“Big” Rest and “Little” Rest

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

A couple of weeks ago, I reached a breaking point. The news has been too stressful. The constant deluge of madness coming from the White House has been becoming increasingly cult-like. The ongoing strain of the pandemic is keeping us stretched as we frantically try to maintain a pre-pandemic pace that no longer makes sense.

I have been listening to Black women who have encouraged a practice of rest as resistance. I decided to follow their advice and take at least one of my daily social media posts to reflect or pre-reflect on my day. I talk a little bit about what I plan to do and where I plan to do something for myself, and then ask: “What are you doing today to rest and increase your sense of personal peace?

I’ve found this ritual quite comforting. It doesn’t take any effort because I was probably going to talk about myself or my feelings at some point in the day on social media anyway, so it doesn’t take much to actually think about how I’d like the day to go. And people seem to appreciate the gentle reminder to do the same for themselves. It’s a pleasant little moment we share each day across the wire.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we define rest. As I look at the times in my life I’ve succeeded and failed at finding it, I have noticed there are two types of rest I’ve experienced. I started out with something like “performative rest” and “conscious mindfulness”, but besides being a mouthful, the terms carry the wrong implication that one is better than the other. So I settled on “Big Rest” and “Little Rest”.

Big Rest is a self-directed activity that increases your capacity. It may require effort or discipline, but you come out of it able to do more than you could before. Examples of this are things like an exercise, yoga, or meditation practice. Another example might be a hard boundary you draw between work or social activities and productive downtime, like scheduling time to read or draw or play music.

Little Rest is an activity that refills your tank. It typically doesn’t require substantial effort or discipline, though it may require a little conscious effort to actually execute. This can be something like getting up from your desk to get a little sunshine on your face, deciding to play video games for a set amount of time, or spontaneously spending a little time with a friend or a good book.

Big Rest is important for our personal development. But it can be stressful for people who already feel overwhelmed. In our relentless grind culture, it can make us feel like we have yet another thing to check off and do. When we approach our rest activities with that accomplishment mindset, we can find they become not restful at all.

Little Rest, though, is what keeps our pace of life manageable. “In These Trying Times”, Little Rest is what is helping us hold our sanity and sense of self together. It can feel indulgent sometimes, but it’s critical that we find some Little Rest task each day. Just like the habit gurus tell you, the smallest steps matter. Committing to a little move like standing outside for a moment and getting fresh air, or letting yourself take a nap when you’re tired midday and don’t have any meetings coming up, can refuel you in ways that you may not anticipate.

If Big Rest tasks in your life stress you out, there are two things you can do. First, find some Little Rest tasks to do instead and see how you feel. Second, spend some time either with yourself or with a professional to examine how you are viewing those Big Rest tasks.

I struggle with Big Rest tasks, and for me it’s rooted in an irrational desire to be “productive”, with a hidden implication that I don’t see time spent on myself as productive. I generally struggle with consistency on tasks that have any element of drudgery in them at all. I have to experiment with different framings to hold things together. I currently am viewing exercise as medicine I have to take for my health, and that seems to make me more serious about it.

Little Rest tasks have been easier for me to take on. My front yard and sunshine are only a few steps away. When I’m tired, I take a nap. Those sound simple, but when you stop and listen to your inner voices that guide and sometimes limit you, you may hear yourself saying “I don’t have time for this,” or, “I haven’t earned this.” These voices are the ones you must be most attentive to and address. What does it mean to “earn”? Who gets to decide the value of what you have done? The heaviest lift of all may be giving yourself that permission to rest in the first place.

I’ve had to take a posture of radical forgiveness to change my mindset. We have a tendency to beat ourselves up for having trouble keeping up with those tasks that we know will benefit us in the long run. I’ve had to instead be completely forgiving of myself, and just look at what I intend to do today. There is a reason why mindfulness practices focus on the present. Peace is found in the current moment, not in rehashing the past or anticipating the future. I remind myself that at the end of each day I’ve done the best I possibly could on that day. I can look at what kept me from doing more, but I had the capacity I had. My focus for the new day is on evaluating and addressing those limits without judgment rather than being upset with myself for meeting an arbitrary standard I was not capable of meeting in that moment.

However you approach this process, whether you use self-managed lists, accountability partners, or professional support from therapists, I strongly encourage you to not become performative. The purpose of rest is healing and restoration, not to have another set of things to check off that you’ve accomplished. If you find yourself tracking to the accomplishment and not to the good feeling, stop and try something else. Little Rest should feel good and be its own reward. Little Rest should also help you have enough in your tank to take on Big Rest tasks that expand your capacity.

Think about how you would like your life to be. Not the end goals and accomplishments, and not a fictional future where you have everything you ever wanted and don’t need to work anymore. Think about how you can have days that you enjoy as they are. Imagine a day where you wake up with a smile, you engage with people you care about, and you felt present in a number of moments. Imagine being still enough to enjoy the small things like a cool breeze or the way the light falls on the ground this time of year. Even in your work, imagine being focused and flowing more than distracted and unhappy so that you can make the most of your hours.

You can have those moments, even if you have a busy job or a full house. The voice telling you you can’t is the voice telling you to stay on the treadmill, to run just a bit further, when it in fact has no idea what you’re running for or running to. The voice cares about you. It’s scared, and trying to protect you from disappointment or loss, but the voice is wrong. You can. Whatever you’re holding on to is not so important that you can’t take a moment, literally a few seconds, for yourself, every single day. And once you take a few seconds and find that your world didn’t crumble around you, it becomes easier to take a few more.

Find ways to inject Little Rest into those days to make each day a bit more enjoyable, and to take stock of where you are. This will create space for the Big Rest that will help you grow into the person you want to be.

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