Category: mindfulness

An Invitation to Rest

On the Question of Rest:

A thing that has been said to me is that I’m not great at relaxation. And it’s something that worries me because: I believe in rest. I’m not interested in more-is-more life, or parenting, or work. And I’m for sure not interested in busier-is-better spirituality. The people I most admire move more slowly than that. They make more space.

But I don’t move slowly. At least not on the surface. On the surface, I’m not great at relaxation.

I tried to tackle the problem by imagining a way out of some of the work in which I engage. But the truth is, I engage in it because it feels worth doing. And I imagine that’s true for most of us. How I parent. How I labor. What I cook. The walks I like to take and the books I like to read. It’s all important to me. More important than the indulgence I’m supposed to want.

And yet I’m tired. Most of the time. Part of this is because I’m a parent of young children and – ask any of us – tired is a thing. I’m also lucky enough to have deeply fulfilling work, which has the gratifying if exhausting consequence of meaning I long to do more. I stay up late at night because doing more brings me joy. And so: tired.

But I’ve been offering space lately to this question: how might I meet my need for more rest without giving up any of the beloved endeavors to which I offer myself? Without ceding to the notion that I’d be somehow more whole if I binge watched episodes of Orange is the New Black instead of reading theology and listening to sermons once the kids go to bed.

And so I’ve turned to an old practice. Like, Genesis-old. I’m far from alone in this return, of course, though what I see of this practice being practiced is scattered. And it is by all accounts countercultural in contemporary America. So:

The Invitation:

This isn’t a post that extols the virtues of a long-held practice of Sabbath-keeping, though plenty of those exist. It isn’t a summary of the scriptural origins of the practice, though do read those because there’s immense wisdom in what our desert mothers and fathers had to say on the subject. And it isn’t a deep-dive into the theology behind Sabbath-keeping, though Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a pretty gorgeous one of those, if you’d like to read alongside me. Instead, this is an invitation. Because like many of us, I work best in community. And because I’m guessing that lots of you wish you knew how to slow down too. I’m not alone in needing more rest, and I’m not alone in being unsure how to get it.

So (the Tiniest Little Bit) About Sabbath:

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori teaches here that “Sabbath can be an opportunity to learn more deeply what God asks of each of us — loving our neighbors, each one made in God’s image, as we love ourselves.” And she asks: “How and where will you find time for Sabbath that will stretch and deepen your mind and heart?”

Jane Carol Redmont describes Sabbath keeping as “a regular weekly rhythm of rest, time for reconnecting with the sacred, festive meals with loved ones, the nurturing of community life, study of holy wisdom and sacred texts, attention to beauty and sensuality, honoring intimacy.” But Redmont also writes about how hard it is to get students even to experiment with the practice. I met with such resistance when I tried to get students to do media blackouts: to unplug for forty-eight hours. Lord have mercy; they found even the suggestion traumatic.

Rabbi Heschel writes what is, perhaps, my favorite recommendation. He says, “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement….to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And then there’s also this:

Sabbath-Keeping as Protest:

Author Stephen W. Smith writes that “when practiced, Sabbath-keeping is an active protest against a culture that is always on, always available and always looking for something else to do.”

It was in talking this through with my wife that the reasons for our cultural resistance to true rest became clearer to me. We’re offered ways to buy rest: television, movies, dessert, alcohol, amusement parks, vacations, prepared food brought to our table. And don’t get me wrong: aside from amusement parks, I dig these things. But really, most of those forms of rest are stimulating, right? They might bring pleasure; they’re surely entertaining; and they offer a passive form of indulgence – maybe even luxury – that might pass for rest. But they aren’t likely to bring us stillness, a sense of enough, or gratitude for what is and not what can be made to be.

Heschel writes: “People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.” It seems to me that real rest is a form of celebration. And it doesn’t make anyone money. There’s nothing there to market to us, which is probably why we’re culturally discouraged from making space for it. There’s nothing to sell because rest, celebration, means enough. It means more than enough.

Our First Sabbath:

So this week, for the first time, my family kept a sort of Sabbath, which consisted among more nuanced shifts of a commitment to abstain from all internet/media activities. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (because church work means I can’t keep Sabbath on Sundays), we put the devices away. We played music from neglected CDs on our old player in the kitchen (instead of our carefully curated playlists on Spotify). That first night, when the kids were sleeping and the chores were done and it was only 9:30pm, I settled in our old glider and read almost fifty pages of a novel in a dark house with no glowing screens. And then I prayed for longer. And then I slept.

The next morning, we went to the farmer’s market, and I didn’t take pictures of my kids’ faces when I said they could have the freshly fried donuts they smelled from the other side of the market. I didn’t take pictures when they saw red sunflowers or tasted the most perfect yellow tomatoes on earth.

When we got home, I cooked lunch slowly, enjoying the sound of the boys playing outside, and the feel of my cool kitchen, and the indulgence of good food. We invited friends over spontaneously, and watched the kids get wet and muddy. I paid a little more mind to my breath, to my posture. I paid a little more mind to my wife. I worked (cooking, parenting, sweeping the floor), but more slowly, with intentionality and joy. I took pleasure even in washing dishes. I worried less about how long bedtime would take. There’s no evidence, but I think I smiled more.

I’m in, at least for the year. At least until next August, some version of this will be our lives from Fridays at sundown through Saturday nights. I’m already looking forward to next week. If you think you might join us, will you let me know? I’d love insight into what you’re reading, or how you’ve kept this spiritual practice in the past, or how your family practiced it growing up. I’d love to know how it works for you now. Even in this new, fumbling stage, I am grateful to be on this road, and I would be thrilled to have company.

