How Shabbat Can Heal the Tyranny of Busyness

I attended my first Shabbat service on a recent Friday evening, surprising in its sense of joy and celebration. “We love to sing,” said the program for Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, where my nephew, Eric Gage, on the cusp of 13, would become B’nei Mitzvah the next day.

I felt both eager and unprepared as I stepped into the reform temple, with its unfamiliar language and practices. My brother helped my sisters and me — raised Methodist, none of us regular church-goers — through the English translations of the Hebrew text. I struggled self-consciously with the left-to-right turning of the pages in the prayer book, before I finally sank into my pew and focused outward, upward.

“Our everyday lives are so busy,” the evening’s program read. “We invite you to relax and enjoy this time away from the quickened pace of the world outside these walls. Please enjoy the gift that is Shabbat by turning off your cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone or anything else that goes ‘buzz.’”

A sense of placekeep-calm-and-shabbat-shalom_SMALL

The word Shabbat literally means “ceasing” or “stopping,” a concept I am only beginning to grasp at middle age — and one made more difficult in a time when being digitally connected (always on, forever reachable) is expected, if not embraced.

“The Sabbath comes to us from the Jewish tradition. In the story of creation in Genesis, each of God’s six acts of creation is like an act in a play. And the climax is: God rests,” says a 2003 article from the UU World, the magazine (and now website and Twitter feed) of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

“It is the rests in the music that make the music,” says a friend of mine who became a UU minister in her 40s.

UUism is my adopted though ill-practiced faith, and I am turning to its teachings and seven principles more often as I discuss my concepts of God and religion with my 19-year-old son, a declared atheist. Absent a relationship with a UU congregation, however, I have lost my sense of the Sabbath, or Shabbat.

I have no place, no church, no sanctuary whose sanctity demands that I leave the buzzing iPhone at home and turn off the incessant buzzing in my brain. Sunday no longer is a special day, with its own quieter rhythms. I go to yoga early in the morning. My husband and I often take in a movie in the afternoon. Beyond that, it’s just another working day when I don’t have to don work clothes.

“Observing the Sabbath, observing a day of mindfulness, taking a real day off . . . call(s) for the intentional creation of sacred space and time,” says the same article in the UU World, a reprint of a sermon by the Reverend Amanda Aikman. “It takes a little discipline. It also calls us to overcome our fear of what we will find in the silence and the emptiness.”

‘Be more, do less’

In my ongoing quest for meaning at midlife — for a greater sense of purpose beyond my work and myself — I am turning to secular sources of inspiration that name the problem but seldom offer any lasting solution:

  • “Be more, do less,” a T-shirt at my yoga studio reads.
  • “We wear our busyness like a badge,” says Duluth, Minnesota–based yogi and teacher Deborah Adele in The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Describing Brachmacharya, the concept of non-excess, she notes how we Type A drivers tend to soothe ourselves with alcohol or food, shopping or sex, how we habitually overschedule our time. “My ego likes to feel important, and it doesn’t feel very important when I am resting,” Adele says.
  • “Weekends are awful for women who do too much,” says psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef in the handbook Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much. “We do not like the lack of schedule, and we feel lost without our work.”

I used to find sacred space and time on my daily dog walks in the natural lands around Northfield, Minnesota, where my husband and I raised our two sons. Now, in the city, surrounded by traffic and people, I struggle to recreate the sense of gratitude and connectedness that came upon me, unbidden, on those leisurely walks through uninhabited woods and prairies.

When I wrote the “Seeker’s Diary” column for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune — visiting Baptist and Moravian and Buddhist and Jewish and Catholic and Lutheran houses of worship throughout the Twin Cities — I often envied the congregants’ sense of moral and spiritual certainty, even as I watched the traditions and customs from a distance.

More than anything, I envied them the luxury of being removed from the world. Isn’t that the very essence of carefree?

And so, because increasingly I crave the quiet, my choices are to return to a religious community or to practice and prioritize the Sabbath on my own.

“Walk slowly at night” and “unplug all your devices” are among the tips in a Time magazine cover story called “Finding God in the Dark,” about author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. A water-stained copy of the issue has sat near my bathtub for six months. Time to start reading.

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6 thoughts on “How Shabbat Can Heal the Tyranny of Busyness

  1. Carol Pine

    I find my Shabbat in my sailboat. Having completed a month on my 30 foot boat cruising the coastline — some alone and some with a close pal, it is like a meditation.


  2. Cathy McFarland McLane

    Love this one, Amy! As a fellow middle-stager (not to mention Type A), I resonate strongly with “Be more, do less.” P.S. I highly recommend following (e.g. on Facebook) and/or somehow subscribing to the master teacher, author and poet, Parker Palmer, for supporting suggestions. He is awesome at helping one appreciate space, quiet, and our fellow man/woman in the moment.


  3. Mary Davidson

    Thank you for this one, Amy. I am struggling with retirement, leisure, free time, lack of schedule and what exactly I want from it.


  4. conniemartin2014

    Shabbat is one of the primary reasons I converted to Judaism, it is such a healing time every week. Can’t always (ever!) do it perfectly but remembering it every Friday night & Saturday makes a big difference…


  5. laurasilverconsulting

    First of all, mazel tov on your nephew’s bar mitzvah, Amy, and thanks for this post. I was a more mindful Shabbat observer when the kids were small. I loved that break in the week much as I loved all the ritual aspects of the Jewish calendar — the festivals, the special foods. Now, with everyone doing their own thing on the weekends, I find it’s too easy to continue my work week on Saturday. But how refreshing it is to unplug. Thanks for the reminder.



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