Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #151 Rest for Success
About this episode

Do you feel in desperate need of a rest? Rest is your connection to the Divine and comes in many different forms—it’s not just lying down and napping!—and connecting to the Divine is what gives you rest and nourishes your soul. Tune in to the full episode to learn how to respect your circadian and ultradian rhythms, how to come up with what Martha calls “cultural cover stories” when you need them, and how to cultivate low-demand living to help you get the rest you need.

Rest for Success

Martha Beck:

So it’s just wonderful to see you all hear from all these many places. And last week as we were talking through the questions and comments, someone asked about rest. In fact, several people asked about the topic of rest. So I thought, let’s do it. Let’s do a whole gathering room on the topic of rest because it is a very powerful topic. What’s interesting, all the spiritual traditions of the world have a really, really sweet spot for resting. I love, I’m not any particular religion, but I love a lot of great religious documents and I love the New Testament where Jesus says, come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. I remember reading that as a child when we were forced to read the Bible, even though we did not understand it. But I’m thinking, how can somebody give you rest that’s actually not someone can actually force you to do, they could immobilize you, but being immobilized and panicky, what’s pretty much how I spent all my days and they didn’t feel very restful.

So there was something really, really seductive for me in that phrase, I will give you rest. When you find a connection to the divine, it gives you rest. And I want to come back to that in a minute, but first I want to talk about how some of the people who sent in questions last week said they had a really difficult time getting themselves to rest. And this is something that’s very particular to our culture, certainly maybe a lot of cultures, but the whole, I’m about to do my sociology thing. One of the most famous books in sociology ism Weber’s, oh no, the spirit of capitalism. What is it? Somebody write it to me? It was in my head and then it went away. Something in the spirit of capitalism, sociology, and the spirit of what did kn favor, right? My brain is getting old.

Anyway, I didn’t even look this up, list it because I know it so well and I’ll tell you in a minute. But what he was writing about was the American work ethic, and this was in the 18 hundreds. So it wasn’t like America was at the place it reached after World War II in terms of prominence on the world stage. It was still considered an odd sort of offshoot of Europe. And so Weber looked at it and the capitalism and the Protestant ethic, that’s it, Protestant, sorry, I could do this all day long and often do. Anyway, in this book it talks about the fact that America was settled by Europeans who happen to be Puritans. Yes, somebody’s got the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. It’s practically my middle name. Alright, I’ve forgotten my middle name too. So the whole point of his book was that America was doing very, very well financially, economically because of what he called the spirit of capitalism in the religious mode of the people who migrated from Europe to America.

So I was just saying all the ancient spiritual traditions have this really sweet spot for rest. Well, not the prize and ethic in the spirit of capitalism. It was about it started out he said with Calvinists, who believed that people were already chosen to be saved or damned when they were born and that God would shower wealth and riches upon the people who were chosen to be saved and the others were just out of luck. And you could tell because they would be poor, that meant that they were bad. I’m not saying this Weber wasn’t saying this, but this was the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. So what happened was all these people wanted to prove that they were chosen of God and they needed to prove it by getting really, really rich. There’s another way of looking at this, which is that in terms of their brain function, these people were leaving the part of spirituality that is mostly experienced in the right hemisphere, which is the timeless, the ineffable, the awe inspiring, and they were moving more toward their left hemisphere, which is very much about measurement, calculation, force control and all those things.

So it was a spirit running on fear and devoted to gain material gain and it wanted constant material gain. So when you get rid of the mystical side of being perfect and all you’re doing is trying to make yourself perfect, force yourself to be perfect, what you get is this need for constancy and control and continuous increase. So all of this, it’s very much against the nature of our bodies and our minds, but you can see it in all our media. I don’t know if everybody out there has seen the 28 rocky movies. I don’t know how many rocky movies there actually were, but a lot like five or six. And it started out back in my childhood with Sylvester Stallone being rocky, the boxer who was going to defeat all the odds and it showed him training and training and training in this famous sequence.

It’s so long ago that I wouldn’t even bring it up if I didn’t think that most of you have probably seen this sequence simply because it’s so famous and he runs and he sweats and he pumps iron and he eats whole that’s of raw eggs. Hal just sucks ’em down and then he fights and then he pounds and then he runs. It never catches him napping. He never naps. No, he never takes a nap in that whole movie or any of the others. He is train, train, train, no pain, no gain. And that’s the way I used to approach athletic things as well, which is ridiculous because I’m not an athletic person, but boy, I decided that the way to be a long distance runner was to run long distances. So I started out running like three miles a day and moved it to seven a day minimum with a maximum of 20 in a day.

