It’s a radical idea. What if, for one whole day each week, you don’t check email or Facebook or Twitter, you don’t answer calls or texts, you don’t run around town doing errands, you don’t do work, you don’t do housework, you don’t do any “productive” projects, you just rest.
This is not a new idea. Throughout history, many cultures (Christianity and Judaism being two biggies) have maintained a “Sabbath” or period of rest. Now, for these two and others, this was instituted for religious reasons, but I suspect that this periodic break from the constant busy-busy of everyday life, this opportunity to pause and just be, also helped to maintain sanity.
I’ve always considered myself “spiritual, but not religious.” (Those of you who know me know that I was raised with more Eastern thought than Western, and that I practice Transcendental Meditation.) But I strongly feel that even those of us who aren’t “commanded” to take a “day of rest” by our religion could still benefit from taking a day of rest.
One of the paradoxes of modern life is that many of our “labor saving” technologies have resulted in us doing more work. Mental work is still work, and can lead to even greater exhaustion than physical work, an exhaustion that’s harder to recover from. We live in a world of unrelenting mental stimulation that’s almost impossible to turn off (especially in places like New York City).
It used to be that when one left the office on Friday, it wasn’t even possible to do work until one re-entered the office on Monday. Now, thanks to technology, emails and voicemails can reach us at home, in the park, on vacation, etc… This is a very mixed blessing.
Our attention is perpetually fractured.
Now that I don’t have a “normal” 9-5 job, I’ve found it even harder to put parameters around working. I found myself not taking weekends off, but rather, maintaining the same schedule of writing, job searching, networking, etc… 7 days a week, because there were no “hours” defined from the outside. Because I did’t have a “job”, I felt like I needed to be perpetually busy to justify my existence, in order to not be seen as lazy (even though the only one judgming me a lazy was myself). Our culture encourages doing over being, and our technology facilitates this. I used to roll over in bed at 2 a.m to check the emails that had just come to my phone. Even if I had no work to do, my brain kept perpetually whirring, unable to turn off. This led to a deep fatigue, a mental fatigue, a fatigue of the soul.
So back to the idea of a “Sabbath”. I’m going to do something I never thought I’d do in this blog, which is to quote the bible. Now, like I said before, I’m not a religious person – for me, the bible is literary, not literal. But the following quotation from Genesis gave me pause, and I think it’s a useful story for those of us engaged in the process of creativity.
As many of you probably already know, Genesis starts with the infamous, “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” There’s a lot of creating in the first chapter of Genesis – light and darkness, land and sea, plants and animals, people.
But then in the second chapter, it states: “And on the seventh day God ended his work…and he rested on the seventh day… And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it he had rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2-3, King James Version)
Now, as a creative person, the lesson I took from this passage is that, if you want to create things, you need to take a break afterwards and rest. And taking this once a week rest isn’t slacking off, it is “sanctified,” something just as worthy as the work of creation.
So, as an experiment, I decided to introduce a day of rest.
The only model I had for this was a memory of a book I adored as a child, “Little House in the Big Woods,” (the prequel to “Little House on the Prairie”) by Laura Ingalls Wilder . “Little House in the Big Woods” describes the hardworking life of a pioneer family. Monday through Saturday are filled with labor, specific to each day (Laura recites a little verse about this that goes, “wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday.”) But on that final day of the week, all work ceases. Instead, the family spends the day sitting by the fireside, reading aloud, singing, or sitting quietly and just being.
Now, I’m not advocating the strict, rigid application of “no work” that the Ingalls family mandated (for example, the children could look at their paper dolls, but they couldn’t cut out any new outfits for them, because that was “work”), and I can understand why young Laura got restless and rebelled against it.
But a modern, moderate day of rest has been working wonders for me and my creative output lately.
On Sunday I don’t set the alarm clock; instead, I let my body awaken whenever it wants to, naturally. After meditation, I cook a leisurely hot breakfast (omelettes, pancakes, etc..). Next comes the weekly ritual of The Sunday New York Times. I read the news on weekdays too, of course, but that usually consists of a quick scan of the headlines on my smartphone or Nook. On Sundays, I get to unfurl the whole paper and digest it slowly, taking my time, reading articles from beginning to end, not just skimming distractedly. My favorite section is the Week In Review. It distills the big picture issues out of the daily noise of the 24 hour news cycle (kind of what Sundays do for my week).
Afterwards, I might go for a walk, saunter the stacks of the local bookstore, read a good novel, paint or draw.
Or I’ll spend the day in bed with my sweetie :). There’s a relaxedness to this love; it has no goal, no agenda. We take our time. Matt has been a great teacher on my quest for a day of rest. It comes naturally to him, as a big, Kapha dude, whereas my frittering, worrying Vata self has to learn this skill. Like a bear lying in a patch of sun and enjoying it with his whole being, Matt has a Taoist gift for just being.
When dusk falls Sunday night, “normal life” resumes – I deal with the emails and voicemails that have piled up, do the dishes, tidy the apartment, prepare for the coming week. But often, after a day of rest, I’m itching to get back to work. I need work, after all. But I return to it replenished. And for the rest of the week, I have my daily meditations to dip my toe into “Sunday” aimlessness.
This Sunday pause has done wonders for me – mind, body and soul. I think I’m going to make it a weekly practice.
I invite you to take a day of rest as well. Trust me, almost all emails can wait till Monday morning. The “day of rest” doesn’t have to be on Sunday; “Sunday” could be on Tuesday, or whatever day of your week works best for rejuvenating. Taking a “Sabbath” can feel indulgent or unproductive, but I find, paradoxically, it’s sometimes the most productive thing I do. It refills the well of my imagination, from which I will draw all week. And that, I believe, is holy.