Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths. Etty Hillesum
I’m not so good at “rest.” I wake up at dawn: 5:00, 5:30ish. Before I even open my eyes, my mind chews on its boisterous contents. Can I do some Sun Salutations, read Rumi quotes, write that letter, fold laundry, answer e-mails, pop out for a power walk, weed around the doorsteps, scribble the Whole Foods’ list? A friend raises her hand, “Whoa! The spaces between the notes make the music, you know. They’re called rests.”
I twitch, “Huh?”
“Rest. You know. It’s true for musical harmony and personal harmony.”
My eyebrows knit, “huh?”
She explains, “Don’t snap the covers off and spring into action. For a few moments, stay tucked in. Allow yourself to pause, to rest, to gentle yourself awake.”
“First thing? Before I get up and get going?”
She laughs, “Yes, otherwise you’ll be out of tune with yourself.”
I don’t idle well, especially in pregnant mornings when my body surges into projects. I love a good project.
I know not to flick on my phone, boot up my PC, or check Face book. Cleaning cupboards can wait, though I dust best at 6 a.m. too. But not follow the breath? Or repeat mantra? Would the wisdom teachers instruct us to do nothing? Sink into the mattress? Let go of doing? Of going?
I ask, “In stillness?”
My friend nods, “Mmm-hmm. In what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls the ‘wise silence within.'”
So I now start my day by stopping. I slip my flax-filled, lavender-scented eye bag onto my eyelids. Under the puffy comforter, t-shirt night-twisted at my shoulder, I calm the unruly inner riot. In this space between deep sleep and full-speed ahead, my bones settle, the exhale deepens and I ease into wakefulness.
But then my mind, like an untrained puppy, scurries to someplace else. Any place else: “I must drive to the dump, visit the nursing home, call Chris, meet with Pat.”
I remind myself about music and life, “Rest between two deep breaths.”
As if leading a stray toddler out of a city street, I say to my action-packed self, “Come here.” I guide myself back to that space, that rest, as kindly and firmly as I might steer that wild child away from oncoming cars. Untamed minds can be heavy-traffic dangerous. Brain chatter chirps once more; I drop my weight into the sheets. Again, my to-do list knocks for my attention; I unhook from it and slacken my muscles. My brainchildren scream to be heard. “Thank you,” I say to the mental activity, “but right now I am minding the gap.”
My thoughts line up like joggers at the start of a race, competing to whoosh out of the gate. My bright ideas huff, puff and sprint. Giddy, I used to roll out one thought after another to my father, a musician.”What do you think of this, Dad? Should I try that? Maybe you have a better plan. How do you feel about it? Can we start tomorrow?”
He’d take his fingers off the valves and his lips off the mouthpiece then put his trumpet on the table and shake his head, “Doesn’t that make you tired?”
That was then, when my rhythm marched to the beat of an unyielding metronome. Do. Fast. Go. Faster. Now I take my friend’s and Hillesum’s suggestion to pause and apply my dad’s antidote: “Susan, Stay put.”
In staying put first thing, I have found the truth in theologian’s Howard Thurman’s words: “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.”
I wonder for all of us: Can we start from the quiet and wise stillness within from which life’s melodies flow? Can we work, plan, speak, love and play from those spaces? Can we listen? Is doing nothing a spiritual practice? I don’t have answers, nor do I always feel body-still and mind-silent, but I do know this for both life and music: to scale from up-tempo to rests does indeed take conscious, committed and consistent practice. Lots and lots of practice.