We know that without skillfully placed filters in place, modern life is a constant bombardment of demands for attention and energy. Things can be hectic. Responsibilities. Commitments. Juggling what we have to do and what we want to do.
And we also have an increasing awareness of the importance of stillness. Rest. Meditation, perhaps. Or sleep. You and I both know that sleep and rest are crucial for mental and physical well-being.
My teacher, Dr Ed Neal, talks about work and rest as the inhale and exhale of our being. Just like inhaling more than you exhale would mess you up pretty quickly if done too many times, working more than you rest is by definition pathology, according to the Neijing, the text on which all Chinese Medicine is based.
Ok, so you know rest and stillness are important. And what could be so hard about sitting? You try meditating for 10 minutes. 30 seconds later you're up like a cartoon leaving a cloud of dust behind you, doing all the things you need to do immediately.
And you feel guilty, like you're failing at meditating. But why? Why is it so damn hard to sit still? Why won't your body let you just sit there? I mean, what could be easier, for heaven's sake? How does that even make sense?
Currently, the most popular understanding of stress is based on the work of Walter Cannon and Hans Selye in the early 20th century. They talked about how stress would cause predictable changes like an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and other changes associated with the sympathetic fight or flight nervous system.
What they missed is that this is only one possible response to stress. Sure, we might run away. But what if we can't run away? What if the predator is faster than us? And we can't take him in a fight?
Well, there are some other options. We could freeze like a deer in headlights, hoping he doesn't see us.
And what if you accidentally snap a twig under your foot and now the lion sees you? Shit. You're about to get eaten. Well, then we shift gears from a stress response to a survival response. We might faint. We might go numb. Basically, we turn our metabolism down as low as it can go and block out all feeling so at least if we get eaten, we don't have to feel it.
Now this collapse response has its place. I mean, I don't know about you, but I'm kinda relieved to know that if I were to be eaten by a lion, my body has a setting to anesthetize me. That's pretty neat. And if food and water were scarce, it's also handy that there's a similar setting a bit like a back up generator, to keep only the most important equipment running, while turning off all the "non-essentials."
But, this collapse state comes at a huge cost. It means you're wide open to getting eaten by predators. And you can't go out and get food. And you can forget about procreating. So it really is a last ditch option in case of true emergencies.
Of course in modern times, we're not dealing with isolated lion attacks followed by lots of time chilling and chatting by the camp fire. We have jam packed schedules, unresolved trauma, social media notifications, hysterical news cycles, and more to do with less support.
The most common approach to dealing with hyperactivity caused by a survival response is to prescribe amphetamines. Why does this work? Because when we go into shut down, we reduce the blood flow to our pre-frontal cortex. But this is what may trigger the need to move, to avoid shut down. So stimulates can increase blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex, thus resolving the hyperactivity.
Unfortunately, it doesn't resolve the core traumas leading to the shut down in the first place. And for children, it prevents bone development in adolescence, leading to osteoporosis.
For some individuals constantly on the go, the invitation to rest may be accepted and appreciated. "Yes, I think I will rest, thank you very much. Ahhh, yes, that does feel better. Must do this more often."
But if you've tried to slow down only for your body to go "nope, that's not happening", the invitation to rest may feel less like a nice time to relax and slow down and more like a guy in a trench coat holding up ice cream and puppies inviting you into the back of a van. Which is to say, not appealing and not safe.
And it may be that for you, stillness wasn't safe. You may have grown up in an unpredictable environment and learned that you needed to be vigilant at all times.
The key here is that while we want to keep inviting ourselves to rest, we also need to respect the intelligence of the system that refuses.
It's refusing because as long as it keeps moving, it won't go into shut down. In other words, to this system, stillness threatens its survival.
So this perpetual motion, which can be crazy-making and exhausting, may feel very much like it's keeping you alive. And we need to be mindful for those who we invite that if their system refuses the invitation, there may be more primal things we need to address first so that they feel safe enough to slow down.
There can be a tacit assumption that people are simply undisciplined or lazy or not trying hard enough. You may even have thought this about yourself. Understanding why you may struggle to rest despite your desire to do so can help you address the problem at the appropriate level, without blame and self-criticism.
So what does this mean? It may mean that instead of trying to meditate for 10 minutes, you start taking "sips" of stillness and embodiment, like coming up for air or very slowly letting the air out of a balloon. You titrate your stillness.
So maybe while you're at your computer, you notice your bum on your seat. Maybe while you're stopped in traffic, you notice your hands on the steering wheel. You take moments to notice your breath.
These little sips, little moments, may help you feel more safety in slowing down. And over time, more stillness may be possible. It takes as long as it takes.
Working with a trauma-informed practitioner who can help attune with you and providing a safe resource can also be helpful.
In the meantime, understanding that not being able to sit still can be a survival response that's designed to protect you can hopefully help bring self-compassion and understanding, which can take some stress off your system.