The Power of Rest

What does it mean to rest? The word rest is defined as a stop in work in order to rebuild strength, or variations along that theme. Resting can look different for each of us, and we may have different thresholds for what we consider restful and relaxing activities. At its core, though, resting can be seen as a pause from the constant pursuit of goals. Yet allowing ourselves a conscious moment of designated relaxation in the middle of our full and fast-paced lives can be difficult. It means not only pulling away from our physical work but also a deliberate shift in our mental energy. And in fact, this last point is critical. We are so often consumed with our thoughts, busily ruminating, analyzing, planning, self-criticizing, that our fatigued brains are overloaded even when we are not physically working. How then, can we find the space for clarity, for learning, and for growth?

Making time for rest can be seen as a personal challenge, but when talking about rest and the space it occupies in our modern lives, it would be irresponsible not to mention the role played by cultural expectations. Our standards of rest are deeply intertwined with the expectations of performance and work set by the capitalist society which we inhabit. Grind culture has permeated society, and with it comes an obsession with working to the point of exhaustion. Indeed, this includes working when we should be resting. Anything other than work is seen as lesser in value. Of course, this imagery of constantly working towards ambitious goals is meant to be motivational. It is meant to push us to achieve our highest potential, but somewhere along the line, it starts sounding more like a manifestation of society’s unquenchable thirst for productivity. And yet, even then, how are we at our best and most productive if we are exhausted and burnt out?      

For medical students, the balance between work and rest can be an especially tough line to walk. Our professional goal is to be the best physician we can be; how do we find the time to rest in that process? While it’s not a question that has an easy or definite answer, the first step would be recognizing our need for rest in order to be our best physician selves. This is the version of ourselves that we want to be in our white coats: the person who is well-rested, who has made time in their personal lives to truly listen to their mind and body’s needs, and who can then use those cultivated listening skills to focus on the patient and their needs. 

Finding a way to rest can be a challenge in itself. Some may find the cessation of physical work difficult and uncomfortable. Others might find it challenging to rest mentally, when we are used to a constant barrage of thoughts running through our minds. Indeed, we might even use work as a way of avoiding uncomfortable thoughts or emotions that arise when we rest. However, avoiding rest means avoiding our body’s needs, and while it may work as a short-term strategy, it isn’t viable long-term.      

Rest is a time when we are not driven by a definite purpose, when we can permit ourselves not to achieve or be productive. It means allowing ourselves to be still from within and to accept ourselves exactly as we are in the present. Rest is observing our movements and letting them to be just that: movements, without assigning them a definite purpose. It is allowing the moments to pass, slowly and with no constraints and no pressure. It is allowing ourselves to breathe, to observe our environment around us, and to momentarily let the stressors of the day fall away. We rest by allowing our bodies to simply sit and be. We can rest at home, as we watch the raindrops roll down the window panes. We can rest on our ride home from school or work, as we pass through the rumbling darkness of the metro tunnels. We can rest more purposefully, by finding quiet moments and engaging in meditation.     

We must rest. We must rest even if sometimes that rest occurs midstride in the pursuit of our goals, even if it seems ill-timed, even if we have been conditioned to think of it as wasted time. We must rest, for our own well-being. 

This article was written by Devangi Patel, a medical student at McGill University and member of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.

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