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The Philosophy of Rest; Preserving Grasslands; Celebrating Asian Culture; Plains Folk Essay

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A lovely November afternoon in Akashi, Japan.
Photo by Sid Leigh on Unsplash
A lovely November afternoon in Akashi, Japan.

Today's segments:
With Memorial Day behind, the summer vacation season is underway. But if we're travelling with our devices, can we actually rest? What do we lose when we don't properly rest? We visit with philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein.

Harvest Public Media reports on efforts to preserve and restore the grasslands.

Nearly 50 countries make up the Asian continent. May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. For this week's Prairie Plates, Rick Gion takes us to Asian Market Night, a capstone event celebrating Asian culture.

Tom Isern shares a Plains Folk essay, The Regional Project.

Transcript of The Philosophy of Rest
Ashley Thornberg

With Memorial Day right behind us, it is officially the summer travel season. But if you have your cell phone with you and your cell phone is connected to your work email and your Facebook and your Insta and it's constantly dinging and you're constantly checking or maybe you're one of those people who brings a laptop on vacation or calls into the office.

Or I once even had a news director who came to work on vacation in jeans. I guess that counted. What is happening when we rest?

And what's happening if we don't rest? And maybe even more importantly, with all of this connectedness, can we even rest?

Jack, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I am happy to be here. And this is a question I've thought a lot about. My daughter turned 18 and she's about to go to college and we're about to be empty nesters.

And you'd think we'd have more time. You'd think we'd have more energy.

Ashley Thornberg

She's not gone yet. Oh, I understand.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

But everything seems to add more stuff to do. Everything seems to just, there's more stuff on the list. And I don't even think I know what rest means anymore.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, I will just say that I am also an empty nester. One, I chose right away to use the term empty zester because I liked the idea that, you know, you can add a little bit of zest and flair to your life when you're not under that sort of constant parental stress. And then I actually settled on the term mother emerita because I thought that it added all of the bona fides and no more of the work.

And, you know, you will find that time, Jack. But that's intriguing that, you know, she's not even out of the house yet and you are already saying, I don't know if I'm going to have enough time. So let's go ahead and start there, the fact that when we are even faced with the idea of rest in the United States, we panic.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

What's up with that? I think that's actually a really good use of the term. I think we do panic because I think many of us, we need to fill our time.

We need to know that the trip is going to be organized. We need to know that we're getting a good price on the ticket, that the idea of just sitting around and doing nothing is completely foreign to us. And I don't mean, as I think a lot of people will pop into their heads, I don't mean sitting and watching TV.

I don't mean vegging out while something is going on around you. I mean lying in silence, closing our eyes, hanging out in the hammock, not talking to anybody or listening to anybody. Just this idea that we can recharge in neutral without stimulation and without sensation.

That's the normative idea of rest. That's the basic starting point, that what rest means is a downtime for you and your body and your mind and that you have to find a stillness and a centeredness about it. And that is something that, in particular, Americans are bad at.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, let's talk a little bit more about that idea because there is sort of this nirvana. One of the translations I've heard of this word is mind nakedness. And I'm speaking here as I'm also a yoga instructor.

Speaking of being constantly busy, yeah, I have a couple of jobs. We often tell our students that it's not about having nothing in your mind. It's about having thoughts that are helpful to you and sort of concentrating the mind so that it's not on that to-do list.

It's not on the thinking of what's coming or what could happen or what you should have said three meetings ago. It's about is this thought in service to my highest self and my ability to do my highest good. And I'm oversimplifying, I'm sure, in some ways.

Talk a little bit about this idea of nirvana and of mind nakedness and maybe what we are mistranslating from Eastern to Western philosophy.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

You know, it's interesting because there are two places where this attentiveness to getting things out of our mind takes place. One is in this meditation, yoga, Eastern philosophy context and the other, interestingly enough, is in business organization schools of thought, things like getting things done or building a second brain because what they want you to do is take all of the stuff that's in your mind and put them on a to-do list so that you don't have to think about them anymore. There are people who just walk around all day saying, don't forget this, don't forget this, don't forget this, don't forget this and just constantly going over a script in their mind.

And so we have to take these things out and put them on a piece of paper or a computer so that we don't forget them. Now, in business language, that's about being more productive and being more organized and being able to think about what you're doing. In this more Eastern approach and meditative approach, it's about, again, finding your higher self.

What does that mean? That's the thing that we have trouble with. A lot of people think that their higher self is a more productive self, a more efficient self.

How many people went into the pandemic thinking, oh, I'm going to write this book, oh, I'm going to learn to make sourdough bread, oh, I'm going to finally get fit, I'm going to do all these things. When we talk about what our higher self means, we tend to think of ourselves as project doers, as people who are goal-oriented. And the meditative approach wants us to be more in the moment, wants us to be in tune with our breathing, wants us to think about the feeling of air against our skin.

