Why Can't I Relax?

Emily Horn
June 29, 2023
A resting figure reads a book in a hammock

Editor’s Note: This week, the team here at Ten Percent is taking our own advice and enjoying some down time. We hope you get to enjoy the slow days of summer, too, so we put together some selections for the next couple of weeks to help you do just that.

Rest well! 

Do you ever notice that when you have time to relax, you can’t help but squander it in ways that are anything but regenerative? In the TV show “Somebody Somewhere,” the main characters talk about their upcoming weekend off from work. Sam describes her plans to lounge around the house in her underwear drinking wine. Joel lists all the social activities that he will do “so the terror doesn’t seep in.” All too often, the little time we have to ourselves leaves us far from feeling rested and restored. 

Why is this? Joel may have been joking about the “terror” seeping in, but it’s not uncommon that when we allow ourselves to relax, we have to face what we’ve been repressing out of busyness. While we may want to rest, most of us don’t expect that we’ll have to cross a threshold of discomfort before we’re able to settle. 

We all have different circumstances in our lives that can make rest more or less accessible. Those opportunities—whether a weeklong vacation or just a 15 minute break—are valuable and precious. So what can we do to make it easier to truly tap into a relaxed frame of mind? 

Getting to know your barriers to rest—the stuff that comes up when you let go of busy mode—can support your ability to unwind. Here are a few ideas to explore as starting points for finding relaxation…

  1. Think of rest as productive

I grew up hearing the adage, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Did you also inherit stories about rest being for lazy people? You might consider that the opposite is true: most of us would benefit from more down time. In our work-focused culture, it’s counterintuitive that being rested and refreshed can actually lead to a greater ability to get things done—not to mention a happier quality of life.

  1. Let go of what rest has to look like

Savoring pleasant moments allows the thinking mind to find some ease. When you practice mindfulness, you start to see opportunities for ease in myriad situations that aren’t normally thought of as relaxing. A student of mine recently realized that even washing the dishes could be relaxing: “Even though I’m doing something, my mind and heart can rest. In these moments, I am more likely to have creative ideas AND I get the dishes washed.” Can you find small moments of pleasure as you go about your daily life? Soak them up and see what happens. 

  1. Be gentle if rest feels threatening

Do you notice your “flight, fight, freeze, or fawn” responses kick into gear when you have some down time? There can be so many reasons our nervous system can become activated by the idea of resting. Mindfulness can help us to not get too spun-out. When you feel activated, see if you can pause briefly and settle your attention with your body and environment. When you’re churned up, it’s hard to see clearly. From a place of calm, you’ll have a better sense of how to truly let go of constantly “doing” in order to rest.  

As I’m trying to create a rhythm in my life that includes rest, I aim for moments of pause, time for enjoyment, and walks when I need them. With these habits, I tend to have deeper focus and more of a sense of what’s possible in life.

So, if you’re able, let yourself explore what rest really looks like for you. We’ve all had those moments when we’re trying too hard to rest and our minds keep going rampant. Perhaps, it isn’t about trying so hard to find relaxation. It can be as simple as remembering to soften our ideas of what we think rest should look like, and inquiring into what truly nourishes us.

Emily Horn is on the core team of Buddhist Geeks, which integrates technology, culture and meditation. She is a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Insight Meditation Society, and InsightLA, and has been called a "power player of the mindfulness movement" by Wired Magazine.

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