Sabbath, or rest more broadly, has been on my mind these days. This is partly due to personal circumstances and largely because my friend and pastor, Julia, is planning a well-deserved sabbatical for herself in the year 2019. The topic also feels pertinent on a much deeper, philosophical level.
The Sabbath’s roots are religious — Jewish, specifically, yet most other spiritual traditions have a practice of pausing one’s “normal” life and recommitting to the God(s) of their understanding. Yet a Sabbath (which is at the root of the word sabbatical) needn’t be centered on the divine per se, in my view. Buddhists sometimes call it a “Day of Mindfulness”, for example, where the intention is to clear one’s mind of the mental and emotional debris left in the wake of our speedy lifestyles. It also has taken on professional connotations, such as in the field of academia.
The idea of dedicated time to take Sabbath — that is, time to rest, renew, restore, and re-center — is completely countercultural these days. It’s even revolutionary, in my opinion, and I mean this in the best of ways. In a world where we get calls through our watches, have access to email 24/7, can shop whenever we want, and are sucked into the virtual infinity of the Internet, to temporarily lay our daily tasks and habits to the side with the intention of making contact with our deeper foundations is viewed as either a luxury one can’t afford or a nuisance one doesn’t care to practice.
Buddhist sutras sometimes refer to our way of existing as a kind of sleep-walking, an unconscious forward movement devoid of any real awareness of our actions or their consequences. To me, this is powerful imagery. It’s a bit like The Matrix: the idea that we live in a dream world in which have little to no control over our circumstances simply because we are not “awake”. By awake, I do not simply mean the opposite of sleep; I mean the act of intentionally bringing one’s attention to the here and now and to each facet of our existence (good, bad, and ugly), thus giving us the opportunity to choose how we respond to the events of our lives.
When we are existentially “asleep at the wheel”, we are under the control of powerful beings that do not have our best interest (nor the collective’s best interest) at heart. These beings are what, in Christianity, we might call “false idols.” Some think of these as Pagan gods, but such an interpretation is short-sighted. More accurate false idols would be perfection, wealth, fame, busy-ness, others’ opinions of us, and our own expectations of ourselves.
To practice intentional rest that is meant to shed these false idols and re-center us on true icons (that is, those ideas which speak to the interconnectedness of all things, such as “God” or love) is to practice acting in defiance of inhuman and unjust practices such as exploitative labor, consumerism, and greed. To take time each day, each week, each month — however often feels appropriate yet transformative for you — is to be a revolutionary in the cause of awakening. It is a practice of shattering the chains which keep us beholden to idols that do not serve us. It is a practice of remembering our humanity.
To practice re-centering rest — which is very different from merely “catching up on sleep” — is to reprioritize our time and our actions in such a way that love is the guiding light. It is an acknowledgment that, while there isn’t enough time in the day to do it all, whatever one can accomplish in the day is enough. It is a statement that one’s worth is not linked to our productivity, as capitalism and the Protestant work ethic suggest. Instead, it is a declaration that our worth is linked to our inherent, irrevocable essence. This is a chief teaching of healthy spirituality and/or psychology, yet it is terrifying for the ego. For, if our worth is not linked to our productivity, what purpose does our ego serve? The ego hates undeserved worthiness because such grace renders it nearly pointless. To survive, the ego needs external validation for its efforts, but Sabbath flys in the face of that. By claiming we are valid in spite of our inability to “do it all”, in spite of “doing nothing” (which is what some suggest Sabbath amounts to, though I find that to be an interesting use of the word “nothing”), we begin the work of dismantling the ego and, in that process, opening ourselves up to deeper truths.
It is on us to trust that even if we take time away from our worldly commitments, the world won’t fall apart. Unfortunately for the ego, yet fortunately for our beings, we are not that indispensable. Existence can — and will — move on even if nothing on our to-do list gets checked off. Life crises teach us this: we get hit with a serious case of the flu and suddenly all our work plans have to be delayed; a loved one passes and we have to cancel all other commitments to be at their funeral; a child is born and suddenly all the things we thought were so important are not worth our precious time compared to this new life. This isn’t to say that such events are not challenging (for they certainly are). Rather, what such circumstances prove to us is that, if we are forced to put aside our usual plans, a reorientation of priorities is possible. Unfortunately, we usually require massive (and sometimes tragic) events to be shown this truth.
Perhaps there’s a healthier way to learn how to awaken from our existential sleepwalking. Given that practice makes better, to regularly engage in intentional re-centering and reprioritization — in other words, Sabbath — is to better equip ourselves for those times in life when unforeseen circumstances require such a reorientation on our part, whether we like it or not.
Sabbath does not require money, for it is not the same as expensive, capitalist-oriented “self-care” practices (think: pricey retreats at yoga centers that are disconnected from the spiritual roots of yoga). All we need is our intentionality, our trust in the process, and a willingness to sit with the initial discomfort caused by our lack of “doing” (remember, the ego hates Sabbath). And rather than thinking of Sabbath as a full-day, weekly practice, we can think of it in broader terms: as a friend once said, “I practice Sabbath-moments, rather than Sabbath-days. It just works better for me.”
In short: we rest in order to awaken. We stop in order to move forward. Sabbath is an act of loving resilience and resistance, an act of rooting ourselves deeper in order to rise taller. Just as the depths of a lake become visible when the surface is still, the depths of our own being become visible when we practice stillness within and without. So let us pause, then, and return to the deeper truths we yearn to reconnect with.