Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"You Say 'Lazy' Like It's a Bad Thing"

(Caveat Emptor: A very long, but worthwhile, blog ...)

I have a greeting card on my office wall with that text. A woman in a lovely fifties frock reclines in a hammock, surrounded by flowers, and the card reads:

"You say 'lazy' like it's a bad thing."

The card, of course, is a joke for me. I am a mother of two (baby & toddler), head of a non-profit organization, also work a government contract job, am in the midst of a studio construction and design project, volunteer much of time, attempt to arrange play dates, manage the family finances and social events, write and publish my freelance and book projects, and etc. etc.

You know the drill. Oh, and now I write this blog. The classic picture of the "Woman Who Does Too Much." I don't read books about "Women Who Do Too Much" because that would be yet another thing to do.

Also, I'd prefer to consider myself a "Woman Who Runs with the Wolves" or something similarly wild and free. I would trade places with Paris Hilton in a New York minute, just to saunter around in outrageous fashions, recline on a yacht, and look bored ... I would even take the jail stay. That would be like a retreat for me. Three squares and a cot, peace and quiet (depending on crowding and conditions), no monumental decisions to make. I am down for that.

But I would only take Paris' life for a month or so. Maybe less. I'm sure I would miss my kids and husband. I would even miss my work. Also, perhaps Paris is actually very, very busy and just cultivates the bored look, the bored saunter. In fact, I suspect she is actually a human being.

Unless things that happen in the movies and on TV start happening to me (i.e. I get to trade lives with someone, live in a child's body, receive an extreme life makeover), I have to settle in the meantime for Mystical Mamahood.

Mystical Mamahood means accepting your life and adjusting your head. Mystical Mamahood means that, while things do need to get done, perhaps they do not need to get done all at once. Perhaps they do not even need to get done "right away" as you imagined. Perhaps--and this sounds like sacrilege, I know--they do not even need to get done at all.

I saw an article recently in the local daily paper with the headline: "More Americans Doing Less." I thought, "Thank God! Are we finally starting to slow down?" I have had this uneasy sensation that the world is speeding up. Perhaps this is pretty obvious to everyone by now, but all the technology that was supposed to improve our lives means that we can be "on" and available to almost everyone at almost every moment of the day. Rather than having one squeaky old answering machine to check at home, we now have the home phone, the office phone, the cell phone, the two or three e-mail accounts and other technologically advanced messaging and communication devices that I am still not familiar with.

The time in the car during rush hour for me used to be reflection time. Now I have the capability to make a business or personal call. Others can make an online restaurant reservation, snoop on unsuspecting members of the public via live cam, or browse the web, I hear. So, the original idea would be that you might use your "down time" in the car to get things done so that you could get home and have some real "down time." The problem of course, is that people get home and get busy. There's the e-mail to check, the home voice mail and all the many bills to pay that accompany such technology. (Not to mention continual upgrades and possible repairs.)

Notwithstanding those people who find joy and fun in technology, as one might in any hobby, the culture overall appears to be speeding to manic levels. Even when you settle on the couch to watch the news, you can now both watch the actual televised report and simultaneously try to read other, incoming and apparently urgent written reports scrolling across the bottom of the screen. During your favorite TV program, you can start to think about the next TV program you are going to watch because its animated teaser shows up in the lower left corner doing a little dance.

So I was thrilled to read that "Americans" were "doing less." When I read the article, however, the whole slant was that "procrastination" had become a huge problem in American life. In other words, this "doing less" business was considered a kind of disaster.

If there's anything that Americans need to be doing, it's less. Procrastination may be a separate issue altogether, but I see busy-ness (both mental and physical) as increasing and also as a very serious, if not monumental, mental health issue. And here is why: It is the assumption and experience of the Mystical Mama that true mental health (that is, a rich, grounded, safe and comfortable feeling in life, a sense of connection, aliveness and compassion, a feeling of love) is a state of mind that surfaces only when the mind is actually still. "Still" can mean focused, too. As in singularly focused on a project, a hobby, a piece of art, a child. A still mind imparts a sense of timelessness and meaning that is essential to human mental health. Children, for the most part, are naturally mentally healthy because they have not learned to speed up their thinking and place it unnecessarily in the future or the past.

