Tag Archives: rest

Spiritual life and the working week

For the first time in a good 15 years, I’ve had a month of working five day weeks and taking the weekends off. The consequences have been numerous. When I started out as a self-employed person, I guarded my weekends. However, the person I was living with became ever less interested in doing anything with time off, and so out of boredom I started doing more work at the weekends. Increasing financial pressure kept me there. Then I married a man who was entirely settled into seven day working weeks. It’s not easy taking time off when the person you most want to take time off with is working. What started as a bad call became a habit, and something that seemed necessary – and in fairness, actually was at some points.

There’s a macho culture in comics that is all about working yourself to death. In Japanese manga it’s even worse, with creators not being able to expect enough downtime for proper sleep, even. Our wider culture is keen to link wealth with hard work, and poverty with indolence, so if you aren’t raking it in, there’s a pressure to try and make sure everyone at least knows that you’re trying very hard all the time. It’s worth noting that exhaustion does not increase productivity or creativity. Rather the opposite.

The five day working week means I can have time to rest and relax, and the energy and time to socialise and get inspired. I’ve felt much less isolated this month, and there have been a lot of joyful things. Working almost all the time and being exhausted the rest of the time is a recipe for depression, and it certainly increases anxiety. I’ve got to a point where I can afford not to be flat out all the time, and for this I am deeply grateful.

I’m perfectly happy to think of anything I do as a potential expression of my Druidry. However, this is a thing to be cautious about, because it can mean just not really doing any Druidry. The more run-ragged I am, the less room I have for gratitude – and to be honest, the less reason as well. To practice gratitude you need the time to stop and appreciate things. A person running flat out all the time can’t do this. It’s difficult to meditate when you’re fretting about deadlines. It’s difficult to celebrate when you’re anxious about money and work.

To bring your spiritual practice to all things calls for time. It’s not compatible with a never-ending workload. It’s also, I eventually came to realise, deeply inhuman and dehumanising to just be something that works until it can’t and then falls over, and then does it again.

Some of it, is about whether you have the luxury of choice. With a low paid job, the ‘choice’ is to work long hours, or struggle to pay the bills for the most basic things. When the only job you can ‘choose’ requires a long commute, when you’re expected to work unpaid overtime, when you’ve got to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, genuine choice is in short supply. Those of us who can choose, can do our bit not to support a culture of working to death. We can reject the idea that hard work is what brings money – it isn’t. Money is what brings money, and the traps that keep the poor in poverty are numerous.

Rest is a virtue, not a vice. It is something we should all have the right to, it should not be a privilege for the few.

Whole days off

I’m not sure when I got into the habit of not taking whole days off very often. Parent to a young child, self employed, then married to an over-worked artist, and struggling with work that required a lot of time and didn’t pay much… there were lots of reasons not to stop. It’s not helped that for a large part of 2014 my other half was working ten and twelve hour days, and seven day weeks all too often. It’s not easy to stop and chill out when the other person in your life is stuck at the table, hunched over a board and dangerously close to sweating blood. I managed half days off, but it’s not the same.

Since midwinter, I’ve been taking whole days off now and then – one or two in a week. For me, a day off means not switching my computer on. No email, no social networking, no blog (I write them in advance to cover those days). Nothing intellectually demanding. I may spend time on nest maintenance, crafting, I may read a review book, but there the line is drawn. There is, I have noticed, a vast qualitative difference between two half days off, and a whole period between sleeps when I’m not working. It’s like a reset button for my brain, and the impact on stress and mood is huge.

It is an odd feature of contemporary culture that we’re encouraged to spend our time off being just as over-stimulated as we are when working. If you’re sat in front of the television with your social media feed on your phone (and I think a lot of people are, based on how they post) the information coming at you is considerable. There is no rest when you’re processing that much. It’s also hard to go from that kind of over-stimulated over-thinking to peaceful sleep.

Sleep deprivation leads to weight gain. It’s a clearly established but under discussed issue. We have an obesity epidemic, in which no one is talking about sleeping, nor about how our culture impacts on sleeping. But then, no one makes any money out of us when we’re peacefully unconscious.

I’ve had to spend a lot of time getting things badly wrong to properly understand why getting it right is so important. I’ve watched my usually sharp mind become truly blunt, I’ve watched my once excellent energy levels become unpredictable, and often very poor. I’ve watched my mental health degenerate. All of these things locked me down into fear and it seemed like the only way out was to try harder, do more. It’s very hard, when you’re mired in that way to see stopping as anything other than very dangerous and bound to make things worse.

