In the early years of my practice, I studied with an expert in Chinese pulse diagnosis. He had studied under a Chinese doctor named John H. F. Shen who was something of a legend. Dr. Shen was known to treat 200 people in a day. He was a master of reading pulses and faces, and he had an uncanny ability to diagnose the cause of people’s illness – right down to the year it started. Of the countless impressive stories, my teacher recounted the time Shen was feeling an old man’s pulse and told him his problems stemmed from the guilt he felt about killing someone around 1940. The man admitted that during World War II he was part of the French Resistance and had shot a good friend upon discovering that the friend was a Nazi spy.
While I was learning useful pulse diagnosis techniques, I was eager to hear more about Dr. Shen (who had died a few years earlier). I asked my teacher if he’d ever been treated by him. “Yes,” he replied, “and it changed my life forever.” I was expecting to hear a story like the one above, so it was a little disappointing when my teacher said, “He felt my pulses and told me, ‘I won’t treat you. You need to rest. You are working too much.’ That was it.”
What? That was it? “Well, a year later,” he continued, “I tried again. I asked him to feel my pulses and write me an herbal formula. And he told me the same thing. ‘Go home and rest,’ he said. ‘I can’t do anything for you. You need to take a year off.’”
“To take a year off – it seemed unthinkable. But my health had been declining for a long time, so I decided to do it. I made plans to turn my practice over to someone else, I saved money, and I took a year off to rest. It had a more profound impact on me than anything else I’ve ever done. I think I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t listened to him. From then on I have approached life differently.”
Even though it was nothing like the almost-magic readings Dr. Shen was famous for, this story hit me hard. I had spent years studying texts of Chinese medicine that explain the process a healer must understand – the earliest roots of imbalance, how this imbalance progresses into illness, discerning the patterns involved in the illness, and finally, treating the illness and attempting to restore balance. Like almost all my fellow students and practitioners, I had gradually come to focus almost entirely on the last steps – diagnosing and treating the consequences of longstanding imbalance. Meanwhile the early stages had become almost irrelevant. Who cares how it started 50 years ago when the person in front of you needs help now?
Then I remembered, as these ancient books state: “the superior physician” cares – and focuses on correcting imbalance before it becomes disease. Though it’s often impossible to cure advanced disease, in a way it’s a greater challenge to address oneself to the origins, because few people take seriously the early imbalances that aren’t yet causing much suffering.
These early forms of imbalance, by the way, are pretty simple and exceedingly common. They include the unhealthy expression of emotion (suppressing or resisting the experience of an emotion and/or harboring it for a prolonged time), improper eating (too much, too fast, while stressed, low quality food, etc.), and overwork. It was this last issue – overwork – that Dr. Shen was pointing to.
It’s often difficult for people to make the connection between overwork and degradation of health, especially because we’ve all known of a few remarkable and robust individuals who seem able to work tirelessly, sleep minimally, and live for a century. But they are the outliers.
Most of us can’t do this. There is simply no substitute for rest. You can eat well, do yoga, take vitamins, and drink wheatgrass juice, but none of these will allow you to deprive yourself of rest without paying for it.
The simplest advice I could give on rest is this: every day, use less than your total daily allotment of energy. Each day we have a certain amount of energy to work with. This is replenished through good sleep, high quality food digested well, ample clean water, fresh air, our nourishing connections with the world (love and affection, inspiring and affirming conversation, etc.). When we go to bed without having used it all up, we’re investing in ourselves and prolonging our lives. When we use it all up each day, we’re neither serving ourselves nor particularly harming ourselves (as long as our replenishing factors are in good shape). When we use it all up and keep going, we draw on our reserve energy – a reservoir we should rarely need to tap.
This reservoir can be thought of as our store of “life force.” It is what Ayurvedic medicine calls ojas, what Chinese medicine calls jing (“essence”), and what biomedicine understands largely as a function of the endocrine system (especially the adrenal glands). When we deplete our reserve energy, we speed up the aging process and reduce our resistance to disease. Lack of rest also makes us more prone to weight gain. Physiologically this toll may involve depletion of our adrenal glands (a first responder to stress), low thyroid function (a decline in metabolism), low stomach acid and digestive enzyme production, diminished sex hormone production, low immune function, and chronic inflammation.
Everyone can learn to feel when they are running on “good” energy versus tapping into their reserves. When using our “good” energy (the daily allotment discussed above) we have enough fuel to get through our tasks for the day without the need of stimulants, and we feel grounded and solid. When tapping our reserves, we tend to feel a bit jittery, edgy, ungrounded, foggy, weak, or faint. We may feel like we could fall asleep in an instant if we put our head down. If you habitually rely on stimulants (coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, media, etc.) to get through the day, chances are, you’re tapping into reserve energy on the daily.
If you’ve been out of whack for a while, first stop exceeding your limits. You may also need a period of dedicated rehabilitation like my teacher. This rehabilitation period should include: plenty of clean, fresh air, time in nature, an optimal amount of pure water, a diet of fresh, healthy foods appropriate for your condition, all the sleep you need, a peaceful and positive atmosphere, a personalized health care plan, and you must never use more than your daily allotment of energy. During this period (and always) it’s beneficial to abstain from engaging your energy on anything that doesn’t serve some higher purpose. For instance, if watching vampire movies activates your stress responses (you can tell if you’re on the edge of your seat or feeling tense), this is an energy sink that yields no positive return.
Winter is naturally the ideal time for rest. Just look at how many plants and animals out there have gone dormant for the season. If your mind protests, “But I need to be productive” remind it that this is productive – it’s just a long game. As difficult as it may be to go to bed early, to leave an exercise class before it’s over, or to decline a night out with friends, listening to and honoring your system is a form of growing up. Notice what happens to your mental clarity, mood, self-trust, and quality of life when you prioritize yourself and get the rest you need.