Being active, being restful

Managing the relationship between activity and rest in your life involves several key skills. Photo by Edmundas Stundzius on Unsplash


You could say that the modern western world is a bit confused about activity and rest.  We have developed cultures of both activity and rest, without clearly defining a relationship between the two.  Sports physicians seem to have gone further in this regard than psychologists, partly because the body is easier to experiment on than the brain and mind.

Fitness trainers know that periods of activity help to develop our general health and abilities.  They, and meditators, know that periods of rest and recovery also help to develop our general health and abilities.  But, perhaps, science needs to get a little wiser about the relationship between activity and rest, so that we can all understand what patterns work best.


When we are designing a life that works well for us, it seems that we would be wise to take into account a few essential truths:

  1. Without activity, it is hard to develop at all.  Watch a young baby learn by interacting with the physical world.  Without the external activity, it would be hard for the baby’s body to develop an internal capability to move and walk adeptly.  In our adult life, this applies to most skills.
  2. Without rest, we become stale or exhausted.  In agriculture, it is a known technique to rest, or ‘fallow’, the soil, in order for it to replenish its nutrients.  In the same way, our bodies need periods of rest (most notably sleep) in order to undertake this process of restoration.
  3. Too much activity of one kind can isolate and impoverish us.  Alcoholics, worhaholics, obsessives of one kind or another – all sacrifice quality of life to the unbalanced pursuit of one particular activity.  We need to watch ourselves, to make sure we keep a variety of activity types in our lives.
  4. Too much rest can make us atrophy.  (Atrophy is when a system begins to die through underuse.)  Our muscles, including our heart, and our whole systems, need regular use in order to flourish.  Even our social relationships need to be exercised in order to grow.


There are many patterns of activity and rest, but the four easiest to understand are:

  1. Periods of dedicated activity (focusing).  When we are learning, say, a musical instrument, then we can force our system to acclimatise faster to the new skill by pushing a specific activity beyond the norm.  This is the main principle of athletic training, or indeed any training.
  2. Periods of dedicated rest (resting).  We need to counteract dedicated activity with dedicated rest, so that our systems can restore themselves, and also adapt to new conditions.  During rest, for instance, an athlete’s body strengthens its ability to acclimatise by shifting resources such as muscle and memory to the new areas of challenge.
  3. Departures from activity (unfocusing).  Without the ability to ‘unfocus’, we become obsessive and inflexible.  Addictions are extreme examples of minds and bodies unable to detach.  Unfocusing is a core skill of living.
  4. Departures from resting state (unresting).  Without the ability to ‘unrest’, we become unfocused and weak.  During mental illness, for example, it is common to feel unable to get up in the mornings.  Fear, and/or laziness, can stop us from benefiting from activity, even if we want to.


If you wish to enhance your ability to function, then you need to develop all four skills: focusing, resting, unfocusing, and unresting.  Here are a few important ways of training yourself across the spectrum:

  • Meditation enhances focusing, resting, and unfocusing.  Most types of meditation involve different amounts of these skills.  For instance, concentrating attention on an object such as a candle can enhance focusing, and once you have developed some ‘tranquil abiding’ in this activity, then you are also able to rest well.  Meditations where we learn to detach from our selfish concerns are extremely good for unfocusing and resting, since we become adept at dropping obsessive thoughts and feelings, and enhancing our mental flexibility.
  • Alarms, timers and timetables can artificially enhance focusing, resting, unfocusing and unresting.  This is because we are using an external stimulus to remind us to do all four at particular times.  This helps us to define periods of activity and rest, and also to get better at shifting away from activity, and away from rest.
  • Socialising (including classes, counselling and coaching) can help us with all four skills.  We are social animals, and tend to focus better under other people’s watching and expectant eyes.  We can also often rest better in the reassuring company of others.  And our herd instinct can help us to move away from activity towards rest when others do, and away from rest when others are getting active.


To develop ourselves, we need to be wise in developing the relationship between activity and rest in our lives.

We need to learn the following four skills:

  1. Focusing, because without activity it is hard to develop at all.
  2. Resting, because without rest, we become stale or exhausted.
  3. Unfocusing, because too much activity of one kind can isolate and impoverish us.
  4. Unresting, because too much rest can make us atrophy.

Valuable tools in learning these skills, are meditation; alarms, timers and timetables; and socialising.  Socialising can include classes, counselling and coaching.

It’s up to you how you put these together, but a good balance of meditation, timetabling, and socialising, can help you enormously.  If you choose wisely, your self-development can be greatly enhanced.