Why? Because there is a great question on the table, which is, is it possible to think nothing but relaxing thoughts? Is it possible to have no idea-oriented thoughts and just be?

If it is possible, it's incredibly difficult.

Ashley Thornberg

What does the word productive mean in each of those contexts?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

That's a really good question. Productive in a business context means you are using the boss's money well, that you are efficient, and that you're getting the job done. In the more personal meditative context, productive means you're building yourself, you're focusing on your health, you're focusing on your happiness, you're focusing on your moral core, what it means to be you in the world, in relationship to the world, and in relationship to other people.

The problem is, especially right now, I don't know that we have any kind of consensus about what a moral self is, of what a higher self is. What is the person that we are building? Is it a good body?

Is it physically healthy? Is it someone who can run a marathon? Is it someone who can educate their kids well?

Is it someone who's a good partner? Or is it someone who is really focused on themselves and really focused on doing what they do best? Productive is a word that is inherently built on the idea of labor, on work.

You're producing things. The goal is what's important. You know, produce, the word we use for fruits and vegetables after it's out of the ground, is something that you can use, something that you can exploit, in the neutral sense of the term, exploitation.

So even the very notion of producing ourself implies that we have to do work to get a particular goal. So there has to be, if we want to step outside of that, there has to be another language, another set of words, another set of ideas that allow us to come to ourselves as a process, not as a product, as an ongoing person, not as something we want to show off to other people.

Ashley Thornberg

Is there a Venn diagram between those? Because, yeah, I love me a good three-hour restorative yoga followed up with a sauna and a good night's sleep, but I also have things like a mortgage and a kid who's now in college.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

It's funny you say that because Finland, the land of the saunas, they get a lot of work done in the sauna. And in the culture, men and women go to the sauna together, whether it's work context or personal context, because if you're not in the sauna, you're not there when the stuff gets done. And for you, presumably, the sauna is not about business.

It's not about making these social connections. It's about being present in your body and helping you sweat out the toxins and letting your muscles relax and all of these other things that saunas do. But it's also in the context of a progression.

You start off with yoga, then you do the sauna, then you go get a night's sleep. It takes you hours to get to the point where you get to exhale and turn yourself off. Is there a way to turn ourselves off quickly and efficiently?

This is what America demands. This is what Americans want. They want the ability to switch modes instantaneously.

I turn on pop music, poof, I'm at a party. I turn on my noise machine, poof, I'm asleep. I turn on a movie, poof, I'm afraid or excited or aroused or whatever it is.

Americans like to do things without transition, and that's one of the reasons why it's so hard for us to rest, because that's not how the body works and that's not how the mind works. At least as you describe it, you have an account of how you take yourself from point A to point Z, but even for you who's practiced a lot of this stuff, it takes a really long time.

Ashley Thornberg

I wasn't anticipating this, but we could almost go in the direction of, okay, chat GPT, taking out the process of being creative, or we could go this route of, should we be legalizing marijuana? That's certainly a shortcut to Zen moments at times. Do we dare want to tackle that in a few minutes?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, putting aside the question of legalization, one of the reasons why marijuana is so popular, and many, many, many people smoke it or eat it or drink it, regardless of whether it's legal or not, the appeal of it is that you can choose the kind of experience you're having based on the kind of marijuana it is. There's relaxing marijuana, there's laughing marijuana, there's zoning out marijuana, there's just pain management marijuana. What marijuana does in the place of other pharmaceuticals or other drugs like alcohol is it starts with the material of our body first and then gets to the ideal, the mind, second.

Let me explain what that means because there's a lot there. We exist in a dualistic society. We exist in a society that separates body from mind, where the body is our brain, the meat that's in our head, our muscles, and mind is this amorphous, abstract identity that we have where we think about our thoughts and our experiences separate from the meat that quote-unquote creates it.

What antidepressants do, what marijuana does, what alcohol does is say, I want to achieve a certain mood, so I'm going to deal with the meat first. I'm going to create a chemical reaction in my brain so that my body feels these relaxed things or these excited things or these unburdened lack of self-consciousness or things like that. I'm going to start with the meat first, and then my mind is going to be ushered along the way.

What you were talking about when you were talking about yoga and asana and sauna is starting with the mind and having the mind adjust the body, starting with a perspective that is relaxed, a perspective that is inward, a perspective that is self-focused in a moral way, put that aside for now, and trying to push your body alongside it. I think that when we have the material approach, the body to the mind, we have aids, and with that assistance, it can take us someplace quicker. But if we start with the mind and move to our body, it's a much more difficult space.

