The Singular Value of Rest

(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

I was recently at a workshop to study a particular style of Chinese pulse diagnosis with an expert in San Francisco. This form was brought to the U.S. by a doctor named John Shen, who had a talent for picking up very specific details about people’s medical and psychological health by feeling their pulses. While the technique itself was fascinating to learn, I was almost as interested in hearing stories about the late Dr. Shen himself, whose skills approached what many people would call “magic.” When our professor began to talk of the treatments he had received from Dr. Shen, I listened closely, eager to hear what Shen discovered and what he prescribed. “He felt my pulses,” our professor said, “And told me, ‘Go home and rest. I can’t do anything for you. You need to take a year off.’ ”

That was it? Our professor, an acupuncturist, said he was much too busy to take a year off, so he kept living his life in the same way, and eventually he returned to Dr. Shen for another consultation. “He told me the same thing: ‘Go home. Take a year off and rest.’ So, eventually, I made plans to turn my practice over to someone else, I saved money, and I did take a year off. And I rested. And that had a more profound impact on my health than anything else I’ve ever done. It changed the course of my life.”

This story reinforced for me some very simple truths about rest and resources that I want to share here. First and foremost, there is simply no substitute for rest. You can eat well, do yoga, get massage and acupuncture, and take vitamins, but none of these will allow you to deprive yourself of rest without paying for it with your health. If you look at a textbook of Chinese medicine, the same short list of causes is given for almost every disease: emotional imbalance, improper diet, and overwork. As a species, humans are epidemically overworked. What our minds have to say about this in protest – “but I need to pay my bills,” “but I can pull it off,” “but it’s what we all do,” “but I like to work,” – is often completely out of touch with the physical reality of how we actually feel.

The simplest advice I could give for the preservation of life and health is this: every day, use less than your daily allotment of energy. Each day we have a certain amount of energy to work with. This is replenished through sleep, food, water, air, and our nourishing connections with the world (love and affection, inspiring and affirming conversation, etc.). When we go to bed without having used it all up, we’re prolonging our lives. When we use it all up each day, we’re neither serving ourselves nor particularly harming ourselves (as long as our replenishing factors are healthy and in place – good sleep, etc.). When we use it all up and keep going, we start drawing on our reserve energy – a reservoir we should rarely need to tap.

This reservoir can be thought of as our store of “life force.” It is what Ayurvedic medicine calls the ojas, what Chinese medicine calls the jing, and what biomedicine understands largely as a function of the endocrine system (especially the adrenal glands). When we deplete our reserve energy, we speed up the aging process and reduce our resistance to disease. Lack of rest also makes us more prone to weight gain. Biomedically speaking, our adrenal glands tend to be the first organs to become depleted, followed closely by a decline in metabolism due to thyroid depletion, low digestive enzyme production due to pancreas depletion, and low sex hormone production due to gonad depletion.

Everyone can learn to feel when we are running on “good” energy versus tapping our reserves. When using our “good” energy, our energy feels grounded and solid, and we have endurance. When tapping our reserves, we tend to feel a bit jittery, edgy, ungrounded, foggy, weak, or faint. We may feel like we could fall asleep in an instant if we put our head down. Stimulant addicts (those who use coffee, black tea, chocolate, sugar, etc., for en energy boost) are almost always running on reserves.

While not exactly a scientific formula, a general guideline for recovery from a chronic state of imbalance or depletion is that for each year of your life spent “out of whack,” you will need a month of focused “rehab.” This rehabilitation period should include plenty of clean, fresh air, an optimal amount of pure water, a diet of fresh, healthy foods appropriate for your condition, all the sleep you need, a peaceful and positive atmosphere, a personalized health care plan, and you must never use more than your daily allotment of energy. If you are only able to give yourself half of this, you can expect your recovery to take (at least) twice as long.

We are here to help you break this cycle! Acupuncture, herbal medicine, Ayurveda, and massage are great rehabilitative therapies. One important way in which Chinese and Indian medical systems differ from Western biomedicine is their focus on the concept of “tonification” – medicine to build strength and vitality. To a degree, they can undo the toll of overwork and too little rest. We love to see people committed to ending the cycle of “overdoing,” and we can tailor a plan of rest and rebuilding to your needs. However, as discussed above, the biggest task is your responsibility: learning to become conscious of your daily allotment and expenditure of energy, and allowing yourself time to rest.

Copyright 2009 by Peter Borten. No unauthorized reproduction in any form without permission.