Interviews, Subscriber Access

Reimagining Rest: An Interview with Aarti Tejuja & Sojourner Zenobia

This interview appears in the issue “Rest and Creativity” (Volume 9, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue

The Arrow’s Managing Editor shah noor hussein and Chief Editor Gabriel Dayley had the opportunity to speak with Sojourner Wright and Aarti Tejuja, co-founders of Antara, whose “mission is to facilitate the transformative space of the in-between so that inner change can guide us to collectively build a more interconnected and liberated world.” On their website, Aarti and Sojourner observe, “antara is a Sanskrit word meaning within, in the middle, between.The in-between space is where rest, creativity, healing, learning and evolving happens.” We asked them about their experience of rest and creativity in their personal lives and work.

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Gabriel Dayley: Welcome! Sojourner, Aarti, thank you for joining us for this interview. shah noor, would you like to start?

shah noor hussein: I’m really excited to have this conversation with all of you. We wanted to start by asking what insights arise when you rest, reflect and recuperate? What wisdom bubbles up to the surface when you slow down?

Aarti Tejuja: Well, I think slowing down is great. But even before slowing down is realizing that you need to slow down. Few people even recognize that need. So many people are immersed in a grind, in the day-to-day thing, that it becomes a routine. The exhaustion is palpable; everywhere I go, I feel the exhaustion in people. Yet this insane level of exhaustion has simply become routine. It’s just what I do every day I go to work; these are my hours. And work hours have increased significantly, even before COVID. First, we dabbled in Zoom, which allowed companies to encroach on employees’ time because you can meet virtually with anyone, anywhere, anytime. So we started to lose the six or seven o’clock cut off in what used to be the nine to five workday. That was before COVID. Then COVID hit and the hours increased for many people.

I see the grind, the exhaustion on people’s faces. There’s the work grind, and then in the past two years there’s been the added layer of working parents having to homeschool their kids, supporting their remote learning. As things become more difficult, people are grinding harder. Some people have started to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” Others are still in it, trying to keep up. They don’t even recognize it’s happening because it’s their life. In some ways I don’t even know how to talk about rest when our entire culture is built on the misconception that grinding is what we’re supposed to do. This is how we’re supposed to be. We’re meant to work hard—until we die. How do you get to talking about rest when working ourselves to death is what is prized?

Sojourner Zenobia: Moreover, even when there is space—when people don’t have anything to do—it’s very easy to fill that space with things to do. We often fill our days with worries, activities, and projects, convincing ourselves that our nervous systems can handle always moving. So even when there is a space to take rest, people don’t necessarily understand what genuine, deep rest means. There are layers of rest that are possible. A lot of folks think of rest as, “I’m going to go and get my nails done.” That’s fine too as a nice pause. But there are deeper layers of rest. 

As a culture, we rarely touch a level of resting ourselves where all of our real shit starts to come up, like grief or anger. There is a misconception of rest as being only pleasurable, fun, or blissful, when in truth, resting can bring up complicated feelings. For example, the practice of Yoga Nidra1—a yogic technique centered on rest—can bring up resistance in practitioners who find themselves reluctant to take the time to create a resting space that is so supportive to the body, with pillows and blankets and other props that it feels indulgent.

People don’t believe the depths of rest that are possible. When you do go into a space of deep rest—whether you’re laying down at home or whether you’re in the forest—and it’s just you and silence, many times what surfaces is difficult and multilayered. 

Aarti: When you talked about getting your nails done, Sojourner, I thought of television and social media. When people hear “rest,” they usually think, “Oh, I get to watch TV for half an hour,” or “I get to play on my phone now.” In reality, though, that’s another activity that pulls our attention somewhere else. When we talk about genuine rest, we mean resting here—I’m pointing at my own body—resting within ourselves. True rest means just being able to be, being able to be inside of me, without letting my attention be pulled away by distraction or filling my time with something else, like social media, TV, or another story. 

It’s difficult for people to want to rest for a few reasons. One is that rest requires creating a new habit. Right now, our general habit as a society is the opposite of rest, which is “do.” Habits are hard to break. Another is that resting means being willing to experience ourselves, and sometimes we discover difficult emotions that we don’t want to face. In reality, when we don’t rest, we just push the emotions away, and they typically end up surfacing in an unhealthy manner. It’s incredibly difficult for people to want to do rest with their experience because it means that sometimes we have to sit with uncomfortable truths that surface. But resting is the totality—being with ourselves with the good stuff and the bad stuff. When we train to be with every part of ourselves, we can heal, even from sensations that are unpleasant.