What compels our "busy-ness"? To what happy end do we hope our busy-ness will bring us to?

Humanity is on a seemingly endless quest for technological advance, information, money, objects, status, prestige, relationships, even individual growth and spiritual mastery ("an endless list of forms of nothingness that you endow with magical powers" --ACIM*).

If only sub-consciously, we all seek some form of contentment from our eventual "achievements." As in, when I get that, when we move, when my husband changes, when my kids behave, when I get pregnant, when I clean the house, when I quit my job ... then I will be content. In actuality, it is the mental habit of seeking that obscures the natural contentment that arises when our minds become still.

There is one study on money and happiness which shows that after people earn $12,000 a year, their level of "happiness" does not increase with any new increase in money. Essentially, if you earn enough to eat and possibly pay the rent (although not in Northern California), you can expect to experience the amount of happiness you will always experience--no matter how much money you make! Of course, this would assume you have not changed your mindset.

The study also showed that, although people do feel temporarily elated with an increase in funds, that elation wears off quickly. People who start to earn more than their "old" friends, soon find new, wealthier friends to compare themselves too. And it never ends. Therefore, in order to experience more happiness, one needs to actually find feelings of contentment, appreciation, love and understanding within the current context of one's life. This means slowing down the mind.

Shabbat Shalom, Peaceful Rest

I know that this is not new information, but it is so important, I feel it cannot be said enough in this culture. Books like "Slowing Down to the Speed of Life" (Joe Bailey & Richard Carlson), "Do Less Achieve More" (Chin-Ning Chu), and "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There" (Sylvia Boorstein) point in this direction. I recommend the books and audio/visual materials of Mr. Sydney Banks (, who speaks so directly of the essential importance of the quiet mind and its relation to wisdom, mental health and common sense.

A quiet mind can also accomplish tasks, cook dinner, tend to children and calm tantrums--and all much more effectively than a distracted, busy mind. So, how many of us take the time to quiet our minds? How many of us set aside a whole day, for example, just to be still and become present?

Some folks have been doing this for millenia, and that would be the Jewish people. The day that observant Jews set aside is Shabbat (later "borrowed" by Christians and re-named "the Sabbath.") My husband is a Sephardic, Israeli Jew. For a while, I took Jewish education classes and I was deeply struck by the Jewish idea of the Sabbath Day, of Shabbat.

This would be the original Sabbath idea, as the Jews were the first monotheists and created the Old Testament and also the holy day of rest (as divinely inspired or commanded, as the case may be). The idea of Shabbat follows the Biblical creation story which tells that after creating the whole, entire universe, God rested for one day ... and took it all in.

The idea then is that we humans should also do so--unless we suppose we actually have more energy than God. In very observant Jewish families, one does not cook or clean on Shabbat, one does not drive a car, use electricity (no TV, no computers), shop, handle money, conduct business or become "productive" in any manner. Interestingly enough, the spirit of Shabbat is feminine and women are especially encouraged to rest (in the texts, at any rate--actual practice seems sketchy.)

Here is what is both encouraged and allowed:
  • Contemplative reading
  • Taking walks, socializing with friends
  • Time with family and especially children
  • Making love with one's spouse
  • Comforting others, welcoming strangers into one's home
Much to my mother-in-law's dismay, I never became Jewish. I think she has now accepted this fact. She doesn't speak English at all; she speaks a unique combination of Arabic and Hebrew so that only her immediate family members understand her well. So, I have been lucky to have sidestepped any sort of debate about my religious leanings or practices (virtually none). But she once did say something to me that took hold. She took my hands one day before my husband and I were about to leave Israel, and she said with great emphasis and direct eye contact: "Keep the Shabbat." (This was translated by my husband.)

