My Year of Rest and Relaxation, reviewed by Andrew Archer

“There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.” (p. 289)

 A Buddhist Analysis of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh 

Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel—My Year of Rest and Relaxation—is written as a retrospective, reflection of the narrator’s former self. The characters and details of the story are a critique of Western psychology—including psychiatry—and American culture. Buddhist philosophy is applied to analyze the narrator’s mission as well as deconstruct Western psychology and the concept of self.


The Buddha’s Eightfold Path is a set of ethical guideposts for living as full, skillful human beings. The teaching is to actualize reality as a middle way between the paradox of egoic, self-preoccupation and collectivism; “we are individual and yet universal.” 1 Like the Eightfold Path, the eight chapters of the novel reveal the narrator—with variant levels of consciousness—taking inventory of her life and attempting practices to alleviate her own suffering. My Year of Rest and Relaxation begins in the summer of 2000 in New York City and concludes on September 11th, 2001. The 24-year-old protagonist (un-named) is an under-employed college graduate. She embarks to ostensibly re-invent herself by drug-induced sleep. With the aid of a naïve, eccentric psychiatrist named Dr. Tuttle—the narrator decides to sleep for one year; a “self-preservational” (p. 7) hibernation. 2 The protagonist’s intention is to detach herself from reality via the ingestion of copious amounts of psychiatric prescriptions, drugs, alcohol, and over-the-counter medicine. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the narrator’s solipsistic journey of inner experiences—judgments, attachments, aversions—paralleling contemporary America: the dysfunctional conflict between promotional self-enhancement and authentic social connection.


The narrator chain smokes and slams large coffees right before going to sleep. Americans chase their Citalopram and Adderall with lattes in the morning while invitations to relax and go to bed are induced by Ambien or aided with Abilify. Dysfunctions of modernity are echoed by the protagonist’s psychiatrist or “pharmaceutical shaman" (p. 25), 2 Dr. Tuttle; “The modern age has forced us to live unnatural lives. Busy, busy, busy. Go, go, go" (p. 22). 2 Dr. Tuttle’s idiosyncrasy is juxtaposed with Buddhist philosophy on impermanence when she suggests that the main character, track the “waning intensity of suffering" (p. 60) 2 or the lack of an essential center. She advises the peeling of an onion metaphor to “Look deeper and deeper and eventually you’ll find nothing. We’re mostly empty space […] And we’re all the same nothingness" (p. 75). 2

The 20th century saw the emergence of the “empty self3 as consumer society eroded American community and tradition. Products replaced social connection and shared meanings. Emptiness, isolation and loneliness were a perfect union for a wealthy, stimulated economy that had to avoid economic stagnation, “by arranging for the continual purchase and consumption of surplus goods” (p. 6). 3

The narrator’s “empty self3 is analogized to her trash chute in her apartment building. She has no interaction with her neighbors, but finds a sense of production and community via a process of filling void space:

It made me feel important, like I was participating in the world. My trash mixed with the trash of others. The things I touched touched things other people had touched. I was contributing. I was connecting. (p. 115) 2

Akin to this faux connection, our digital interactions are void of intimacy or touch. The posts, re-posts, tweets, shares and likes are compressed and ultimately lost in a collection of unrecyclable histories. In the same way that the narrator pieces together her drug-induced blackouts via the previous transactions, purchases and changes in appearances, we create stories of ourselves via the messages we post, and the comments others make on social media. This digital self does not exist independent of these attachments or in other words is intrinsically empty. It is constructed and maintained within the application or online platform that is owned as well as operated by corporations. Therefore, this self solely inhabits a financial colony and is manipulated via amoral computer algorithms, engineered toward economic gain. The patterns and procedures are shaped by the funding of investment in the form of advertisements, which are all dictated by contemporary market capitalism. Therefore, this form of selfhood is reduced to a numerical designation, which is an optimal simplicity for surveillance and solicitation. This elementary way we have come to understand ourselves—data and code—and the corporate commodification of this digital individualism is the death of the communal.


