I know the importance of rest now, but I didn’t prior to my journey through cancer. Before, I’d race along the multi-tasking interstate at mach speed. Before, I took pride in how much I could accomplish in a nano-second and how clearly I saw through the blur of so much momentum. Before, I wasn’t paying attention to the stop signs. I was too busy.
After my second diagnosis in 2007—a year after my first—neglecting the stops signs was no longer an option. It became clear that the vehicle I was in could no long sustain the demands I placed upon her. After such a hectic pace, my world suddenly crashed to slow-mo…like the parts in a movie where the main character’s life goes awry and strangely out of focus. That’s when a friend gave me the book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller.
Half way through the book, I bought 10 copies and gave them to my closest girlfriends. (Right or wrong, I think men are better at chilling out.) They accepted my gift like eager children clamoring for candy on Halloween.
Then, for a solid year, I devoted one day a week to doing nothing. Once I lay in the summer grass and for two lollygagging hours, watched the clouds overhead. I was transported back to childhood when doing nothing was a regular part of life. And it’s no wonder: it’s good for us.
In his book, Muller writes: “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath—our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us….I am always struck by the mixture of sadness and relief that (people with life-threatening illness) experience when illness interrupts their overly busy lives. While each shares their particular fears and sorrows, almost every one confesses some secret gratefulness. ‘Finally, at last, I can rest.’”
Even though it was hard for me to stop my busy life to recover from radiation or surgery, I too felt relieved at no longer living in a constant rush. I wondered why I hadn’t learned to rest before.
I recently had the enormous pleasure of meeting one of the great minds of our time, Ellen Langer. She is a psychology professor at Harvard and an artist. For decades, Ellen has researched how our minds work and how habits can follow if gone unchecked. I told her my notion that multi-tasking is the downfall of contemporary women, and she balked. “I disagree.” My eyebrows rose. As such an accomplished woman, I assumed she was stressed out like so many of us. But Ellen is great at deconstructing assumptions. “The observer never knows what goes on inside of the actor,” she said, followed by: “I like multi-tasking.” Apparently, she gets a flow going between the different things she’s doing, which is rewarding to her.
“Don’t you feel torn between what you’re doing?” I asked, still aghast that someone wouldn’t agree that multi-tasking is hazardous to our health. “You only feel torn because you’re either feeling inconvenienced by the task or you think that by not doing it, some tragedy will occur.”
In her typical fashion, Ellen made me rethink my experience and examine my thoughts and habits. Even though I used to love the feeling of accomplishment that multi-tasking in the fast lane provided, I was in a constant state of frustration and never found the flow she referred to. Rather, I felt inconvenienced at having to do one thing or another while thinking something else was more important. In that track, I could never be fully present as a wife, mother, employee, playwright, cook, or anything else. And meditation? Are you kidding?
I have somehow lost the habit of doing nothing one day a week. And I still don’t multi-task. But I have found the flow that Ellen speaks of. For me, it requires doing one thing at a time and being fully present with it. I don’t get as much done, nor am I as organized. But I’m happier, I have more time for the small pleasures, and my family says that life is better now than it was before cancer.
I still have lots to do. Emails to answer. Dust bunnies to wrangle. More blogs to write. And I’ll get to them all, I promise. But first, my beloved nap.
Resources to help you slow down or be mindful and feel great about it:
Why Meditation Is So Cool
Gratitude is Good Medicine
Simple Bliss Relaxing Tea Recipe
Mindfulness (Book by Ellen Langer)
Relax Into Greatness (Yoga Nidra CD by Rod Stryker)