamas. I was so nervous that I wasn’t “doing something” that I couldn’t even enjoy sitting and reading on my patch of sand under a palm tree outside an adorable cottage called Wild Dilly. Lacking electronic media, I regretted not bringing the bag of sewing projects I’d been storing in a closet for decades, financial records for working on my income taxes, or a box of pictures to organize. I was not only lost without a task at hand – I was scared. My heart was beating like crazy and I was almost nauseous with panic.
On the second day, I woke up and rested. Sometime in the night, with the doors open to the sea while I slept, I must have surrendered. After a brisk walk on the beach and obligatory meetings, I sat on the bed amid notes and magazines, watching the gauze curtains lift and fall in a slow dance choreographed by a breeze. I tracked a ray of sun that crept across the bed, and thought of how enjoyable it had been to spend time as a child staring at dust motes twirling in a shaft of light. And then it happened. The bed turned into one of those feathery clouds moving slowly above the horizon of water and I fell asleep in the middle of the day. When I woke up, I sat in a low sling chair on the sand under my palm tree and marveled at the white-ruffled waves and the scalloped fringe of wet sand they left again and again. It’s an image I return to often when I want to relax. My body was rested from my nap, and my mind was in the present. Something had shifted.
Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen, cofounder of Omega Institute and author of Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life (Doubleday, 1996), says that we get fidgety and uncomfortable when we’re not doing something because of our culture’s emphasis on “time is money.” He believes, however, that to be most effective in our jobs and in our lives, we have to learn how to come to a stop. He points out that even though our heart is working all the time, it has to rest between contractions. Demands on our time and energy have risen to the point that we are living in a state of rapid rhythm, responding to subtle messages to keep running.
“Whether we slow down by watching our breath, meditating, visualizing, taking a nap, or having a quiet lunch, we need to find opportunities to take a break,” says Rechtschaffen. “Vacation comes from the Latin root vacare, meaning, “to empty.” Vacations or breaks are not a luxury but a necessity, like the heart resting after the work of contracting.” We need to regularly empty our minds and rest our bodies in order to re-invigorate the soul.
Life balance expert Marilyn Suttle observes that rest isn’t about being lazy. “It’s about preparing for optimal performance. Runners don’t go full speed the whole time or they weaken and fall out of the race. The slowing down is as vital as speed. Think of it as tapping into your power source.”
I’ve known women of all ages whose most fervent desire was nothing more than to take a nap. But they don’t dare. Why? “There’s too much to do.” In fact, there’s so much we think we have to do that “somewhere in the recent past, sleep became a gift that we give ourselves only on special occasions such as Mother’s Day or a birthday,” according to co-authors Ellen Michaud and Julie Bain in their new book Sleep to Be Sexy, Smart, and Slim (Readers Digest, 2008). Michaud and Bain cite statistics that claim 74 percent of stay-at-home moms can’t sleep, 72 percent of working moms can’t sleep, and 68 percent of single working women can’t sleep. In addition, 43 percent say daytime sleepiness interferes with daily activities.
For those who feel they need to justify resting in the middle of the day, studies have shown the benefits of a daily nap of between 20 and 90 minutes before four in the afternoon (not too late or it can interfere with night-time sleep). Sara Mednick, PhD, a sleep medicine researcher at the University of California at San Diego and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman Publishing, 2006), says research indicates that napping can produce the same boost to memory as a full night’s sleep. Test subjects who napped did better than those who did not. “People may think the idea is to power through the day,” says Mednick, but those who do tend not to perform as well as those who avail themselves of a short rest.
“There is a link between the chemical and electrophysiological experiences of sleep and the processes that are required for memory,” says Mednick. “Imaging of the brain before and after sleep shows areas of the brain that are more active during sleep.” This may indicate a system of “rehearsing information” during sleep, which gives us a learning or creativity boost. In fact, NASA studies have shown that a 26-minute nap can boost job productivity by 34 percent.
Mednick gives twenty reasons why a nap is good for you in her chapter, “The Nap Manifesto.” But not everyone needs to nap. If you get a good night’s sleep, a nap might not be what you need to renew yourself midday. You can still benefit from a “day break,” however.
