“The body knows the truth. The truth is there is a healthier, more sustainable way to live that everyone has access to.”
Feeling a powerful pull to go inward, I take a break. I lay in bed, gazing out the window. I release the phone, email, the to do list. I take time to incubate, process, contemplate. But then, the cultural narrative takes over. “Why aren’t you doing? There is much to be done. You should go out, socialize, or get to work. There’s money to be made, goals to be accomplished.”
I notice these thoughts and the familiar pangs of guilt and anxiety that come with them. Our society has no time for being. Early on we are fed capitalist dogma that we must be “productive members of society”. We judge ourselves based on how much we get done. Our end of the day prayers turned to a reciting of all the to-dos we’ve crossed off our list. We reassure ourselves of our “goodness” as we recite them. “Today I have done well because I have done so much.”
At the root of these thoughts is our cultural perception of what work is. Work is akin to drudgery, exertion, to grind. We have so many turns of phrase for how intensely we work: “I’m working the day away, put your nose to the grindstone, put your back into it, I’m slaving away, work to the bone.” These phrases are all too telling of how harsh and unforgiving we are to our bodies, all in the name of “work”.
Our one-sided, one-directional cultural understanding of work only breeds exhaustion and illness. Too many times have I witnessed my friends or myself crash after long stints of “slaving away”. It is a vicious cycle. We work and then crash, work and crash. On and on we play out this cycle, sometimes for our entire lives. For those of us in financial difficulty, this seems to be the only way to live. We go day-to-day pushing and pulling just to make ends meet. We feel that to take care of ourselves would take too much time and too much money.
Yet the body knows the truth. The truth is there is a healthier, more sustainable way to live that everyone has access to. In the very make up of the body there are reminders of the natural cycles of in and out. The most immediate is our breath. The gentle exhale and inhale of each moment. But even deeper still, on an unconscious level, there is a particular branch of the nervous system, which offers insight into the balance of working and being called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Within the ANS there are two divisions, the sympathetic and parasympathetic, which each support and balance different activities we do in our day-to-day lives.
The sympathetic division is our cultural definition of work. It activates the adrenal glands, the survival reactions of fight or flight when we are in danger or under stress. It is the doing mind that’s solely concerned with outward activity and accomplishing goals. We function from the sympathetic system when we have a deadline, a presentation, are dealing with pressure from our peers, employers, friends or family. Even social events live in this system. When the sympathetic system is stimulated we are activated, alert and on the defense.
The parasympathetic division offers a counter balance. The mind is focused inward and has a quality of self-reflection. Parasympathetic activities include meditation, digestion, sleeping, dreaming, and physical or mental recovery. Artistic activities like dancing, singing, writing, painting, etc., can also arise from this system. Even sex can come from a parasympathetic mindset. When this system is stimulated we are in a place of deep internal processing and restoration.
Both of these systems are fundamental to our survival and our health. Each exists to support, nurture and balance the other and neither division can function on it’s own. When we force one to function without the other for too long we suffer physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
There is no single answer or right way to equalize these two divisions. Each of us has our own distinct balance that best serves us based on which division we are naturally inclined. For example: If you tend to be recharged by social gatherings and high activity, you probably lean more toward the sympathetic and naturally spend more time there. Your work or artistic creations often thrive and gain inspiration from outward stimulus. If you recharge by being alone or enjoy more contemplative activities like reading, you may be inclined to spend more time in the parasympathetic. Your work and creative juices tend to flow from inner reflection, solitude and deep processing.
Having an awareness of your own inclination carries great power. When we are aware of our own inner balance, we can better support ourselves. Whichever divisions we naturally lean towards we know that occasionally we need the support of the other system as well. There is no ideal balance and nothing wrong with being one way or another. Whichever side you lean towards, there are gifts and challenges that come with it.
So to all my parasympathetic brethren out there in this crazy sympathetic culture, I say: “Be gentle with yourself. You more than others need to retreat. There is no shame in this. There is nothing wrong with you. Your inward inclination offers the world a deep richness.” To all my sympathetic friends I say: “Be gentle with yourself. Even you cannot endlessly expand outward. You too must return inward every so often and it can offer your times of expansion tremendous width.” To both, I say: “Trust your body. She knows when it’s time to contract. She knows when it’s time to expand.”
To remind ourselves we need only look to Mother Nature, who speaks fluently the language of in and out. The moon reminds us every night. She knows that being seen in her fullest light is always followed by a disappearance, a retreat from our gaze. Going forward and retreating back is also embodied in sports. Take the art of archery for example. In order for the arrow to fly forward the archer must pull back. The greater they pull back, the greater velocity and force the shot will have. It is in the wholeness of the action that the archer is able to be most skillful and effective.
When we allow ourselves to pull back and take a break, we are engaging in a different kind of working that adds depth and expansion to our being. Mental digestion and processing occur, enabling information to be integrated into our knowing. Personal and spiritual growth can manifest. Through reflection we make connections that offer clarity to our relationships, work and life purpose.
Honoring inner balance in our work-obsessed culture is truly radical. It is a form of subtle activism. To transform the cultural mind we must start with ourselves. When we feel guilty for taking time to ourselves, or compare the “work ethic” of others, or judge another with the term “lazy”, we must catch and correct ourselves. We notice these thoughts with as much loving-kindness as possible because we know that these thoughts are not ours. They have been instilled in us by a sick and disconnected culture.
The cultural narrative can only begin to shift when we shift within ourselves. Day-to-day we can practice tuning into the needs of our bodies. We can release societal patterns of shaming and judgment around the false ideals of production. We begin to embrace rest, contemplation and inner reflection as part of our life’s work. We nurture and honor our own inner balance.