I’m sleeping better. I’m in less pain. My moods are more stable, and my thinking is a good deal clearer. I’m having more and better ideas. And yet our politicians bang on about the virtue of hard work and keep telling us that hard work alone is what it takes to lift people out of poverty. Maybe this is not an accident. Maybe they know perfectly well that over-stimulated, over worked people are more readily persuaded to keep running round in the same little circles, going nowhere. If we stop, we might have time to think, and if we think, we might question and if we question it might occur to us that we’re mostly running round in little circles for someone else’s benefit, or no benefit at all. And then what would we do?

Days off

People I know who take health and fitness stuff very seriously make a point of time off. Rest days, and even rest weeks when there’s no running around. Fasting days to clear out the system. It’s something I think about more than I do. The rest days are tricky because walking is my primary mode of transport and one of my main leisure activities. What else do I do all the time that it would be a good idea to take a break from?

Caffeine is an obvious candidate. I use caffeine to push through tiredness, and I use it most days. On a practical level, that reduces efficacy and can’t be doing me much good, so, a day off from caffeine now and then, or a reduced intake day, is something I try to allow myself time for. Today is a no-caffeine day.

The caffeine habit goes with a work pattern that doesn’t give me whole days off very often. Aside from the handful of things people pay me reliably to do, I have three books in progress at the moment, and unplugging from thinking about that is hard. The political side of my job requires me to pay constant attention to local and national politics – days off there are risky and infrequent. I have to know what’s going on. Sometimes I really wish I could have a day off and the respite of ignorance.

Fasting is difficult if you aren’t in a position to rest your body and mind a bit. Fasting is not a viable option if you also have to run hard, it’s just another scary pressure to add to the mix.

I’ve set today up so that I can float round the flat, and I’m intending to crash out intermittently through the day. No caffeine. There will be fruit juice and nut milk, because this is as much about changing what I do as it is about getting into the whole ‘fasting’ thing, and I’m not especially hardcore. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how I construct the ‘normal’ of my days, and whether that’s actually a good idea.

It is not my personal belief that people should work seven day weeks – it’s just that Tom and I are in a situation that makes it difficult not to. He has some hefty deadlines and spends most of his time working, and while I could take more time off (which wasn’t previously the case for me) I feel guilty about stopping when he can’t. If hard work equated to wealth, we’d be rolling in it.

It’s half nine, and I learn that I blog a lot slower without the morning coffee. My concentration is not what it could be, and today I am going to let that be ok. I’m not going to push against tiredness, I’m going to let my energy levels be low, and not do much. My theory is that this should be good for me. Thoughts on how that works in practice, to follow.

Exhaustion, bees and depression

A total absence of energy is often taken to be a symptom of depression. Based on experience, I am inclined to think this is not a simple case of cause and effect. Exhaustion can be as much a cause of depression as a symptom of it.

Every other mammal rests. The creatures that work flat out – the busy bees and their fellows – have very short life spans. We humans have got into the idea that some of us, should be working like bees, despite the fact that our mammal bodies really don’t handle this well. We are meant to rest. If we do not rest, then eventually we fall over. Based on watching my own cycles of burnout and depression, it tends to be the case that I get depressed when I am exhausted, and not the other way round. Exhaustion is not a symptom for me, it is the root cause. There are days when it takes all the will I can muster to get up and keep doing. Continue that day after day, with no proper breaks and no respite, and body and mind alike will eventually falter.

We are sold the idea that hard work is both a virtue, and the answer to all risks of poverty. Hard working people are celebrated by politicians, while those who are not able to be working hard enough are denigrated with words like ‘scroungers’. If hard work were all it took to be successful, I would be significantly more successful than I am. If hard work were the magic answer, those years my other half spent working two jobs and only getting a few hours sleep a night, would have made him rich rather than damaging him.

I know a lot of people who work very hard, and many of them are not especially successful. There’s an influence in choice of job – if you set out in life to get a job that will pay a lot of money, you’re probably doing better than someone who answered a calling to teach, to help, to put something of beauty and innate worth into the world. Medicine seems to be an exception there. If we measured people by the value of their contributions, teachers and nurses would be a good deal better paid, and football players would not, I suspect, have quite such vast incomes.

Work hard, throw all of your energy, passion and inspiration into what you do, and one of two things will happen. Either you will see no significant benefit, or you will get somewhere. The difference in outcomes may have more to do with luck than your own efforts. To work hard and soulfully in any capacity, and see no return, is soul destroying after a while. Depression seems an entirely natural response to this. To be unvalued, not well remunerated, not going places, seems to invalidate not only the work, but the soul and effort that went into it. This is always an issue for creative people, and very often an issue for anyone who gives a damn about what they were doing.

