Music is impossible without silence. There is silence between every note. The best musicians learn how to play the silence as well as their instruments.
There is empty space between every solid object. Even the atom itself – the building block of the so-called solid world – is 99.9999% empty space. Emptiness is an essential component of somethingness.
Every sixteen hours we drop into eight hours of unconsciousness – paralyzed, deaf, dumb, and blind in our beds. Sleep is a requirement. Without this daily oblivion we would die.
The surging forth of spring and summer are only possible because of the retreat of fall and winter. New life emerges from nutrients freed up by the dissolution of earlier forms. Decay and death form the foundation of all that is. There can be no advance without the oscillation of retreat.
How then can we align our own ebb and flow with these inexorable maxims? Are we not also a part of nature, a drop of dew in this great, unbroken cosmic morning?
A Day of Rest
Shabbat is Hebrew for “rest” or “cessation.” In the book of Genesis the seventh day was set aside – one day a week to step away from productivity and toward stillness; to change from a human-doing back into a human being. For Jews and later Christians, there are many ways to practice this principle, some strictly observant, others less so. Whether these are your traditions or not, there’s something wise about stepping off the treadmill once in a while to catch your breath.
By leaving aside the world of work and accomplishment we enter a sanctuary of peace, a place where we are not measured by our work product, but by our inherent value. We come to embody the knowledge that who we are, right now, is enough, no matter what we’ve done. This gracious self-appreciation solidifies our foundation and strengthens our core. Far from diminishing our productivity, the respite of the Sabbath lengthens our reach. By temporarily setting aside our professions, our personas, and our ceaseless activity we heal wounds our busyness masked. Our marriages are strengthened. We come to know our children as the rich and nuanced human beings they are. We see the beauty of the natural world, and the sacred comes into focus. As the familiar Jewish saying goes, “It is not the Jews who keep the Sabbath – it is the Sabbath that has kept the Jews.”
Yet in the end, this principle transcends any single faith tradition. What Jewish and Christian teachings point to is a universal truth – without ritualized rest we lose our essence and become what poet T.S Eliot called “hollow men.” We are not ciphers or machines who “measure out our lives with coffee spoons,” – we are living, breathing manifestations of the mystery of mysteries. Only in rest can we come to understand this deep and vibrant truth about ourselves.
In our efforts to grow stronger, it turns out the most important element is rest. When you run or lift weights you cause traumatic injury to your muscle tissue – it literally rips apart. It is only when you step away from the gym that your muscles heal, building new muscle tissue as they repair the damage. It may seem paradoxical, but it is only in a resting state that muscles grow stronger and larger.
This is true in other growth processes as well.
Time away from your instrument makes you a better musician. A brisk walk through the neighborhood does more for your writing project than hours of staring at the screen. And as we grow deeper into our relationships with each other, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is leave people alone to be who they really are without meddling and interference.
There’s a reason they call it recreation. When you take time off to play, you literally re-create yourself cell by cell, returning to your default settings and restoring your natural rhythm. Tastes vary, but the universal truth remains – we all need time away.
For some it’s an hour with a good book. For others it’s surfing, hiking, camping, cooking, or bicycling. Or picking up an instrument and playfully exploring some untried direction or style. There are as many ways to recreate as there are human beings – some sedentary, some active. But the common element is this – if we do not break away from the monotony of our ordinary, routenized lives we lose touch with our authentic nature – that part of us from which our best creativity and productivity emerge. We may know how to work, but we forget why. Time away from the treadmill helps us recover the core values that fuel our passion.
It’s not how we recreate that matters, it’s that we recreate. The most important piece is abandoning routine and discarding normal patterns of behavior. It is vivifying and revitalizing to remove one’s customary support systems and go it alone.
No one saw it coming: Cheryl Strayed’s little memoir Wild becoming a monster best-seller and now a Reese Witherspoon movie – a story about a grieving, recovering addict with zero backcountry experience attempting an ambitious hike of the Pacific Crest Trail all by herself. It evidently struck a nerve – permit applications for the PCT have leaped tenfold from 300 a year to 3,000.
Strayed’s ordeal may seem far from restful, but here’s the parallel: by going into the wilderness and relying solely on her own wits to survive she discovered a bottomless well of resources within. Though our Sabbath, our time away, may take less extreme form than Strayed’s we too can tap into this wild inner strength.
There is a deep and abiding hunger within us to be reborn, to leave the confines of this womb – once comforting, now confining – and step out into the unknown. It is rebirth we’re after, nothing less. By shattering our limits we come to know ourselves more deeply, an impossible feat when ensconced within the insulating layers of the known world.
It’s not too late to plan a wild summer getaway. Find a three-day gap in your upcoming calendar. Block it out. Scrape together some money. Get away from this, whatever this is. Go alone, or with a trusted other. Show the kids the resiliency they have hidden and unrealized deep within them. Wake up in a strange city. Find your way. Meet who you’re going to meet. See what you’re going to see. Let the mystery reveal itself to you. You have nothing to lose but your complacency.
When you return, you’ll bring with you an abundance of perspective and conviction. You’ll see with new eyes and once again remember the reason you chose this field of work, this spouse, this home. Or this – you’ll realize that your life is off-track and you’ll have the courage to make the necessary changes to recover your original joy and purpose.
But none of these benefits will be yours unless you find the courage to stop what you’re doing and take some time away.