Rest, Simplicity and Yin

Rest, notes poet and philosopher David Whyte, is an elemental part of simplicity.  Without a rested mind and body, the decision-making required to make and keep our lives simple and in balance, is not truly possible.  Neuroscience backs that up: the prefrontal cortex, where our conscious decision-making takes place, has a limited amount of neurological energy allotted to it.  Used up, for example, by one trip to the typical American grocery story, it will take the body/mind time to recover.  (Thus the potent sense of overwhelm that can assail you in the produce or cleaning products aisles!  Too many choices!)  It’s a key reason it’s so hard to change habits – they protect us from needing to make a vast array of decisions.

COVID has challenged our resting capacities.  Is “vegging” resting?  Is staring at our phones?  Binge watching on Netflix?  How can we rest if we’re not being productive to begin with?  What exactly does it mean to rest?  It’s an interesting word, with roots in the old German word for calm, and the Anglo-French words for stop and stand.  It’s a noun and a verb, a thing to do and a way of being, Yang and Yin.  My colleague Marsha Shenk refers to it as “the Golden Pause,” time to step away from activity and sense what your conscious mind can’t yet articulate.

Yet in a world that values productivity above all else, and assumes it is an unquestionable good, calmly stopping and standing is a deeply counter-intuitive move.  Just “being” isn’t okay, and often feels unsafe, weird, not right.  “Unproductive” is never an admired trait or state.  So how is “resting” okay?  In our Calvinistic culture, we shy away from hearing that hunter-gatherers only worked/work a couple hours a day and prefer to think that such a lifestyle is/was, by definition, “nasty, short & brutish.” Because that’s the best we can do as an alternative to “productive.”  Yet for much of our time on the planet, it’s not how humans lived.

And then there’s this: Simplifying isn’t simple.  And certainly not at the beginning.  Whether it’s clearing stuff out of your house or getting clear about your priorities, there are that vast array of decisions to be made.  What do I lose or gain by keeping this?  What really feeds my soul?  What’s my responsibility to all my things?  To all my commitments?  So many decisions!!  So exhausting!

Perhaps that’s why modern consumer culture is so afraid of Yin, so entranced by Yang.  Yang is daytime, busyness, getting things done, willing our way in the world. Yin is nighttime, receptivity, water flowing around things instead of crashing into them. In that dark, we can cease our endless striving and flow gently along.  We can let go of judgement (productive = good, unproductive = bad).  We can rest, allowing ourselves, as spiritual teacher Jeannie Zandi says, to compost, to rot, and from those nutrients allow a new, simpler clarity to emerge. We can add tranquility, the lack of pressure to perform, the rare pleasure of doing nothing to our emotional vocabulary.  Yin is how we rebalance in a Yang-dominant world.  Yin allows us to rest.