And I ran and I ran and I got more, and this was when I was 18, so I had a lot of endurance, but I got more and more and more tired. Strangest thing. I just kept doing stuff and I was getting tireder not stronger. So I would do anything I could. I’d pull myself up and I would keep going. I was going to be like rocky and I was going to win through my fatigue and I ended up just completely breaking down and getting autoimmune diseases and not being able to even use my right leg for about 10 years and just basically trashing my entire biology. That’s what happens when you take an animal and make it work all the time without ever resting. Now I go to my little physical therapist, a physical therapist who just works me like a rented mule and she puts me through as much exercise as I can tolerate.

And then I know that for three to four days if I exercise, I will get weaker. It actually takes me four days of rest for my body to recover from one of those workouts. And then I tried adding in more because I still have this idea that more is better. No, I’ve been getting steadily stronger doing one of these workouts a week because that’s how much rest my body needs. All of nature runs in cycles, everything is less and then more every wave goes up and then down. There are no waves that just go up that would make them not waves. And so we are trying to fight nature’s rhythms and one of the things I was talking about last week in the northern Hemisphere’s winter right now and our bodies respond when there’s only four hours of sunlight, your body responds by needing to rest more.

It wants to rest more. Why there are fewer calories available, it wants to conserve calories in heat. There are all kinds of good reasons to basically hibernate. So we get these short days and then we try to push through with artificial light. This has only been happening for the last couple hundred years, which is an eye blink in evolutionary terms. The whole idea of lighting up the night so that we can stay up as if it were noon day is very bizarre to our biology and to our psychology. I’ve been working with this wonderful sweet, beautiful man, young man who is so, so ambitious, so hardworking, and he’s got autoimmune illnesses and he’s forcing himself to work out, work out, work out. And he doesn’t sleep well. He has insomnia really badly, which I did too. And when I said, how do you tolerate the incredible torture of not sleeping, he just said, I get up and I work harder.

And I was just like, oh sweetheart, I wish from my pinnacle of years that I could come and somehow physically show you how much better your life will be if you spend not just as much time as you think you should rest twice that much, four times that much, 10 times that much. Most of us are underestimating our need to rest to an almost criminal degree. And I’m watching this poor kid just suffer and the culture is so deep inside his head that if I worked that way, especially for guys, especially I think for cis men, although God knows there are a lot of women out there trying to do double shifts, being a proper woman during the day and also trying to earn a living like a proper man used to do and then never sleeping, raising kids, all the rest of it. Where all in the grinder here folks, we are being pushed to work more consistently than we should.

So what should we do? The first thing you got to do is surrender to the biological reality of rhythm. Have you seen that far? Side cartoon, A genie has appeared to a guy on a desert island and the guy is going, okay, let me see, I’ve got rhythm, I’ve got music actually who could ask for anything more? But he makes a solid point that if you don’t get the rhythm of your life, everything will go to hell. You have got to follow the rhythm of your own biology and that there are two rhythms that I want to call attention to. There are many, many rhythms in our body. The first one you’ve probably heard of circadian rhythm, right? So every night, if you’re lucky, you get tired when it’s time to go to sleep and you feel more wakey, wakey after you’ve slept enough and you get up in the morning and then you have a period of activity.

So I hope you’re respecting your circadian rhythm by going to bed when it feels right to you and getting up when it feels right. Do you? In our house we have Karen who falls down like a Feld oak at 8:00 PM and goes, I’m not tired, I’m just going to close my eyes for a minute. And then she’s out for 10 hours, but then they’re me and Ro and we’re like, what? It’s only midnight. It’s the shank of the evening. But don’t try to talk to us at nine o’clock in the morning. That is like the crack of dawn. I thought being a night person my whole life, it doesn’t work. We got to find ways to let our biology be what is right. And then during the day, in addition to your circadian rhythm, you have something called an ultradian rhythm, and that is a sort of heating up and cooling down.