We do not live in a meritocracy. How good you are and how hard you work often do not count for much. The loudest, angriest voice often wins the argument. The person with the most buying power pays for the result they want. The person willing to do whatever it takes to make the profit, makes the profit and never mind the exploitation along the way. We spend our school years being told to try our best, work hard, and strive, and then we get out into the real world and find those rules frequently do not apply. If you want to be successful, you’re much better off getting someone else to work hard, while you cream off the profits and sit back. That way lies respect, power, and kudos. Work hard, and all bets are off as to what may come from this.

Nothing offends those in power like poor people with no desire to work themselves to death as busy little bees, enabling someone else to make a fortune. I am not a bee. I want a culture shift.

The quest for happy accidents

I’ve been making a lot of changes to how I work and live, and also trying to shift how I think about things. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to do the work that is meaningful to me, and if I can’t make that pay the bills, I have to find some other stuff to fill in with. (Probably tutoring, but we’ll see what comes.) Alongside that, I’ve also come to the conclusion that time off for rest and play is essential. To which end we went to the pub last night. A man walked into the bar carrying a banjo. This is not the opening of a banjo joke, bear with me…

A bunch of other guys turned up with guitars, and as we were in their corner, asked if we minded and set up around us. We didn’t mind, and they didn’t seem to mind us, either. I haven’t had much live music in my life recently, so this felt like a treat. They kicked off with ‘Ride on’ and it boded well. Between the musicians, sat a box, of rather distinctive shape, which nobody opened. Now, I haven’t had the violin out all winter, and I haven’t played a viola in about two years. When they played REM’s ‘Losing my Religion’ – a song I used to do with my good friends Dave and Andy Simpson, I realised I had to ask. Fear of failure became outweighed by need to try. I asked what was in the box. Yes, it was a viola, and the guy who owned it had only been playing a year and was mostly sticking to his guitar. Yes, I could borrow it.

It took me a moment or two to figure out where my fingers needed to be, and then it all came back, and we jammed and it was good, and I now know where else they meet up to play and have an invitation to go along. Apparently they’d been hankering after getting a fiddler for some time.
Happy accidents. They seem to turn up more when I’m looking for them, and when I’m already doing the right things for the right reasons. Right place, right time, right people. If I’m in the wrong place doing the wrong things, there’s little chance of that happening. This morning we had a lie in, and as a result missed the rain, and moved the boat in sunshine. Win. The running hard, pushing hard, has not worked much, and mostly wears me out. The time spent on curiosity, exploration, play, experimentation, pays off. Almost always. I can feel a perceptible difference between pushing, and flowing with what is. The flowing only works when I invest care, creativity, and my very best work. It’s not a sloth option, but it calls for being more attuned to the whole right place, right time vibe. Turning up, doing, daring. The more I rethink how I go about my life, the more convinced I become that taking risks, doing what speaks to my soul, and trying to be the very best that I can, (not merely the most marketable that I can) is where the good stuff lies.

How I work has changed so much in the last few months. Including how I think about my work and what I actually produce, and how I feel about it. More on that tomorrow.

Time off for good behaviour

I didn’t blog yesterday, or pick up my email. This is a rare thing for me. I did however, spend a lot of time wandering around Gloucester, and also a lot of time doing happy things with wool. That was all very pleasing. I’m starting to appreciate just how important rest is, in all manner of ways.

I have several friends who are really into fitness and activity, who talk about the importance of rest days. Now, my lifestyle often doesn’t allow that because I have no car, I am my mode of transport, and there are days when that’s a bitch. But, I’m making a point of trying not to cycle once or twice a week, and being gentler with me. Net result, less bodily pain. Time to heal makes a lot of odds. Time to recover from illness, and to let stressful things pass without being beaten up by them.

I’ve learned over the last few years that rest is essential to mental health. Time spent on quiet, gentle things that do not tax the mind and body allow me to find calm, and to keep things in perspective. If I rest, I don’t get as anxious, or as depressed (I piloted the boat all by myself for a little while yesterday and didn’t panic at all!). I sleep better if I take the time to wind down before bed. When I sleep better, I work more efficiently and don’t get as depressed – there are many cycles here.