And with that, we left for the airport. Got back to the States, got busy with life. And from time to time, especially on Saturdays (the day for Jewish Shabbat), I remembered her words. I also remembered an image of her on a Saturday in a dusty village in Israel, not far from the West Bank--this image of Jasmina lying on a couch. That was her Saturday routine, get up, have a cup of coffee, chat a little with her family and then lie down on the couch. Lunch was served from a crock pot, having been prepared the day before to sidestep cooking on Shabbat (and in the crock pot to avoid turning electricity on or off). Jasmina would eat lunch, maybe sit on the front porch a bit, and then go lie down on the couch. Sometimes her eyes were open, sometimes closed. Sometimes she was actually sleeping, and sometimes she was just half-dozing or just pretending to sleep, to avoid being bothered by her myriad grandchildren.

What impressed me most was how heavily she lay on the couch, how she let her large body sink down into its sagging cushions, how it seemed that only a fire in the house could possibly rouse her.

Let me make it clear that Jasmina is not an idle woman. On the contrary! On any other day, and especially the Friday before Shabbat, she can be found doing laundry, peeling tomatoes over a large bucket, cooking, washing dishes, feeding her three dozen or so chickens, fixing the hen house or wire fences, tending to grandchildren (almost as many as the chickens) and so forth. Here is a woman who has raised seven sons and one daughter.

Back in the U.S., in the middle of a busy Saturday, with the TV on to "take care" of the kids, me going through bills or laundry, my husband running out to Home Depot or Orchard Supply, and all of us feeling somehow fatigued, on a treadmill, I remembered Jasima on that couch.

Over the years, I made a few attempts to talk my husband into doing "Shabbat." But my heart was not quite there, either. And then, the kids showed up. And life got very, very busy. I found that on Saturdays, after a week of work, I was very tired. And still, we tried to "get things done." After work, there are bills, household chores, cleaning, cooking, shopping, errand running. And then, one week, it dawned on me that Now was the time. Life was becoming crazy and I was losing my mental health. The feeling state in our home had dipped to new lows. I had no time to read the spiritual books I loved so well. I had forgotten what "spiritual" felt like. So I spoke to my husband again, and to my surprise, he immediately agreed.

Now, as much as I love the Jewish tradition and my husband, I also happen to just adore Jesus. And what Jesus said about the Seventh Day (the resting day) was this:

"The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath."**

And so our family adopted a somewhat casual approach to Shabbat. For one thing, we do not do the big dinner on Friday night, necessarily. I found that trying to invite people over and prepare the house and food de-railed what I see as the original intent of Shabbat--to rest. And especially for women to rest. In our family, we sometimes get takeout.

I love the ritual of blessing children at the start of Shabbat, but we have not yet incorporated all the lovely Jewish blessings (for wine, for bread, for children) into our routine. I used to make my own braided Challah bread on Fridays, but that for me now is like a fantastical dream experience from another life.

Here's the most interesting part: How very long it has taken us to even be somewhat true to the basic "dictates" of Shabbat. For example, we snuck errands in often. Which made us frazzled. We put the kibosh on that. I would get on the computer "just to check a few e-mails" and be on for an hour, suddenly dazed with "to do" items and work issues, or long lost friends I "needed" to visit, phone or write. We put the kibosh on that. My husband loves watching the World Poker Tour. He's addicted. The WPT is on, like, all day on Saturday. We put the kibosh on that.

I have a hard time sitting still when the house is a mess. Most observant Jews clean the house thoroughly on Friday, but I cannot do that with any sanity. So, our house can be messy on Saturday mornings. It has taken rigorous mental discipline to let even small messes pile up or sit around through one Saturday morning. We do allow some small amount of cleaning or waxing or gardening or photo organizing as long as it fits the definition of "puttering"--meaning something you enjoy and which keeps your hands busy so your head can rest.

It has taken rigorous mental discipline not to feel as though I will go nuts if I do not "get out of the house" before 2pm. (We do still drive and go places for fun, but are discovering the wisdom of not getting in a car at all. It's nice to meet the neighbors on walks, and they are often just as friendly and human as anyone else we might devise elaborate plans to see.) It has taken the same discipline to notice when we (the adults) are once again not being present for our kids because we feel the need to "do something"--even just talk on the phone with a friend.