Literally your temperature goes up and down, but also your brain activity, your every indicator of activity in your body alertness, it goes up and down in 90 minute cycles. So you’ll have a 90 minute cycle that’s up and then there will be a 90 minute cycle that’s down. I think I’ve talked to you guys about this, that there was an article in Harvard Business Review, bam Man who read about ultradian rhythm and decided that he would write in 90 minute bursts and they would be interspersed with 90 minutes of doing something joyful and restful. And he was a guy who usually got up at 7:00 AM and wrote clear through the day till 7:00 PM this guy was, no, he worked very hard. He had the real Protestant ethics spirit of capitalism thing, but he did this 90 minute thing and he wrote a book about it and he wrote it more quickly and it was a better book than anything he’d ever done before.

So he was like, oh, that’s weird. And still he went back to working the other way because that seems like that’s just more culturally appropriate. So surrendering to circadian rhythm, surrendering to ultradian rhythm. I promise you this, it will increase your productivity in the eyes of the world if you can do a few things. So here’s my take on how do you interact? How do you live in a society that wants you to work constantly when we need to rest intermittently, and that it is absolutely fundamental. You can live without intense activity, but you cannot live without rest. People die from lack of rest. Make no mistake. Okay, so what do you do? First thing, you want to find a cultural cover story. This is what I call it something that you can say you’re doing something and people will respect it, but they don’t exactly know how much time you have to spend doing it or how active you have to be.

So I was talking to a friend who is a writer whom I will not name, but at one point I said, how do you get so much done? And she said, all right, I’m going to tell you something. No one knows how fast I can write. And so she’d take six hours and write for three and rest for three and then say, I wrote all day. It is a little lie. But even in the way of integrity, the way of integrity, I wrote that if you’re in an insane system and you need to keep people safe who are being hunted by an insane system side with justice and the truth and not with the system. So I believe in cultural cover stories and I have helped literally hundreds, maybe thousands of people come up with cultural cover stories that say, oh yes, yes, I was taking care of my children.

Right now our 3-year-old is in quiet time and she’s been falling asleep in quiet time, even though that gives her late nights. And RO just said to me, I know putting her in quiet time to have solitary imaginative play, which she really needs, she needs downtime. That’s part of her ultradian rhythm. But when she falls asleep, it gives us like three solid hours of sake. Yes, we’re being really good parents, but we don’t have to do anything about it for those three hours. So the cultural cover story, see where you can pad stretch? Most of us are doing this anyway because we’re all being worked harder than we can work. But get yourself a convincing cover story. Now second thing, find things that give you rest. I told you I was going to come back to this. When you connect with the divine, and that means in any way with the truth, with beauty, with love, it can actually heal some of the scars of overwork without you just having to lie down flat.

When I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, any interstitial cystitis fans out there, it’s a terrible disease that hurts a lot. And I was diagnosed and then given a pamphlet and to deal with it. And I remember opening the pamphlet and the top of the page in the middle of it, it said To keep from committing suicide, remind yourself of your religious beliefs. I was like, oh fun. This is going to be a fun disease. And I went home and I thought, okay, I guess I have to rest. I have this disease. So I rested. I lay there in my bed and it got worse. And I called the hotline and I said, I’m resting and it’s not getting any better. And the nurse said, well, what have you been doing to rest? And I said, I’m lying down. She said, what do you want to do?

And I said, I want to go do things. And she said, well here, listen to this when you want to dance, lying down is more stressful than dancing, and dancing is more restful than lying down. And I was like, it really isn’t just the matter of physical rest versus are you on your lying down or standing up. That’s the materialist way of looking at it. If you go to the right side of the brain, the awe inspired non-mechanical, non-material, uncontrolled part of your brain, you will find that you can drink in inspiration, courage, love, joy, beauty, and that these things actually feed the soul. And this is very crucial to why so many people are burnt out in our society. It’s not just that we work too much, it’s that we take into little nourishment because the things that nourish our souls aren’t valued highly in the culture.

Spirituality isn’t play for its own sake, isn’t creation for its own sake. No, it’s all going to be about making more money to prove that we’re righteous. So cultural cover story, things that give you rest. And then we talked a few weeks ago about just low demand living. Any place you can bring down in demand that is like psychologically or physically stressful to you, bring it down a little. When I had my foot surgery, I just had a big down comforter, no sheets or blankets. I couldn’t move around to make the bed and I would just take it off the bed, put it on the bed. That was several years ago. Guess how I still make my bet? It’s just one blanket and I put it on and I take it off and it takes me no time to do it. Little things like that, they save just the tiniest bit of stress.