Gabriel: Aarti mentioned that this type of rest is antithetical to what our culture values, so this rest requires opting out of mainstream culture. Moreover, Sojourner observed that even if we carve out space for genuine rest, it’s difficult to stay there without practice. So how do you do it? How do you opt out and then create a space where you can stay long enough to allow rest and creativity?

Aarti: Knowing how to rest is very specific to each of us. Our minds are all different, so there is no one answer to this question. However, the first step could include carving out time to just be with yourself to do some inquiry and build a mind-awareness practice. If you are someone who is constantly thinking about work, what you have to be doing, or other people, you might be more outwardly directed, which might mean you may have to include more activities in your schedule that focus on yourself. If you notice you are someone who thinks a lot about yourself, then you may have to do some things that begin to move your mind in a more outward way and include more activities that require doing something for others. 

In my own life, I tend to vacillate. Sometimes I’m very good at caring for myself; other times I’m not. However, I try to keep a general rule to focus about 50% on me, my mind, and health and 50% on the outer world. One way I maintain this balance is through a morning routine that includes a meditation about noticing how my body and mind are doing. In the past few weeks, for example, in my practice I noticed that I was stressed because I had taken on too many projects. But I couldn’t figure out a solution. So I asked my ancestors for guidance, and it dawned on me that I habitually take on commitments that are depleting to me. In order to release what doesn’t serve me, I need to commit to more restful and nourishing activities.

Sometimes that’s hard because our commitments are transactional—maybe we need the money. But I am starting to see that the clearer I am with the universe about what I want to attract, it begins to come to me—including wealth. Again, there are no exact answers because life isn’t an exact science. The practices themselves are what reveal the most and bring clarity about how I can direct my life and how I can find rest. Finding rest is about genuinely desiring it; when you commit to it—saying, “ I choose rest”—it becomes clear how that might be able to happen.

Sojourner: For me, carving out the space for genuine rest involves being curious enough to return continually to my inner experience. I want to be aware of what’s happening inside of me. There’s real motivation. At some point I began to understand how to take care of my emotions, how to ground myself enough to know what real rest means. I’m the only one who can do that; no one else can do it for me. The number one tool is curiosity about my inner world. This is especially important when scary, difficult stuff comes up during rest. For example, when unexpressed anger suddenly arises it can feel horrifying. It can feel like a huge monster inside. I’m able to keep coming back out of curiosity.

My training as a performer and as a Buddhist practitioner has also been helpful. When strong emotions arise, my training has taught me to turn towards them and dance with them. Sometimes you hear Buddhist teachers say, “sit with your emotions. Sit with your fear, or your anger.” This can be useful sometimes, but it can also be an escape from dealing with the emotion. Emotions are powerful energy in your body; sitting meditation can help you notice the emotional energy more clearly, but it doesn’t engage or dance with that energy. Real relationships come when you start to dance with the energy. There is a back-and-forth, a lead and a follow. You have a dialogue. And then the dance comes to an end, at which point there is more information and learning. This dance requires curiosity and bravery to carve out space for it.

Gabriel: Sojourner, you’ve spoken before about the more-than-human world as being an important place of slowing down and resting. Could you say more about what you mean and why that is such an important place?

Sojourner: We are taught to focus on ourselves as human beings—either we’re the only ones who matter or we’re the most important. The world revolves around my relationship with myself, my job, and other people. We have a completely human centered worldview. Humans are the only ones—anthropocentrism. That is a part of grind culture. Our society has been created to exploit and eliminate everything that’s not a human being, like the earth and animals and space. 

In my experience of meditation, creativity, and being a performer, when I create spaces that are more open to both play and stillness and that allow my sensational world to emerge, my experience becomes less centered on myself and human-centered existence. For example, meditation, becoming present—which, by the way, is a practice in rest—simplifying, letting go of what is not here in this moment: these become a gateway to hear the plants around me, to feel the sensation of the wind. The practice of presence that is meditation lets me cultivate a relationship with sensation because I’m not caught up in the speedy mind of “what do I have to do next?” When you’re out in the woods, for example, in the stillness you become aware of the sound of water, or the sound of the birds, or the feeling of your body on the earth.

