As an entrepreneur, Joshua Gold struggled enormously with unplugging. His inbox had reached a level that put him instantly into fight-or-flight mode. He was so anxiety-ridden that meditation felt out of reach. We needed major scaffolding to support him in the process of teaching his nervous system how to relax. Many people who work hard in this digital day and age are struggling to regulate their nervous system, so Josh is not alone.
As his wellness advisor, the first time I spoke with Josh, we talked about creating an activity that would help him unplug. We also knew he needed to exercise and reside more in his body, at the moment. He lived by his calendar and time-blocked everything—if an activity was time-blocked, he did it. He went to his beach house on Long Island every weekend, and he agreed to time-block a one-hour, phone-free walk on the beach every Sunday as a starting point on the journey of finding balance.
He could go alone or with his wife or a friend, but he couldn’t take any devices with him. That Sunday walks became an anchor to his weekend and the only unplugged period in his week. To an outsider, a weekly walk on the beach seems like a simple, enjoyable, normal thing to do. For Josh, who had a lot of anxiety and whose phone was never more than two feet away, it was a big deal.
As summer came to a close, we had to recreate the experience in New York City. He agreed to a private session of yoga in his home each Saturday where he wasn’t allowed to have his phone in the room. He began to see the benefits of having created this phone-free space in his life. On Sundays, he went for an hour-long walk in Central Park.
The rules were the same as his weekly beach walk: his wife or a friend could join him, no devices. He required the support of his Namaste wellness coach to stay on the wagon when he experienced resistance to his tech-free commitment, and that was just what his coach was there for. On his weekly walks, Josh not only had time to disconnect from his phone and live in his body, but because his wife often joined him, the time also became a point of connection for them as a couple and their relationship was nurtured, which was desperately needed.
His wife had come to feel like a second priority to whatever was happening on his palm-sized screen. If his attention was any indication of his priorities, she felt low on the list. After six months, the third thing we were able to incorporate into his life was a digital sunset during the weekdays. He was sleep-deprived because he was on his phone until midnight every evening.
He agreed to turn his phone off and plug it in in the kitchen each evening at 10 p.m. No one needed to hear from him at that hour of the night, and I told him that sending an email at that hour was “unbecoming.” An article in the New York Times backed me up when they reported that unplugging is seen as a status symbol in their article “Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good.”
Nighttime is best reserved for activities like reading, cuddling, lovemaking, or dining with friends. With support from his wellness coach and a steady, intentional approach, Josh applied the discipline that helped him achieve financial success to unplugging, and the ripple effect was life-changing.
As a result of the ping-pong effect of his anxiety and digital addiction, his work performance had been mediocre at best, his marriage had felt empty and disconnected, his body was unhealthy, and his mind was a stressed and scattered place. By making space for rest and reflection, he reconnected emotionally with people he loved, including himself. He also began sleeping better, feeling inspired and creative at work, and overall experiencing the world from a healthier, happier place.
In today’s society, we’re working more hours than ever because we can. For many of us, every minute of our calendars is filled in with a work meeting or a social engagement. What little time we dedicate to relaxation is disguised as binge-watching Netflix or zoning out on Instagram. We’re constantly absorbing information without taking the time to integrate it.
When we live in the perpetual input-output mode of email, social media, and channels, we shut ourselves off from the world that lives within ourselves. Quite simply, we are doing too much. The rest is the partner to work. Undoing and reclaiming parts of ourselves lost to stress, trauma, and injury is essential in a world of productivity. Young children have playtime, but as they grow up, we fill their playtime with sports practice, homework, and piano lessons.
From early on, we buy into the message that life will pass us by if we’re not doing something or bettering ourselves in some concrete way. Unlearning this message is key to our children’s and our society’s ability to thrive. When teaching a child, if the child isn’t given the time to integrate what they’ve learned, their thinking is negatively affected, and true growth stagnates.
Relaxation is the recovery time that is a natural part of integrating the work. It enables us to receive the teachings the world has to offer us. At some point during the day, we need to say, “Pencils down.” This is what the teachers used to say when I was a child in school, and the message was that even if we had one more sentence to write, time was up, and it was time to be done, even if we were not. Today, we will never be done.
There is always another email to write, something we need to buy, or another post to read or like. The buzz needs to stop, devices and television off, calendar closed. We need the space to pause, to feel, and to breathe. Pausing is uncomfortable for many, yet the dull ache of suffering that many people experience is a result of feeling like a stranger in our bodies and minds, and not taking the time to visit our inner world.
We don’t like going into a place of nothingness because we have to face ourselves, so we fill our time with appointments, activities, and apps. But we’re running on a treadmill that’s a race to nowhere—day after day after day. When we cut out the stimulation, we’re forced to sit in the space of our mind and body to both feel our pain and appreciate the joy in our lives.
This is the heart of the experience of being alive. Relaxation provides the space to integrate the different aspects of our lives. It helps regulate our nervous system and sustains our relationships. Relaxation doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it should be enjoyable. It can be as simple as lying in the grass to look at the clouds, cuddling on the couch, or taking a bath.
It is these simple behaviors that help us mentally and physically process the experiences of our lives. When we take the time and make the space to discover ourselves, we can disengage from the grind and enter the mindset of greater trust and letting go. In turn, it’s the device-free time that allows us to talk, listen, and connect with those around us. We need to look for pockets of time during the day for restorative moments.
When we are wound up, we may need to fake it until we make it and take the actions needed to relax, before necessarily feeling inspired to relax. Putting actions before feelings can lead us to the feelings themselves—in this case, to the desire to drop into ourselves more deeply. For example, we might not feel like lying down with our kids for fifteen minutes, but after the first thirty seconds, we’re giggling together or having an important conversation.