Off the top of my head, I suspect the people who do that best are our actors, people who can enter into a frame of mind. People who can take themselves and put them in a frame of mind of at this moment, I am lying in bed. At this moment, I'm in love with someone.

At this moment, I am running from Jason or Freddy. At this moment, I am a different person. And by all accounts, this is- Toddlers are also very good at this.

Toddlers are very good at this because one of the things that toddlers don't have a strong sense of is the distinction between imagination and reality. And that's also what actors are so good at, at making the imagination and reality permeable. If you go back to the Eastern traditions that you were talking about earlier, one of the things that many of them argue, and this is an oversimplification, is that our reality largely a product of our imagination.

We see things as separate when they're not. We see things as distinct when they're really one. And what true enlightenment is, is not imagining the oneness, but getting rid of the forced imagination of day-to-day life until we surpass it.

And then we've gained access to the world as it is. So toddlers and actors, they have a permeable imagination that they can expand to every part of their experience. And I can't do that anymore.

I could, but I don't think I can do that anymore.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota, and we are talking today about the philosophy of rest. And we have put a sort of singular spin on this, but we've gone back and forth between having this sort of Eastern approach but being in a Western, more capitalistic society. I want to kind of frame this conversation now from the perspective of the employer, because not getting just let's focusing on sleep here.

We're not talking about diet even or exercise, but not getting enough sleep causes poor concentration, slower reaction time, your ability to make a good decision. It impacts your performance and that magical word, your productivity also weakens your immune system. Seems like employers, am I right in saying it seems like there's an economic argument to be made for employers to want well-rested employees?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

There is every reason to believe that employees who work four days a week are actually more productive than those who work five. And that's because people come more rested, more available, more energetic, and more focused. And so unless it's just plain factory work in which you're doing something very prescribed repetitively in the division of labor, anything that requires agency, anything that requires some sort of thought about the nature of the movement, the more rested, the healthier your employees are, the better off you are.

And even in that factory work, that division of labor, the more rested you are, the less you are prone to injury, the less you're prone to messing up your back or messing up your shoulder or something like that. The question that we have to ask ourselves, and I keep going back to this Eastern approach and I'll say why in just a second, the question we have to ask ourselves is how do we think about who we are? Do we think about who we are holistically as in our focus, our mood, our attitude, our knowledge as well as our body, as well as our physical presence in the office, or do we think of ourselves just as cogs in a wheel and what's concerning is how well we fit into the production that other people are a part of.

I go back to the Eastern approach because all of Western philosophy grew alongside the emergence of capitalism, the emergence of industry, the emergence of a world where people are thought of in terms of employee and employer, in terms of production and that which is produced as opposed to a larger, more individual, more, I don't know what the term is, but a more sacred self and I use that word reluctantly because I don't necessarily want to mean it in a religious context. What I mean is that what we have lost is this idea that who we are as individuals should not be violated, should not be stepped on, should not be curtailed, that in all of the individualism that we talk about in terms of free speech, in terms of gun ownership, in terms of pursuing our own good and our own happiness, in all the terms of individualism that the philosophers have discussed for hundreds of years now, there's always a very narrow or thin notion of the self that can be poked and prodded by the world around them and so the individual ceases to be sacred in the sense that it's the individual's experience that has to be respected more than their bodily autonomy and that if you respect a person as an individual and their experience as an individual, then the questions of their bodily autonomy become very easy to answer. You don't violate people through assault.

You don't violate people through hurting them. You don't violate people through taking away their education or their individual liberties or things like that. You let a person be who they are by virtue of them just being in the world and again, we're not very good at that in our culture.

We're not very good at being in the world. What we're really good at is absorbing other experiences. We're really good at going to the movies.

We're really good at listening to music to change our mood. We're really good at working out on our off days. We're really good at eating and enjoying the sensual pleasures of high-fat and high-sugar foods.

We're really good at taking external objects and using them to move our experience in the way that they're directing us, but we're very bad at being self-directed in terms of fully realizing who we are as a self and I think the place you see that most explicitly is in our current struggle for rest.

Ashley Thornberg

So are you saying that rest just doesn't even exist anymore?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I'm not saying that, but what I am saying is that we are individually responsible for our own rest. We can't expect other people to give it to us or to set up the parameters so that we realize it against our will. We as individuals are as responsible for our rest as we are for what we eat and how we exercise and how we show love and affection.

We as individuals are responsible for ourselves first and foremost and we have to establish boundaries, just as we do with other aspects of our lives. The only way for us to find good healthy rest is to establish strong boundaries and make sure that people don't cross them even if sometimes that leads to making others upset or frustrated with us.

NOTE: Main Street uses turboscribe.ai to generate transcripts for its shows. The official record, however, is the audio of the show.