When I try to run flat out all the time, I get ever slower and less inspired with the work. I’ve learned that the time when I’m not striving is vitally important. I consolidate stuff I’ve learned, for a start. I can then ponder and make connections. I can also daydream, play with ideas and let my mind wander. It’s often the times when I’m not trying really hard to get somewhere that result in the best ideas turning up. Creativity does not always flow to order, needs time to meander, and comes more readily when I’m not pushing like a mad thing. In undertaking to do less, I find myself able to do more and frequently better. That took a long time to get my head round. I feel like I *should* be working really hard all the time. That way lies rubbish output and burnout and misery. The time off matters.

I think part of my problem is that some people I’ve run into along the way basically assume that the creative life is a doss, an easy option, and involves never getting out of bed before lunchtime. I wanted to be taken seriously, I wanted to avoid ridicule. So the appearance of hard work became important to me. I started to believe that hours spent at the keyboard meant something. They don’t, necessarily. So I’m making a new space for myself, in which I can gaze out of the window for as long as I need to, or go for a walk, or appear to be doing very little. When I work, I work like a mad thing, because I can. I only get to do that if I pace it right, and I like the overall balance. There’s a self esteem, self respect thing here too, letting other people cause me to feel crap if I’m not working enough for their ideas about what I should be doing… and not rewarding myself with the time off and rest any person actually needs. These things make me feel less like a person and I have to get away from them or they will grind me down.

So, more ambling, and a ghost walk ahead of me, and I’m aiming to do something truly epic in the not too dim and distant. I’m not being lazy, I am brewing! And I no longer care whether others disapprove of me.

The importance of rest

When I finally went to the doctor, more than two years ago now about anxiety, I had a lot of practical advice. One of the things that came up then, and later doing cognitive behavioural therapy, is the importance of rest. It’s something I find difficult. I’ve always been driven, although what drives me can vary, but the need to be creative, coupled with the need to do something good in the world has always got me out of bed in the morning.

As mother to a young child, that got quite out of control. Looking after a little one is a full time job, and trying to work full time on top of that and hold together voluntary work, some kind of social life and my own learning, resulted in regular burn out. I felt under a lot of pressure to achieve. Then, with my circumstances changing, the need to earn a living became ever more pressing, but there were even more pressures and demands on my time, solicitors cost a fortune, and so the pressure inside my head built, and built. I did not dare stop. I’d work until I couldn’t, only taking time out to do things for my child, or with him, but not having ‘me’ time and fighting, constantly against depression and anxiety. Being low and fearful is not conducive to fast or effective work, which feeds into a vicious cycle.

It took a deliberate decision to step back from that, and it was hard. Stopping, resting, taking time off felt like a luxury I had no right to. Pausing felt like cheating, I was waiting for someone to come round and tell me off. At the same time I also knew that if I didn’t do something, my mental health would continue to decline and the doctor made it clear that if I did not take care of myself I would get to the point where I simply couldn’t work. Watching other friends on facebook and out here in the real world wrestling with the exhaustion-depression combo, I know it’s not just me, and that’s why I wanted to write about it.

Right now in America, Obama is talking about how people need to work harder. It’s a line governments troll out now and then. Work harder and you’ll get to where you want to be. Work harder to achieve, to earn, to get results. Often it means work harder for fewer returns, less money, less down time. Work harder for someone else’s benefit. Work harder than what? Harder than whom? Get on that treadmill and all you can do is run faster and faster round the same circle until it destroys you.

Quality of life is not all about money. Rest is a big part of quality of life. Time to relax, contemplate, nurture wellbeing. Time to seek inspiration and be gently spiritual. Time for loved ones, and peace. What are we working for, if not that?

I’ve not worked as much in the last two years. I always stop at least an hour before I intend to sleep, often sooner. I take half days off. Sometimes even whole days. I’m daring to imagine I could have a proper holiday next year. I’d still like to do less, but I have a lot of conditioning to break, for that to be possible. I’ve noticed a thing though. I may spend less time working, but I get as much, if not more, done. Not being exhausted all the time, not running hard just to slide backwards. My writing has improved, my concentration is better, my memory and imagination more reliable.

Work harder? It’s not a good aspiration. It’s about keeping you down, keeping you too tired to pay attention to what is being done to you, or in your name. Work harder, so you have to buy in more services. Work harder, so someone else profits. It’s all part of the array of lies underpinning our dysfunctional culture. Every day, I have to make a conscious effort to avoid feeling like my every waking moment should be devoted to a money generating activity. Every day I am consciously spending time not being economically active. It’s a fight. I am healthier because of it. I am not on long term antidepressants. I am still able to work. I am not a cog in someone else’s machine.