Once we get over the initial anxiety about what might happen if we stop if we don’t answer that text message or send that email, if we miss the last episode of our favorite series, the calm has an opportunity to set in. When we drop out of our minds and into our bodies, a sigh of relief becomes more available. Our shoulders drop away from our ears, our facial muscles soften, and we can receive the moment we are in.
Not a Vacation, Not a Distraction
For some, relaxing maybe cooking a meal. For others, it might be a walk on the beach. Whatever relaxation we choose, it’s not part of our daily grind, although it may be a hobby we practice each day. It’s something that brings us joy and allows us to connect to ourselves. Vacations and retreats are wonderful and important, but they don’t replace the necessity of pausing for ten or fifteen minutes a day to unravel without external stimulation. It is those small moments that reinforce our nervous system and build resilience to the stressors of modern life.
Relaxation is also not scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest. I call those pleasurable distractions but not relaxation. It’s important to understand that relaxation is also different than formal meditation. We practice meditation to bear witness to the patterns of our mind, focus, cultivate an intentional feeling, or just make space in our day. As I define it, relaxation has a pleasurable overtone to it and is meant to make space for drifting off into thoughts or fantasies, indulge our creativity, or dive deeply into our feelings.
Our attachments can cause pain and suffering. We spend so much of our time attaining and maintaining our material possessions, our jobs, our appearance, our homes, and cars, you name it—and the fear of losing any one of them can create feelings of deep anxiety. We’re afraid that if we stop and let go for a moment, we’ll lose all that we’ve worked for and identify with.
Relaxation is about letting go and trusting that we’ll be okay if we just “be.” It’s about letting the journey of our lives flow through us and understanding that pleasure, freedom, and softness are meant to be a part of our experience of being alive. I had a wellness advisory consultation with a woman who’d founded a successful startup in the wellness space.
She told me about her robust self-care routines, which, despite being all great practices to engage in, left her feeling overscheduled and without a sense of spaciousness in her life. In the recommendations I sent to her after our consultation, I told her to do two fewer things. She needed more roominess in her life. Instead of going to yet another high-intensity fitness class, I suggested she take a relaxed and mindful walk in the park with a friend.
We can apply this to our own life: Busyness is trending and has seeped into our work lives, our social lives, and even our self-care. While this book is about the ingredients for a delicious wellness recipe, more is not necessarily better. What can be removed from a busy schedule to create a little space for relaxation and discovery? I love essential oils, for example, and I keep a few bottles and a diffuser on my nightstand, by my hot water pot where I make my morning tea, and in my home office.
I also keep a few essential oil rollers in my pocketbook to have on the go. Each evening before I go to bed, I put a drop or two in my body lotion, massage my feet, and let the aromatic energy medicine infuse the air around me. I do another variation in the morning while I make my tea and take breaks in my workday to nurture myself with my chosen oils for focus and calm.
Those mini moments dribbled through my day as nurturing touchpoints feel like they hold me in a daily embrace of self-care. Creating a sensory experience can be a powerful tool to drop into the moment, out of our minds and into our bodies, making for that relaxing pocket on a busy day. These little reminders look different for everyone.
Both my daughter and my son like to draw, and they leave their set of colored pencils and sketchbooks out. They can take a few minutes in the day to doodle or work on an illustration. Friends of mine love to play backgammon and leave a board out on their coffee table as a reminder so they are cued to pick up a game after school or on the weekend.
Our ability to execute everything else depends on the quality of our sleep. For example, in speaking with a weight-loss client, who happens to be a senior executive at a major bank, she confessed that she scrolls through social media on her tablet for an hour or so before going to sleep as a way to “unwind.” She suffers from insomnia and often wakes up tired, leaving her unmotivated to exercise or follow a healthy diet.
She’ll grab a caffeinated diet soda to boost her energy in the morning even though she knows it’s detrimental to her well-being. We can have the best intentions to follow an exercise and nutrition plan, but sleep is a huge component of the success of any weight-loss plan or health goal. When we’re well-rested, our ability to manage cravings and stay on the fitness bandwagon improves.
I know for myself that the day after I’ve had too little sleep, I tumble into all my pitfalls, using vices such as too much caffeine to get my body feeling right or media to manage my distracted mind. Of course, I am left feeling worse off, which can lead me to a cycle of less-than-optimal functioning. Sleep begets sleep. Think of an overtired baby who can’t sleep—adults are no different.
Yet we do so many things that are counterproductive to a restful night. We eat a late dinner or snack while watching late-night TV. We check email or social media one last time before turning out the lights, and what we thought would be a few minutes becomes forty-five—and that’s forty-five fewer minutes of sleep. We then struggle to fall asleep because the backlit screens overstimulate our eyes and brains. One of the best things I have done for my sleep was to eliminate my phone from my bedroom.
By doing so, I avoid that last-minute check, which helps me get seven hours of sleep instead of six. I’ve replaced the phone on my nightstand with a stack of books, calming essential oils as I mentioned, a journal, and a good old-fashioned alarm clock. We tend to think of sleep in a vacuum, as opposed to understanding how it impacts all the other aspects of our lives profoundly.
What precedes sleep and happens before bedtime impacts sleep quality and everything that happens the next day is impacted by how well we slept the night before. It’s an essential piece for our bodies and minds, like gas for a vehicle or a personal charging station. We need to get in bed, close our eyes, and get charged to function optimally the next day.
Creating the invitation and space for relaxation can be the first step to making it a valuable part of our day. When we are well-rested, we have the mental space and a more balanced nervous system to take the time for reflection, the second part of the second pillar. In addition to meditation and rest, stillness requires reflection, as we see in the next post.