This experience doesn’t necessarily have to be “out in nature,” but could also be with an object from the natural world. For example, I often wear feather earrings because they affect my state of being in a certain way. It’s taken me a journey to learn how these particular objects affect me—what they invoke in me—and to learn what that means in my life. For me, there is a message from my ancestors in my relationship with feathers.

When I’m in nature, for example a forest, there is an inherent rest and stillness to the environment that allows me to enter into deeper relationship with what surrounds me—a fallen log beside my path or a stone that I pick up to hold. When I feel the stone in my hand, I find myself asking, what is it saying to me? What information is held in the texture of this stone? Or, what can I learn from the way a spider crawls across my hand? Asking these questions is important because we are interdependent with these beings and the elements and energy they contain. We’re not just humans with our human experiences and human relationships. All of the relationships with the more-than-human world are constantly unfolding, whether or not we recognize them, feel them, or value them in our lives. In my experience, valuing and nourishing relationships between myself and the more-than-human world—which includes my ancestors—has enriched my life. Doing so has also helped me understand more of who I am and my purpose in the world. Moreover, the more-than-human world—including ancestors—can give us information on how to rest, how to let go of the grind of this society that deems all of that invisible.

Aarti: Without rest, it’s hard to see that larger world. If you’re grinding, you’re in an entirely human realm. Without just a little pause, it’s very difficult to see or experience any of the unseen world that Sojourner mentioned. Your mind has to be quiet enough to experience that. When our experience becomes disconnected from the more-than-human world, we miss out on a whole chunk of our own humanity. There is so much with which to connect. If we can slow down, we might start to feel, to remember, that we belong here.

shah noor: How do the practices of rest and reflection that you’ve described help you reimagine the world, your work, or your role in transforming suffering? 

Aarti: When I carve out time for my own rest and reflection, I usually begin to see my own habits much more clearly, which signifies to me what I’d like to change about myself. If I’m causing harm to others without realizing it, it often will show itself when I’m resting and doing inner reflection. If I can’t see clearly, how can I make adjustments in my life? Rest and reflection are about knowing yourself and allowing your intuition to give you the guidance and answers you need. So rest often reveals truths to me, good and bad, and it also opens up my intuition so that any questions I’m grappling with are answered by my deepest self.

Sojourner and I facilitate a class called “Dreaming in a Dying World.” The class starts right here where we are, in the midst of grind culture—the fast-paced, multi-layered capitalist system that is destroying our world today. We’re so enmeshed in that culture that many of us don’t give it a second thought. It’s all we’ve ever known. In the class, we like to offer a metaphor of a fish in a polluted pond. The fish—that’s us, by the way—has lived its entire life in the polluted pond. It’s never seen clear water, but it has some inkling of what clean water might be—perhaps a thread of a memory of an ancestor’s experience of clean water in that same pond, long ago before it became polluted. The distant memory is enough for the fish to know that it wants clean water, but it doesn’t quite know what clean water is.

The only way out of the polluted pond—or rather, the only way to clean up the pond—is by reconnecting with the wisdom of our own intuitive side, our ancestors, and the unseen world. It’s not going to come from grind culture. We have to be willing to look for and receive guidance from our intuition, our ancestors, and the more-than-human world, as well as from people who never forgot their connection.

In Dreaming in a Dying World, we come together from all different walks of life—different races, sexes, sexual orientations, bodies, mindsets, etcetera, and together we practice meditation so that we can access our own intuition, ancestors, and the elements. Then, we create a space where we can feel enough trust to share the wisdom that arises with each other so that we can begin to dream about a world that we all want.

Play is one tool that we use in the class to help uncover wisdom that’s within us—within our being and our ancestors—that we haven’t known or experienced directly. We use various forms of play to access the wisdom of the body, or experience. When we do this kind of play, it’s important to create a safe enough space for our wisdom to arise and become part of the play.

When ancestral wisdom—which is our wisdom—begins to permeate the space of the class, then we start being creative together. We rarely know what will emerge from the creative exercises we hold. The creativity that folks experience is often quite visionary, and that’s what we mean by dreaming. We create a space or a portal for people’s imaginations to unfold, for new ideas to emerge. We create a lot of room for what comes up for participants to shape how each session of the class unfolds. Sometimes we don’t plan an agenda for the second half of a session so that we can follow what emerges early on. When collective wisdom arises in a group, it’s clear; everyone can feel it, and that allows us to ride the journey together with no hesitation.

