Who do you know who isn't busy? These days, busyness is status. To be busy is to be of significance. People need you. Your activity counts. Your responsibilities are many and thus you are of worth.
To admit to not being busy is to somehow admit to failure. The modern expectation is that we be constantly available, constantly productive and constantly on the go. If we're not, we are judged wanting. “It's like they're competing about who has the most to do” said a bemused young mum in one of my workshops, referring to the (fraught) women in her community.
Yet in the West, we are flagging. According to a report published by The Sleep Council last year, 40% of Britons fail to get the NHS recommended six to nine hours sleep a night, and stress accounts for 39% of all work related illness.
Why have we lost the art of resting? What is it that drives us to such an extent that we are becoming worried and ill?
To my mind, it is because we have lost the wisdom of cycles. We live in a linear, progressive world that is terrified of death and its symbolic attributes (stopping, stillness, silence, emptiness). We will do anything to avoid and deny it. A quick internet search for quotes about winter, the seasonal expression of death, emphasizes this dramatically: very few of them are positive and most are bleak metaphors.
But winter is a great teacher, as our ancestors who worked the land knew only too well. It is a time for simplicity, for withdrawal, for restoration. Nature sleeps, the unnecessary is shed and life force is preserved by being drawn deep down into the roots. If a deciduous tree does not shut down and go inward during the chill, harsh winds of winter, it will not be sufficiently protected from the elements to survive and enjoy the brightness and warmth of another summer.
To restore cyclical consciousness, the knowledge of the eternal birth-death-rebirth dynamic, is to restore both physical and mental wellbeing. For women, this is particularly important as our bodies perform their own cyclical dance with each lunar and menstrual month. Whatever the quality of a woman's menstrual experience, the energies of ovulation, which are often active, sociable and in tandem with full moon, will be decidedly different from the energies of her bleed, which will be more inward and quiet and will fall around dark moon. To acknowledge and cooperate with this is to prevent burnout and maximize potential. Similarly, to honour the rhythm of nature's yearly seasons will restore equanimity and optimise health.
If we want to heal ourselves and our beleaguered world, I propose that we befriend the lost of art of rest and make room for it in our busy lives. It is no longer enough to get by on the bare minimum! Rest should be a priority, it should be as prepared for as a delicious meal, and as precious as the productivity that we value so highly. Imagine how different our experience of winter would be if we followed nature's lead and withdrew, working less, sleeping more and conserving vital energy for when it can be better used. Our crazy Western obsession with the material and social demands of Christmas distracts us completely from the true essence of this time of year. Bring light to the darkness by all means, but not at the expense of nature's invitation to pause, retreat and restore with grace. In the poetic words of Hugh Macmillan in his 1871 treatise 'The Ministry of Nature':
“Nature looks dead in winter because her life is gathered into her heart. She withers the plant down to the root that she may grow it up again fairer and stronger. She calls her family together within her inmost home to prepare them for being scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”
So this winter, why not do things differently? Listen to the wisdom of nature and allow yourself to luxuriate in restfulness instead of getting lost in frantic overactivity. Take the phone off the hook, unplug the internet, put your feet up and be at ease. Breathe out, pause and allow the gifts of stillness to spread through your inner landscape, preparing you for a magnificent and exuberant spring.
First published in 2014 to promote a series of seasonal yoga workshops on the theme of rest