The Lost Art of True Rest

We often default to our devices when it is time to unwind—only to feel more depleted
July 15, 2020 Updated: July 20, 2020

OK, calling this a “lost art” is a bit of hyperbole, because there are some people who actually rest these days. But I don’t believe most people do it well anymore.

I could rail about the age of distraction, and social media and devices. Yada yada, you’ve heard it before. But whatever the reason is, we rarely rest anymore.

Think about it: when you get a break, what do you normally do? Go on your phone or computer? Check messages, or social media, or your favorite websites? Watch videos online? That’s how most people spend their breaks—myself included. I’m part of this.

What happens when you’re done with work for the day? That’s if you’re ever done—many of us will work practically until we are falling asleep if we’re allowed to. But if you’re done, do you read and watch and message online? Most people I know do that.

When do we ever truly rest, not only our bodies but our minds?

We need it. We really need it.

We’re never fully energized, fully present, fully alive. It means that our relationships start to lack energy and connection. It means we sap the joy out of our lives. That might not be true for everyone, but it is true for too many of us.

I have caught myself taking breaks or finishing for the day, only to get on my phone or laptop for mindless digital wandering. It feels like the thing I want to do when I have rest time—but it’s not really resting. I don’t feel refreshed afterward, only more drained. It feels like I’m going to comfort, but not getting the rest I really need.

So let’s talk about the lost art of true rest, and how to rediscover it.

4 Kinds of True Rest

For me, there are a handful of ways to rest that feel very nourishing and replenishing:

  1. Closing my eyes, lying down, and doing nothing. This may or may not result in a nap. It might be more meditation. But I’m not reading, doing, watching. More on this below.
  2. Going outside without using a device. Connecting to nature. Most likely in solitude. Letting my mind have some mental and physical space.
  3. Relaxing with someone else. Feeling a connection with them. This can’t be a very active conversation—if we’re talking, it has to be something that makes us feel connected, relaxed. We might just be cuddling without conversation.
  4. Being fully present with a simple non-work activity, like having tea. This isn’t time to think about work, though those thoughts might arise. It’s about nothing other than having the tea. Relaxing with the experience. Savoring it. Soaking in a bath or having a spa day are other examples.

There are probably other ways to truly rest. Playing music, creating art, dancing, and more. But these four are my favorite.

You’ll notice that you don’t need much for these kinds of true rest—no equipment or devices (maybe tea if you have it), no special spaces (other than nature, if it’s available). It’s simple stuff.

We just forget to do it!

How to Relax While Doing Something Simple

Having a cup of tea, going for a walk, taking a bath are all relaxing. You don’t have to be lying down, closing your eyes.

The key is to make this the one thing that you’re doing. Single-task. Relax. Be all in with this task, instead of jumping around. Give the activity your full focus. Really be with the cup of tea, or with your walk. Do it slowly, savoring the activity.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

–Thich Nhat Hanh

That quote sums up the approach. You can do it with anything, not just drinking tea. Be fully immersed.

A Powerfully Simple Practice

With those relaxation approaches in mind, I’ll leave you with a simple but really powerful practice:

When you’re done with something, pause and notice if you need rest. Are you tired? Are you craving true rest?

If so, give yourself a few moments of true rest. Not checking your phone, not reading or watching online, not taking care of small tasks. True rest. One of the things discussed above, or your version of true rest.

Ask yourself throughout the day. You might find that you need true rest more than you realize.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with more than 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net