Sojourner: What’s coming up in my life right now is the feeling of disconnection from people, and wondering about the tools and processes to feel like I belong, like other people belong—like we’re seen, valued, needed, loved, held. Grind culture does the opposite through all the ways that we’re taught to judge ourselves and others, to project onto one another or to “other” each other. It does a really good job of keeping us disconnected. 

Part of what perpetuates this disconnection is the inability to relate with conflict when it arises in relationships. When conflict emerges—whether as a disagreement with our business partner or as violence in society—we have to pause. This is another application of genuine rest. We have to stop and take a rest from the grind. Whether it’s as mild as Aarti and I disagreeing or as serious as another mass shooting, it’s important to pause and hold space for processing what occurred. It doesn’t matter if you have an agenda or a deadline or a mission to accomplish. What matters is to acknowledge the conflict or the harm however it manifests, whether the dynamics in a meeting are so hierarchical that they are stifling my voice, or I am so overwhelmed by another mass shooting that I can barely think today. When we blast through or push ahead without pausing or resting with each other, we feed the disconnection. Let’s just pause and be together. When we can acknowledge suffering and be with it, our humanity emerges. We get to be full human beings, something that grind culture doesn’t allow.

Recently I had the opportunity to play with a music group called Autophysiopsychic Millennium, in honor of the late Dr. Yusef Abdul Lateef, a visionary saxophonist, artist, and essayist. The band was talking about the origins of jazz being from the Black experience in this country and we started discussing something called the “Hush Harbor.” The Hush Harbor took place when enslaved people on plantations would get together in the middle of the night and play music. Talk about creating space for rest in the worst possible grind culture. People from different tribes and places were forced into slavery, and they decided that what would be most beneficial, restful, and generative would be to gather in the night in the forest to sing and play music. Many of them didn’t speak the same language, but they could play drums, dance, sing, and share rituals together. Through that they could develop a shared language.

For enslaved people who participated, the Hush Harbor was a powerful version of rest. They had to move quietly in the middle of the night until they could find a safe place to create a space outside the oppressive force of slavery. Once there, temporarily removed from the culture that considered them less than human, they could have a shared experience of one another as full human beings, even without spoken language. Perhaps they couldn’t communicate in sentences, but they could sing it out, dance it out together.

I think about the relevance of this space of rest and communication in today’s world, where so much of the time human beings who all have different experiences in bodies and in cultures don’t understand each other. We are talking past one another because we have such different viewpoints, worldviews, definitions of words, languages, and upbringings. In the midst of that seemingly uncrossable chasm, I’m interested in locating a space where we can create and play together, where everyone can be present and onboard, where we can be fully human.

shah noor: Thank you. This conversation has brought up a lot for me to reflect on.

Gabriel: Yes. Thank you both.

Aarti Tejuja (any pronoun) is a Sindhi Buddhist Tantrika, embodied sacred space holder, intuitive healer, ritualist and a dreamer of a just and sane world. She co-creates grounded spaces where vulnerability can arise amongst people of varying backgrounds so that people can share their feelings openly and work through any conflicts that may arise. Her gift is to draw out the highest truth in any space, whether one-on-one or in a large gathering. Aarti currently co-owns Antara,, and lives with her husband Matt Lentz and two kitties, Fiona and Buttercup, on Potawatomi land, Merrillville, IN.

Sojourner Zenobia (They/She), is an embodied sacred space facilitator, multidisciplinary performance artist, abolitionist, and earth wisdom- dream walker. Sojourner is completely moved by being on this planet we call earth and is specifically interested in inviting BIPOC queer folks into somatic spiritual space to explore, strengthen and practice collective wisdoms that we receive from the earth. Sojourner has brought to close a 10 year journey of facilitating a meditation and ritual space for BIPOC folks called Stillness. On the other end of this experience they are now exploring stillness in their own life by way of trusting the wisdom in their body and by trusting the relationships in their life. 

  1. Yoga Nidra, sometimes colloquially referred to as sleep yoga, is a philosophy and practice that attends to resting different parts of our energetic and physical bodies through guided meditation and restorative body postures. Akin to the shavasana yoga pose, the primary Yoga Nidra posture involves laying down and supporting all parts of your body with pillows and blankets. Playfully referred to as the “rest nest,” this posture and surrounding cushions support practitioners in accessing deep relaxation. Yoga Nidra can also be done standing or sitting.