Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Resting is Not Real

I launched Chowhound in a state of deep exhaustion after completing a marathon book project, never imagining the site would require much effort. Chowhound was supposed to be a food tip network for musican friends trying to suss out good bites on the road. However, a million people showed up, there was no damned revenue (I'd created it as as a public service), and, by the time I sold it in 2004, I was in an uber-bedraggled state. I had people vetting my outgoing communications to ensure I wasn't raving. It wasn't pretty.

One condition of the sale was that I'd spend a year in indentured servitude to a raging sadistic corporate manager, and the final portion of my, er, tenure was spent solitarily roaming endlessly on an ill-defined assignment, forced to overeat like a foie gras goose. The saga - told less drearily than I just did here - can be read starting here. When my 12 months were up, I silently walked away like Keyser Söze emerging from the police station:



My mission was to rest. Relax. Rejuvenate. I did tons of yoga and meditation. I hit the beach. I learned to cook healthy. I moved into a Victorian house in a charming New England small town for a while.

For the first time in my life, I owned a TV and a couch (giving rise to this epiphany). I traveled a bit. I ate well - and without pressure or note-taking. Food as food.

So when, exactly, did I recover? When did I feel truly "myself" again? "Tan, rested and ready," per Nixon's phrase?

Never! No one ever resets to baseline. There is no rebooting in the human world. It doesn't work like that! That's fake (and you can - and may of us do - make yourself crazy feeling around for that unattainable result). And you can believe me, because I've pushed the extremes of both "stress" and "resting" much further than anyone you know. I'm Mr. Edge Case, here to report my findings!



I once had occasion to view a live sonogram of my heart, which, I was fascinated and repulsed to observe, looks like a clock made out of meat. My meat clock is no winsome valentine. It is John Deere agricultural machinery. Gettin' it done.

Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh!

Endlessly and mindlessly, for decades whence and decades hence. Pure unfettered perseverence!

The heart is stupid-obsessive. Smart-obsessive is a problem, because there's self-awareness. Sisyphus, for example, grimly registered each and every re-slide down the mountain with his boulder. Tragedy! But I once wrote about chickens in Skinner Boxes, trained to push the yellow button delivering a corn kernel, and to avoid pushing the red button delivering an electric shock. I noted that the chicken will literally never stop pushing that yellow button:
It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
The heart is an idiot exactly like that chicken. So its stupidly obsessive circumstance is not tragic. The heart is like a drunken co-ed hollering "Whoooooh!" endlessly from the same inane prompt. The heart is like The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes:



Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh!

That's us. That's what we are. That's our baseline. The human baseline isn't cool and composed. Not tan, rested, and ready. Baseline is a hunk o' meat gettin' it done. Baseline is a John Deere tractor. We're here to do stuff - or to act too paralyzed to do stuff, which is another way of doing stuff (far less enjoyably). Resting isn't real. Even if you try to force it.

Remember, I'm an advanced yogi. I can relax, like, all the way. I can make lovely loveliness gush out of my chest, expanding my heart until the universe is felt to tenderly cradle within its perimeter. I have, for decades, practiced the Metta Sutta:
With a boundless heart
Should one cherish all beings:
Radiating love over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths.
But I tried it with the sonogram hooked up, and Stupid Meat Clock remained visibly oblivious. Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh!

Resting is a silly attempt to stop a process that doesn't want to stop, wasn't built to stop, and, if it actually stopped, would not be a result you'd enjoy.
"Kah-CHI...................."
Your body is a goer. Your mind is a goer. The meat wants to move. Must move. Won't not move. This isn't a bug. It's a feature.

That said, there are certainly times when a strategic, highly-focused bout of rest is necessary. If you stayed up two nights in a row, you need sleep. But that's not a choice you'll need to make. Your body will effectively shove you into snoozeland, ready or not. The necessary rest happens and you have no say about it. That kind of rest is real!

Similarly, if you've been overexerting, you need to not exert for a while...and it just happens. The biology arranges it. If you're sick, well, that's a whole other scenario, beyond the scope of this posting. But for those who are more or less physically healthy, a few days of rest is sufficient. Imagining that more rest will help even more is fallacious, like vitamin faddists concluding that since Vitamin A deficiency is bad for the eyes, a ton of Vitamin A must be super-good for them. Pure ditzery.

But let's talk about stress.



If you've been stressed (genuinely stressed, not trumped-up-rich-people-stressed, like Mrs. Howell tormented by a lack of available manicure appointments), what you need is not rest. That's a common misconception. No, you need to put yourself in a situation where you're not stressed - or, at least, not stressed in the exact same way - for a few days. Two weeks, tops.

There's a reason we conceive of vacations in two-week chunks. Two weeks is the outer limit. Even if you just bicycled from São Paolo to Montreal. Even if you just served months in a war zone. Even if you’re post-traumatic, malnourished, and/or sobbing a lot. Same for break-ups and other forms of grief. After two weeks of change-up, you’re just willfully stoking the drama. Volitional depression is not rest, though history and literature are full of theatrically ennervated people (invariably wealthy) endeavoring to deem it so.

Stress is a real thing, but we don't need to de-stress, e.g. via spa treatments or martinis. The notion that we must reverse engines and go "the other way" into some static state for a while is aristocratic delusion. No, if you're stressed, you need to either find a way to more gracefully bear it (heh, sorry, I forgot where I was for a moment; obviously, FUCK THAT), or, ideally, remove the stressor for a while. No need for hydrotherapy or mudpacks or oatmeal colonics. We don't need to "recover".

Resting is not real. We don't recover. Ever. We keep going, like tractors. Can't help it, either. The relentless meat clock in my chest has never recovered once in 59 years. Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! Kah-CHING-kluh! In fact, it appreciates and thrives from exercise; from being forced to work even HARDER! Consider that!
Life is a process of thriving in the resistence of repose.
That was a flowery way of saying "resting is not real."

If your battery doesn’t feel quite recharged, if you’re feeling lingering pain, walk it off. Rest - the fake kind where you choose recreational-ish activities and eschew upsetting experience like a piqued aristocrat - is a fantasy. Don't get me wrong, I’m a big fan of hot tubs, hammocks, and sofas. Huge fan! But a nice grueling workout works better. A bicycle trip, or a jog, or a swim, or helping a friend move. A new project. Even something grueling! Just don't be grueled the usual way (i.e. remove the stressor). Walk it off!

As with most deep insights, there's a glib cliché to be yanked from the shelf:
"A change is as good as a rest."

So how did we develop the mistaken notion that we need to actively de-stress - reverse motors and do absolutely nothing, rather than simply remove the stressor for a while (or else take the unAmerican path of learning to bear stress more gracefully)? Because removing a stressor is a subtle surgical move. It's easier to dream up a gigantic and theatrical sprawl into a smiley realm of fluffy downy cushions, even if all we needed was to avoid the stressful thing - the aggravating project; the angry boss; the ne'er do well brother - for a few days. We don't need to go anywhere, or put on our Special Relaxing Clothes. We don't need to pose in static repose. In fact, we can simply re-frame! Right where you are!



Postscript here.

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