Ok, here’s the first big question of 2009 (you must answer truthfully or Leon Panetta will soon be knocking at your door…): Did you take “time off” over the holidays?
Very likely the answer will sound something like, “well, yes…and no.” Perhaps you did take a day or more off from your regular job, or a day off from personal obligations, or if you were fortunate, even a vacation in the typical sense of booking hotels and flights and coming back more exhausted than when you left. Very relaxing, right?
Think about it: when was the last time that you really took a day off from life’s endless swirl of activity—a day with no agenda, no plans, no to-do list, maybe no movement at all?
Don’t you long for such a day? Maybe a weekend, even a whole week (God Forbid!) to just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, or cuddle up on the sofa with a good book? If you are like me, you wonder what it would be like to experience soulful rest, the kind that nurtures your spirit and reconnects you to a deep inner voice that usually gets short shrift: yours.
Sounds good, right? Yet, in our harried, productivity-obsessed culture, we have become caught up in a paradox: we fear that if we stop—stop work, stop striving, stop performing our dutiful roles as “worker bee,” “perfect parent,” “corporate scion,” “Starbucks fueled consumer,” even for one day, well, the insidious malaise of anxiety, lethargy, even depression (what I call the “bag-lady syndrome”) will take over and throw us off track.
To this fear-fantasy, I say: “Bah, Humbug. Don’t just sit there: do nothing!” The deeper truth regarding our type-A testosterone-driven life styles is just the opposite: if we do not stop, rest, and rejuvenate, on a regular basis, we will die. Incessant, manic activity is ultimately deadly, to the body, to the soul, to the spirit.
In his beautiful book, “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Daily Lives”, Wayne Muller speaks eloquently about the essential requirement of dormancy: “If certain plant species, for example, do not lie dormant for the winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring. If this continues for more than a season, the plant begins to die. If dormancy continues to be prevented the entire species will die. A period of rest—in which nutrition and fertility most readily coalesce –is not simply a human psychological convenience; it is a spiritual and biological necessity. A lack of dormancy produces confusion and erosion in the life force.”
Very powerful stuff, no? I doubt that many of us have considered that taking an honest-to-God BREAK from life’s endless struggle might be a “spiritual and biological necessity”? Well, I would go one step further. As counter-cultural as it sounds, I believe that many of my clients with “clinical depression,” are not really depressed at all: they are spiritually, emotionally, and physically EXHAUSTED. Wasted. Burnt.
Now, in the ever-widening circles of New Agers these days, the anecdote to all this frantic activity is simple: learn to meditate. Meditation—simply sitting and breathing for a few as five minutes a day on a regular basis—has been proven to have powerful healing effects on the body, heart and soul.
BUT, here’s the rub: most of my clients who try meditating, wind up putting “meditation” on their “to-do” list, and more often than not, end up skipping the practice or cutting it short within a few days or weeks. Sooner or later they are in despair of their “inadequacy” as spiritual seekers and end up adding the additional weight of guilt and envy to their already bulging bag of burdens.
Here’s my take: I meditate. In fact, I have meditated semi-regularly (key word-“semi”) for over two decades. It works. When I meditate regularly, I feel more grounded, less anxious, and generally approach my work day with a stronger sense of self. But I admit this too: I skip sessions; I sometimes forget to sit; I lose track of time; I have even been known to cut my “sitting sessions” short when the phone rings, the cat whines, or Anderson Cooper is in Afghanistan.
Don’t you ever wonder just how truthful people are being when they boast about their “consistent mediation practice?” I’m not convinced.
So, what if meditation is not your thing? Well, you STILL need to learn to DO NOTHING occasionally—it’s like eating less fat, less sugar, and regular exercise. For health of heart, mind and soul, these work. As does REST. So, here’s my offering for a New Year’s resolution to consider: This year DO LESS.
Take up the gauntlet, find a warm, cozy corner, and DO NOTHING. If that feels like too much of a stretch (and for most of us, it will), here are five alternative suggestions that just might get you in the mood—for nothing:
1. Day dream: Find a comfortable sofa, curl up under a blanket (buy a “Snuggie?!) and begin by simply staring off into space. Fun, eh? Now, let your mind wander, add in a touch of fantasy (no, not THAT kind of fantasy—that’s for later when you’re on the internet). Now, here you go: day dream. When you get interrupted, or start feeling antsy and anxious and guilty, pretend you’re asleep (dreaming is allowed then…right?)
2. Read: Only fiction. No self-help, research thick scientific journals, no political or economic commentary, no mags, newspapers or e-zines, not even blogs! Find a great, hopefully mindless novel (horror is fine, as is mystery/thriller) that will cause you to lose track of time, whisking you off into the far reaches of your imagination. Think: Harry Potter!
3. Walk: Anywhere. Alone. Take a solitary stroll around Times Square, through a park, along the ocean. Purposely try to get lost (unless you’re in the Adirondacks). When the desire to “be purposeful” kicks in (and it will), take deep breaths and think: “I’m doing a walking meditation.” This is what the monks do just to survive the monotony of their contemplative lives.
4. Doodle: Draw and scribble: words, pictures, cartoons, you name it. Fill up a page with sentence fragments, pithy phrases, and useless swirls of color. Dig up your old crayons or colored markers. Make a mess on the page. Not only is this great fun, but Carl Jung would be impressed. You are creating a mandala, which, when psycho-analyzed, will be filled with amazing amounts of meaningful symbolism; but for now, just PLAY.
5. Listen to music: This one’s as close to a no-brainer as we get, but even here you can “step off the bus:” dig out old albums from the sixties, turn to the AM dial and find the one remaining classical music station, download an opera (yes an OPERA) on to your I-pod…and just LISTEN.
6. Sleep: This one is KEY. Human beings really DO need 6-8 hours of sleep each night. Yet, no matter how many sleep-deprived rats have died in the cause of “proving” the importance of sleep, we just don’t get it. Well, this year: get it. Here’s three ways: 1. add an hour in morning (that’s right, roll back over and turn off the alarm, the cat will survive…and maybe someone else will feed the kids, just once); 2. Take a nap, anywhere (except while driving); 3. When all else fails: sit through a movie twice, in the theater, or at home (something like “Synecdoche” is good—totally abstract and incomprehensible). You’ll be able to tell people that you’re “at the movies” or “watching a film”—and yet get two additional hours of guilt-free zzzzzz’s.
I have many friends and clients whose biggest struggle in life is not with their work, their kids, their boss or even their mother-in-law. The big question, the one that gnaws at them day in and day out from morning till night, is deceptively simple, immediate, and insidious: how do I get a day off (or a week, or a year…?).
Deep down we all know that just as the plants and animals of the natural world require hibernation—a time for rest and gestation—the human spirit needs time for restitution. Do you hear that voice? The one that you usually ignore; that emerges from some deep, unfathomable place in the back of your mind, telling you to put down that cell phone, close the laptop, lie down on that inviting sofa… and just hang?
In 2009, might we answer this call?
There is no time to waste. So I’m going to take the rest of the day off. It’s a start.