In place of a nap, a day break can be scheduled at any time during the day. Essentially, it is a time to pause and recollect yourself, whether taking a “breather” or going for a walk, giving yourself the time to renew – even if it is only for five minutes.
When Cary Collier, owner of the spa design and management firm Blu Spas Inc., is working from his home in Montana, he regularly schedules his day break outside, where he can walk amongst the trees, breathe deeply, focus on the sounds and smells, then sit on the ground and meditate. If you can’t get outside, just stopping and practicing a breathing exercise or putting your feet up for a few minutes might be enough to restore your energy. Holly Scherer and Kathie Hightower, authors of Help! I’m a Military Spouse: I Get a Life Too! (Potomac Books, Inc., 2007) offer workshops to help military spouses – often single parents for long periods of time – learn how to carve out short moments to do something for themselves. One of their favorite “joy breaks” is a yoga posture called Legs Up the Wall (slide your butt up against the wall, raise your legs, and voila). They advise taking a load off your feet and your brain for fifteen minutes each day. They add an eye pillow with lavender to block the light and promote a restful feeling.
Establishing a ritual that slows us down can be built into any routine. Marie Scalogna-Watkinson, massage therapist and owner of Spa Chicks on the Go, a mobile spa retreat, advises clients to reclaim ordinary daily tasks and make them a special time for relaxation. “Almost all of us rush through our morning shower routine to ‘beat the clock.’ A wonderful Zen moment can be had by just waking up ten minutes earlier and enjoying your morning shower without rushing. Then spend your time with gentle stretches and deep breathing in the shower. The idea is to treat an ordinary moment as a ‘spa moment.'”
Why is it so hard to take a break when we get the personal reward of feeling better as well as increased productivity and creativity from resting? Maybe because our culture doesn’t stop. Few things are closed on Sunday, which is no longer a day of rest. With the 24/7 accessibility of the Internet, there’s nothing to tell us to stop working but family responsibilities, which can be endless as well. It’s easy to forget to stop, drop, and just be. The second time I went to a small island on assignment without my phone or laptop, I was with my oldest son. “What will we talk about for three days?” I asked his wife, who had generously given her blessing to this last-minute vacation opportunity for my son. “He’s going to be so bored with me, and I really shouldn’t be going when I have so much to do at home.”
“I would love to be bored,” the mother of my granddaughters snapped. Always in motion, with the equivalent of a baby on one hip, touching up walls with a paintbrush while cooking dinner and cruising Internet websites for bargains, Katie never took advantage of my babysitting to rest. Like millions of women, she doesn’t feel she can justify a nap or quiet time for herself when the busyness of living surrounds us.
Embarrassed to be going away on a trip with my son that I did not feel I deserved any more than Katie felt she deserved a nap, I went home and observed the avalanche of papers in my office and the laundry scattered like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs. My panic again rose that I had too much to do. Then I opened my bedroom window, took a few deep breaths, and snuggled into my pillows for a nice nap. I knew I needed the practice in surrendering to the possibility of slowing down before tackling packing, and that once on the island I would have to surrender again.
The Pause That Refreshes
• The best way to teach your body to rest is to lie down at the same time every day, whether in your bed, car, or a “sleep pod” that some businesses offer, says Sara Mednick, author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life. Not everyone can fall asleep at first, but eventually your body will trust that it’s okay to relax in the middle of the day.
• Instead of routinely gulping coffee to keep going, Cherilyn Swenson, creator of an online spa apothecary. www.spabox.com, suggests making tea with a beautiful glass teapot and organic blooming tea that you watch unfurl in the water as it steeps, a reminder to unfurl yourself.
• If you can’t take a nap or get away for some quiet time, contemplate an artwork on your wall or in a book that portrays the peace of doing nothing; for example, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by George Seurat, or Summer Breeze by Alice Dalton Brown.
• Take off your watch (and no cheating by checking the time on your cell phone) in between commitments. Stephan Rechtschaffen, author of Timeshifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life, says that by allowing ourselves to come to a stop each day, without literally watching time, we can enter into a natural flow and rhythm that will eliminate the need to constantly check a clock.