I have been surprised by how little I want to make plans with anybody outside of our immediate family to do anything at all now on Saturdays. When there is a plan, there is a "start time," and when there is a "start time" or a time you must be somewhere, all of a sudden, the time before that gets sorely compressed into "preparation time." Now, there is something you must think about. Someone to answer to. You are no longer playing the day by ear, you have a plan. You are back "in time."

And that's contrary to the idea of a day of rest. Or at least, my idea of a day of rest. When, since our childhoods or teenage years, have we had whole days of apparent nothingness to fill and waste? When do we now have the "time,"--or rather, the mental space, to just flow ... to become bored ... to go beyond boredom and into a sense of richness and satisfaction, an enlivening of the senses, a presence of spirit--call it human or divine, I call it both--that is really Living. And isn't that what we're all looking for, with all our busy-ness, a sense of Living, contentment, insight, inspiration, joy?

Lao Tzu said, "To know when you have enough is to be rich beyond measure." We always have enough, but we seldom slow down enough to know it. It is the paradox of the human thought system, or the ego: "Seek and do not find."*** For me Shabbat is about engendering the timeless within our human sense of time. Ideally, we would extend that same timelessness into every other day of the week. For don't we really want to Live 24/7?

So, it is interesting for me to reflect on how the Shabbat came into my life, at the right time. It touched me gently on the shoulder and invited me to follow and then stopped and waited for me many times as I considered so many other seemingly important options. It is fascinating for me to see how my husband and I still struggle with "doing nothing," how much I can still feel our lives will go to hell in a hand basket if I don't just do this one (ridiculous, meaningless) thing.

And then I think of Jasmina, and I lay my tired body down on the couch, on the bed, or a blanket on the lawn. I am restless for a moment, or ten. Then, the penny drops. I look around and see my yard--really see it. I look around and see my children--really see them. I see the sky, the crows, the neighbors' roofs and it all envelopes me, a supportive, gentle, beautiful reality.

"Rest" is Simply A State of Mind

Other delightful points about Shabbat ... It does not start at a "time" necessarily, but at sunset, Friday evening. Jewish calendars and planners list sunset times in each time zone, to the minute, but I think it far nicer and more in the spirit of things to go out and see the sun set and then declare Shabbat. The Shabbat ends when one can see three stars in Saturday's evening sky. But, like I say, Shabbat should never end, in spirit. If you try it, see how long you can keep it up.

I am not necessarily pro-Jewish over Christian. I am pro-nothing and pro-everything. But I have found that Saturday is a far better day for our family to rest because most working human adults are exhausted on Saturday. Sometimes you don't even realize this until you slow down. (In Israel, most people get off work by mid-day Friday to prepare for Shabbat.) Also, it is easier to "let things go" knowing there is still Sunday in which to "get busy" if need be. By Sunday, your mind is clearer and more alert, and your energy is better.

Finally, if the intent of the Shabbat is to help us with our mental health and sanity, then--at least for our family--when something arises that would cause more mental distress for us not to do than to do, we go and do it. We pack for the camping trip that begins on Monday. We go to the funeral. We shop for food because there is none in the house. We visit the out-of-town friends we never get to see.

Of course, societal pressures also figure in, and I sometimes struggle with how and when to say No. No, I will not bake cupcakes for the fundraiser. No, I will not volunteer to lead the book sale. No, we will not come to the birthday party. No, I will not answer the phone. As Byron Katie has said (not in so many words): Sometimes a No is a big, fat Yes. A Yes to one's Self, one's Being and one's Life.

We are not perfect at Shabbat, or even at resting, particularly. Perhaps what we do, as a family, should not be called Shabbat at all. Call it a Day of Rest then. I do hope others follow. I know others have led. I also know that if more people did this, or simply approached life with more of a restful, one-step-at-a-time spirit, mental and physical health problems would decline in our society, so would crime, violence and abuse of many sorts.

At the very least, our imperfect "Shabbat" is one busy family's answer to the question that has nagged me for the last half-dozen years: If we do not enjoy life (our children, our families) now, today, this instant, when will we?

Your comments greatly anticipated and appreciated.

--With Love, from a Mystical Mama

*A Course in Miracles, Workbook, I: 50: 3

**Obviously, New Testament, please advise.

*** Also from a Course in Miracles, Lord knows where!

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