Do anything you can to get rest because it is your connection to the divine and do anything you can to connect to the divine because that will give you rest. So low demand, living with lots of spiritual and emotional and psychological enrichment and physical enrichment as well. Those are the things that I do to try to function in a culture that says we’re not supposed to rest, even though we absolutely have to. Alright, sorry, it’s taken me a while to get to the questions today. I thought we would do a meditation at the end, our little silence meditation. So I’ll just do some questions right now. Laura says, do you have any tips specific to neurodivergence and anxiety regarding rest? Yes, I do. So many actually because I have had very high anxiety, A DH, D, probably low autism spectrum positive love that stuff, very divergent group of family and friends.

And what I’ve found is that we fray more easily. I mean, Glennon Doyle says, we’re the canaries in the coal mine. We get sick before the miners do. So there’s something wrong. There’s a sense of your nerves getting just fried. And people with neurodivergence, I think many cases that’s a huge, huge category, but in many cases we are more sensitive to the consequences of never resting. And for that reason, it’s sort of incumbent on us to say, whoa, this is way out of balance unless we start resting more, are teenagers have to sleep in to get enough rest because of the stage of growth and maturation they’ve reached. But high schools often have kids come to school super early, and that means that they get in more car accidents, they get more sickness, they get more depression, simply not being allowed to sleep. People with neurodivergence can say, Hey, wait, I’m going to wave a flag here in favor of all of us who don’t function in this kind of factory-like setting that the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism set us up for us.

So first I’d say be a champion for yourself. Respect. Listen so much harder to what’s happening inside you than what’s happening outside you. And don’t question your need to rest even if nobody else says you can. You need to inwardly claim your right to rest, especially if you have some kind of neurodivergence. It’s hard to mask as a normal if you have a neurodivergence too. So there’s exhaustion that comes from that. Okay, evil stepmom says, do you think the push toward 24 hour work contributes to the inability to critically think? Oh yeah, because it’s part of the whole escalation of everything that the vast quantity of information now being shoved into the internet and into our brains and that amount of velocity and sheer mass of data that’s coming at us all the time. It doesn’t let us have clarity. And because we’re always trying to process, process, process.

There’s a whole thing that happens in the brain when you’re trying to solve a problem. You take in information and then you need to go away. You need to go completely away from thinking about the problem, go to someplace where your brain can rest, and it’s in that space that the right side of the brain links new neurons together and pops solutions and ideas and original answers to questions into consciousness. Without that time of being away, without that time of rest in the brain and the body, you don’t get good solid thinking. It doesn’t happen. Inspiration doesn’t come and we can’t think critically. And by that she doesn’t mean criticizing people, but being able to tell which ideas are ridiculous and which aren’t. So we get really crazy when we don’t rest. Mary says, I have a fear of slowing down. I’m afraid if I rest, then I’ll curl up in my bed forever and never get up again.

How do I overcome this? I’m so glad you ask. Here’s the thing I wrote about it in my book that’s coming out. You are so exhausted anybody who’s feeling this way, that if you think that if you lie down, you will want to rest forever. You are really, really tired. You don’t have to rest forever. You have to rest for four days. Now, I don’t know what it is about four days, but a long time ago I did a bunch of research on this and what I found, it’s not enough to get you to the point of maximum performance to rest for four days if you’re burned out. But the first day you totally rest. When you’re burned out, you will feel despair and flatlining the next day. You’ll also feel like, holy crap, I’ve been resting. This is my second day and I’m not feeling any better.

I am really in trouble. Don’t be deceived. Watch some good movies. Binge something on Netflix the third day you’ll feel this little flick of hope like, oh, I briefly felt interested in something. Don’t push it. This does not mean you’re ready. On the fourth day, you’ll wake up and you’ll go, oh, this is me. I remember me. Still don’t push it. But at that point, you can start getting up and doing things that you want to. It will become more stressful to lie down than to get up and dance. So I promise you, you’re going to get over it, but you’re going to have three days of panic before and just blame me. Okay? Andrea says, how does one find balance between rest and work when literally living paycheck to paycheck is so scary, but even living paycheck to paycheck, you have to find times in the day where you’re not actively working and you stop actively fearing.

That’s the horror of being underemployed in the cycle of poverty is that you never stop worrying. You have to work more, but you’re also under tremendous amounts of stress thinking, I’ve got to get more money. Believe me, I’m familiar with this. And what you have to do is decide to have breaks from worrying about money even though you don’t have money. And at this point, you’ll realize if you practice, this is what I started doing many years ago when I was just too freaked out and exhausted and there was no money. And I just decided to take hours during the day when I would stop worrying about money and I could worry about it later. And I found that that rest from worry started to restore me and it started to connect me. I’m going to say it again to some divine force. And I remember my then husband was looking for a job and I was just kind of sitting there going, oh, please let him get a job so we’ll have some money.

