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Permission to Rest

Mindfulness for burnout.

The bright green poster on the bulletin board at the meditation center caught my eye. “Finding Emotional Balance Amidst Uncertainty.” I knew I needed a break, but clearing an entire day seemed impossible. I sighed and walked away.

The past few months had been difficult. A beloved friend, a talented painter, a master of color and light, died suddenly. My 95-year-old mother fell and needed to be hospitalized. My husband contracted an illness and has been in severe pain for months. And another friend, who struggled with cancer for over a decade, just had some devastating news. I was worn-down, beginning to have migraines and aware that I was holding accumulated stress in my body that my weekly (well, on a good week) yoga class didn’t touch.

Trying to find some more balance in my life, I’d started listening to the Ten Percent Happier app, enjoying the playfulness, kindness, and intelligence of Alexis Santos, one of the meditation teachers. When I noticed that Santos was teaching the retreat, my uncertainly vanished and I ruthlessly juggled my schedule so I could attend.

The retreat was held at the Tang Institute in Andover on the idyllic New England campus of the Phillips Academy. The Institute, directed by Andrew Housiaux, supports innovative learning and teaching. They host a series on Mindfulness Meditation which is open, free of charge, to the entire community.

I settled in, glad to be out of the city and to have a cloudless deep blue sky overhead. I found myself relaxing into the comforting rhythm of a mindfulness retreat—lectures and stories punctuated with sitting meditation, walking meditation, and questions from the audience. As I slowed down I could feel myself begin to unwind and let go of the grief, stress, and worry I’d been carrying.

There was something new for me in this retreat. Santos has studied with Sayadaw U Tejaniya, an iconoclastic monk in Myanmar who lived and worked in the world before donning monastic robes. In his tradition, the focus is not on sitting with the eyes closed, bringing attention to just the breath or sensations, but in developing an awareness of the whole of life. We practiced bringing mindfulness to the habitual moments of the day, to places where we don’t normally think to practice—those in-between moments of life. By noticing what is usually unnoticed, I began to feel less fragmented. It was almost like seeing into the shadows. By including everything and pushing nothing away I could be with the complexity of my feelings. All of them.

The chance to truly rest and let go felt radical, against the stream of how so many of us live our lives. Our world allows us so little opportunity to slow down and stop, little chance to grieve. In retrospect, it seemed humorous that I turned taking a day off to meditate into an epic battle.

What Santos taught was worlds beyond a relaxation response. He gave us full permission to rest, to tune into our deepest needs. It was even ok to fall asleep if that is what happened. He even gave us permission to snore. Really? This was an instruction I’d never heard. Usually, students are told that they will be woken up if they snore. I was deeply moved. It felt incredibly compassionate to allow us to fully be in our experience. And to include the totality of life. I think this departure from tradition is where things shifted for me. I didn’t have to keep everything together. I could let myself grieve. At the end of the day, I felt deeply and profoundly restored, finding a balance and an acceptance of life that I hadn’t had when I walked in the door.

I didn’t take notes during the meditation, but I have tried to recreate the instructions as best I can, incorporating some self-compassion as well.

Permission to Rest

  1. Start by lying down. For this practice, you don’t need to sit upright.
  2. Let your body sink into the ground. Feel yourself held and supported by the earth. Allow the body to be natural. Include the entire body.
  3. Let go of any tension or tightness. Allow the face to soften, the forehead, the eyes, the jaw, the throat, the chest and shoulders, the arms and fingers, the back, the belly, the buttocks, legs and feet. Sense the whole body.
  4. What is easy to be aware of in this moment? What is the general state of mind? What are you feeling?
  5. Are you alert or sleepy? Let it be. Don’t struggle.
  6. Let yourself rest as fully as possible. Give yourself permission to sleep if that is what you need.
  7. Give yourself permission to snore.
  8. Bring some kindness and compassion to your body in the moment. If you like, you can put a hand, or two hands, on your heart.
  9. Be aware of what is happening in your body and mind.
  10. Rest.
  11. When you are ready, slowly open the eyes. Take a moment to notice the space you are in and be aware of what you are seeing—the light, the colors, the shadows.
  12. See if you can let this natural awareness accompany you through the rest of the day. If you get distracted or forget, don’t worry. With the lightest touch, the awareness will return.

When the meditation ended, we all went outside for a walk in the sunshine. We would turn the clocks back that evening. It felt like the last glorious day of autumn. Looking at one golden ginkgo tree, seemingly lit from within, I felt a sense of joy. It was a tree my friend would have treasured.