The final act of the novel features the narrator’s interaction with the artist Ping Xi. The collaboration requires one workweek (i.e., 40 hours) of the narrator’s consciousness across several months. A slight to neoliberalism, her life is completely privatized and isolated, and she loses all autonomy. The narrator imagines the avant-garde artist declaring, “We’re all asleep, brainwashed by a system that doesn’t give a shit about who we really are”  (p. 272).  The narrator's "awakening" 2 occurs when she is able to use what Buddhists call, “refined introspection (p. 15)” 4 after prolonged isolation. In stillness, she investigates or examines her own mind 4 as thoughts arose: “Each word carried with it a seemingly endless string of associations. “Sodium”: salt, white, clouds, gauze, silt, sand, sky, lark, string, kitten, claws, wound, iron, omega" (p. 269). 2 The narrator’s “beginner’s mind” witnesses the transient nature of form. She is free “from possessing anything5 and therefore, she can actualize the Buddhist notion of impermanence: the lack of independent substantiality. No “thing” operates as an entity separate of the totality; “Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped ” (p. 138). 5

For example, the concepts of life and death represent transitional forms with arbitrary positions. Dogen illuminated this with the impossible absolute distinctions of wood, firewood and ashes (i.e., in a fire). 1 There is not a thing (e.g., firewood) that can be gripped within the uninterrupted transformative flow. Instead, there is constant fluctuation and transition without essential, fixed elements. With the discussion of the self, impermanence and emptiness are two metaphorical sides of a psychological coin.

Buddhist philosophy and the narrator represent the study of a means to operate in “reality” by studying the understanding of our self and ultimately, letting go of the attachment to the self. 1 6 7 The practice is a constant questioning of what is reality? It reveals how we attach—like a character in our own story—to a fixed idea of who we are (i.e., self). Embodied emptiness is central to Buddhism and the narrator’s description of her truth:

Nothing seemed really real. Sleeping, waking, it all collided into one gray, monotonous plane ride through the clouds. I didn’t talk to myself in my head. There wasn’t much to say. This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream. (p. 84) 2

My Year of Rest and Relaxation climaxes when the narrator takes the fictional prescription drug “Infermiterol.2 It is a “small and pellet-shaped” pill “with the letter I etched into each one, very white, very hard, and strangely heavy ” (p. 109). 2 The pill symbolizes the traditional Western notion of the self that has historically been the private, internal “me” situated apart from the social field. 8 This is what feels phenomenologically like a concrete, static core to our existence. It is small and insignificant. Empty, yet cosmically heavy or universal. The concept of self is the house of cards Western psychological theory rests on. However, the Gestalt model (i.e., constructivist field theory) relocates the self—displaced from a position inside the individual—to an ego-transcended position within as well as at the boundary of the field of awareness. 8 Concepts such as “inner” and “outer” lack relevancy with this perspective of position and integration within the whole field. 8

From a Buddhist perspective, coveting an essential interior identity “is the fundamental mental affliction” (p. 160) 4 and the actualization of “emptiness is the fundamental cure ” (p. 160). 4 The self is “an ever-changing continuum” (p. 160) 4 dependent upon everything, rather than a solid, continuous substance or core across time. 4 7 Infermiterol represents the thing we cling to and what can also destroy us. She kills this “self” via the annihilatory properties of the drug. She realizes she is participating in activities that she was not consciously aware of. The appeal of this experience for the narrator was the lack of inner chronicling, the clarity of mind, the purging of associations, because she desires to sleep away her sense of self.

Moshfegh dialectically assembles and deconstructs the a priori view of popular psychology: our identity is an emerging property of neuroanatomy—electric circuits—and neurochemistry, which produce concepts such as feelings, desires and perceptions. 4 According to this reductionistic “neuronal account of human consciousness" (p. 577) 9, psychological distress fundamentally lies in the brain, so the material medicine for our suffering is “drugs and tranquillizers" (p. 173) 4 The narrator embodies this position and ultimately is liberated from it. My Year of Rest and Relaxation exemplifies the current “neurological self ” (p. 378) 10 , critiques Western psychology—and in the end—reifies the moment we as a country ostensibly woke up. Unknowingly swaddled in the war-machine-politics of a post-9/11 world, we remain deeply asleep.

1 Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

3 Cushman, P. (1995). Constructing the self, constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. Boston, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub.

4 Wallace, B.A. (2003). Choosing reality: A Buddhist view of physics and the mind. New York: Snow Lion.

5 Suzuki, S., Dixon, T., Smith, H., and Baker, R. (1999). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. New York: Weatherhill.

6 Rizzetto, D.E. (2005). Waking up to what you do: A Zen practice for meeting every situation with intelligence and compassion. Boston: Shambhala.

7 Bobrow, J. (2010). Zen and psychotherapy: partners in liberation. New York: W.W. Norton.

8 Wheeler, G. (1997). Self and shame: A Gestalt approach. Gestalt Review, 1 (3): 221-244.

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