And this voice from my head, in my head somewhere, me someone else, I don’t know, it just said, whatever made you think money comes from a job. And I’m like, well, the whole culture. And it was like, Nope. There were a lot of people living before there were jobs. And I was like, oh, the money comes from nature. The money comes from God. The money comes from the consciousness of nature. It’s just the culture that locks us into thinking it’s all about money. So take a break from that psychologically. It’s one of the most important parts, kinds of rest you can have. Okay, Elena says, hi, Martha. I’m surrendering as much as possible to rest, but I’m constantly distracted by the frenetic energy of my colleagues who definitely represent the Protestant work ethic. How do I resist all that energy as a very sensitive person picking up on all of it?

Don’t believe it. It will come at you and it is nonsense. And you have to tell yourself the truth. You have to stay in your integrity because you will feel that what they’re doing is frenetic and it is nonsense. Yeah, frenetic was the word you used. So you know it’s frenetic. Okay? It comes at you. Imagine it hitting a screen a foot away from your face and just sliding down like egg yolk. It can’t touch you because the truth is that frenzy isn’t good for you and you know it. So just when they did that, just think they’re in a frenzy and it’s not good for me and I know it. If you can stay in that mindset, you can keep yourself from picking up on that and getting swept into it. A couple more questions, then we’ll do the meditation. So Steph says, is there any specific habits or activities that you would recommend to help us find rest?

Play to your strengths. If you love music, then just give yourself music time for 10 minutes. If you love to walk outside, do that. If you are completely exhausted and you just need to lie down, do that. If you can get your cat to walk on your back and massage, you do that. Find things in your day. It’s almost like you’re going through the day looking for the sparks of joy, but you’re looking for sparks of rest. What gives you rest? Having a plant by my bed weirdly gives me rest. And there’s data to show that that actually is true. It’s how it’s affecting my nervous system. Drawing gives me rest, may not give you rest. Playing the piano may give you rest. For me, it’s hard. So find the thing that just rests your soul and then go into it as someone who is entitled to it and is going to experience it as delicious instead of making it another thing you work on. Don’t make it another thing you work on. Finally, Dr. Donna says, how do you discover your real circadian rhythm in a culture that is mandated a rhythm that’s eight to five. I don’t think this is my rhythm, but I feel I don’t have a choice. This is a tough one. I can’t really have a job. That’s why I’m an entrepreneur and a writer. But fortunately, there are lots of ways, this is a whole different topic we could go into, but there’s a whole new palette of options we have for adding value

To the world and getting financial value from the world without having to do the nine to five factory style job that was set up early, well in the mid 19th century. So let’s get to that one later. But for now, just like call in sick. Don’t let them know how fast you write. Don’t let them know the baby’s asleep. I’ve been with my child. I couldn’t be there. So remember, in an insane system, stay with morality, not with the insanity. And it is insane how little we all rest. So now let’s take a little space of rest. I know it’s a little over time, but just for a couple of minutes, we’re going to go into that deep piece that comes when you shift from object consciousness to space, consciousness. So if you’re watching me on a screen, don’t look at me. Look at the space between the screen and your eyes. If you’re listening to me on earphones, listen to the silence beneath my voice. And now we’ll do our meditation starting with, is it possible for me to imagine the distance between my eyes?

Just let your attention rest lightly on that center of the forehead. And imagine the distance between my eyes. Can I imagine the distance between the back of my torso and the front? Can I imagine the space inside my torso? Can I imagine the space inside my neck, the space from the front of my neck to the nap of my neck? Is it possible for me to imagine the space inside the atoms that make up my body? And is it possible to imagine the infinite grid work of space in which my body exists? Can I imagine the stillness beneath all activity? Can I imagine the silence beneath all sounds? Can I imagine the space that holds us all and is alive and full of love and full of rest? So I’ll just leave you now by saying tap into this space consciousness. Can you feel it and ask it to give you rest? Because that’s been the offer throughout history from anyone who’s visited that holy place. So rest a lot, lie about it if you have to. And I’ll see you later on the Gathering Room. I love you all so much. Thank you for coming. Bye.

Read more