Advertisements

scripture, creation, & calm

Last week – with dozens of volunteers and nearly a hundred Kalamazoo-area kids – we held our annual Bronson Park Vacation Bible School. It was an intense and exuberant week, marked overall by much singing, shouting, and joyful noise.

But one session each day – which I was inspired to create during last year’s VBS – sought to offer kids some insight into what to do with all that energy: how to move from enthusiasm to commitment to our scriptures; from excitement to comprehension of the Word; from creative energy to creation itself.

Each day – in groups of twenty – kids entered a small space replete with rich textiles, lamps for light, a small altar, prayer mats, and candles. Each day, I greeted them at the door, whispering hello and encouraging them to greet one another in whispered tones as well. They seemed to understand instantly that the space was different. In that room, they were remarkably still. It wasn’t what they expected to encounter at Vacation Bible School, and so they were watchful, full of curiosity and wonder.

Upon entering, they were invited to find a prayer mat and draw awareness to their breath. I was startled by how well they responded to the work of intentional breathing. Here are the five particular exercises we did to prepare our bodies and minds for each day’s Bible chapters. I encourage you to try them: for yourself or with your kids. They were wonderful for helping us receive the Word, but they would work well, too, in a myriad of other circumstances.

  1. Flower Breathing: Breathe in, imagining you’re smelling your favorite flower. Breathe out, imagining you’re blowing out birthday candles. Repeat slowly, and at least ten times. This technique will help you engage your imagination, become aware of your breath, and calm and awaken your body.
  2. Fire Breath: Interlace your fingers underneath your chin. Inhale and lift the elbows up to frame your face. Exhale, lifting your head up and making a whispered “hah” sound toward the sky, like a dragon breathing fire. At the same time, lower your elbows back down to meet at the bottom again by the end of the “hah” exhale. Do so slowly, and at least ten times. This technique builds strength and heat within, making it a good energizer. It also helps us feel brave when we might be nervous.
  3. Feather Dancing: Hold a feather (a peacock feather, if possible!) two to three inches in front of your mouth and exhale completely, seeing how long you can make it dance. Watch the feather carefully as it moves. Then breathe in slowly to the count of four, and hold your breath to the count of two. Then breathe out again, seeing how long you can push the air out of your lungs, how long you can make the feather dance. Repeat at least ten times. Notice how this feels. Notice any differences in your body or your thoughts.
  4. Sound & Attention: This exercise is particularly helpful for grounding you in the present moment. It is of use when your thoughts carry you into the past or the future. Begin by lying down comfortably with your hands at your sides and your eyes closed. Draw your attention to your breathing: simply notice as your breath enters and leaves your body. You can also place your hands on your soft, breathing belly, feeling it rise and fall. Do this for at least five breath cycles (five inhales and exhales). Then, when you feel ready, create or have someone else in the room create a sound that resonates. This could be a piano key, a meditation chime, a singing bowl, a rain stick, or another sound that will resonate and eventually evanesce. When you hear the sound, focus on it as it gets softer and softer. When you no longer hear the sound, move your hands from your sides to your heart, as if in prayer. Return to five breathing cycles. Repeat this a couple of times.
  5. Weather Report: First, sit up tall and do some breathing. Try one of the approaches above, or simply breathe in for four counts, hold for two, and breathe out slowly. Repeat for at least five cycles. Then close your eyes and ask your body what your weather is. What weather best describes your feelings at this moment? Do you feel sunny, rainy, stormy, calm, windy, like a tsunami? This exercise helps us to remember that just as we can’t change the weather outside, and the weather is not our planet, we can’t change our emotions either, and those emotions aren’t us.

Having finished the day’s breath work, students were handed their art notebooks, in which they created art all week – being artists in God’s image – while listening to each day’s scriptural reading.

IMAG1830_1

  1. The first day, when the theme was hope, kids drew their understanding of light while listening to Isaiah 9:2-7. Their depictions of light were stunning: some offered it coming in through windows; others drew candles; still others created bright, vibrant skies.
  2. On Tuesday, the theme was courage, and they were asked to draw something they wanted to do but were afraid to try. I was startled by how easy it was for nearly all of them to bring to mind some current fear: jumping off the swing like their older sister; taking the training wheels off their bike; holding their breath and going under water; climbing some structure at the playground. They drew while I read Matthew 14:22-32, in which Jesus commands Peter to walk across the water towards him, which Peter can do it until he remembers his fear, forgets to trust, and begins to sink. Jesus, of course, lifts him up again.
  3. On Wednesday, the reading was the Beatitudes; the theme was direction; and kids drew their own imagined door to God: a door only they would recognize. These were especially moving: some were enormous while others were tiny passageways. Some were full of color, others just space and light.
  4. On Thursday the theme was love. The reading was the resurrection according to Luke, and they created images of themselves offering a small act of love or kindness towards someone in their lives. What was amazing about these was how much they smiled while they drew.
  5. On Friday, the theme was power; the reading was Acts 1; and kids drew one moment of beautiful creation that they had been privileged to witness. They were incredibly precise about these: I saw a small red flower that no one else noticed. There was a moon in the sky even though it was morning. I wanted a baby brother for so long and then I got to hold him. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Each day, when their creations were finished, we talked through what they had felt called to draw, and why. Then, together, they would create a prayer that related to the reading and images. For hope, one group wrote: Dear God, we hope for happy children. And we thank you. Amen. For courage, another wrote: Dear Jesus, were you ever scared? We have been scared. Please give us courage. Amen. For direction, a third wrote God, please help us find the door to your house. Amen.

Given the children’s remarkably open, calm, present experience of this process, we will definitely incorporate mindfulness in other aspects of our formation offerings, including our upcoming Music Camp. And if you explore any of these techniques as a part of your spiritual formation at home, please let us know how it goes. Watching nearly a hundred children engage scripture both contemplatively and creatively was well worth the effort.