As I enjoy the wonderful luxury of a sabbatical period until the end of the year, I am pulling out some relevant articles from the blog archives. This article was originally published in August 2018. Now, in December 2019, I am attempting to follow four principles: 1) Live in the present moment – not the future, not the past. 2) Be grateful for what you have; enjoy. 3) Don’t think too much; rest your brain. 4) Work with your hands, not with your computer. You are invited to join me as I destress, detox, review, and prepare myself to enter the 2020s decade,
For the last few weeks, I have been posting accounts about my experiences in self-publishing as the children’s book, Chester the Messer, was released on Amazon.com and my memoir, China Bound, nears completion. This period has been a very educational experience, alternately disturbing and encouraging, enlightening and mystifying – but never dull. But mostly, it was an exercise in persistence. Also, in any large project, I know that a certain percentage of actions will go wrong. They will require some additional steps in the form of corrections, adjustments, or replacements.
Sometimes, we get so busy with work, work, work that we lose our ability to enjoy life. All we think about is work and more work, the problems associated with increasing our output, and the ways we can become more efficient to accomplish even more work. Do you ever feel this way?
Time for a change of pace… and theme. This post is going into the Reinventing Your Life category. As we become increasingly stressed, exhausted, and emotionally numb, we need to find ways to deal with the aftereffects of our productivity-based lifestyle.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to an educational podcast. The speaker had done the unthinkable; he had taken an entire month as a sabbatical. Imagine! A whole month without working! It was deliberate, it was pre-planned, and it was, he said, wonderful.
I was so envious. In recent weeks, I sometimes feel that I am barely holding on to my sanity. Each day sees me writing more new notes (of things I must do) than crossing off notes (of things I have completed). I keep saying that everything will be okay and return to a normal schedule after my son returns to his school on September 1. Then, I will have more time to get more work done. More work! What would I do with a whole month with nothing to do? An intriguing idea. Dear readers, what would you do with a whole month of nothing to do?
When I began reading Muller’s book, it really resonated with me. Since the computer first entered my daily life about 1990, my digital devices have been at the center of most of my activities and most of the hours of my days. The introduction of the smartphone with its multitude of conveniences, entertainment, and services makes the digital dependency even more entangling. But, while we are undoubtedly more productive, that increased productivity is accompanied by greater loads of stress and stimulation and, frequently, mental exhaustion. How many people do you know who are only one unfortunate incident from going crazy? How about you? How’s your own mental health these days?
Muller points out that the ancient people often had a specific day of the week which became their day of retreat. The idea was that you put your work aside and rested both body and soul for one full day each week. By making it a strict requirement, they avoided dealing with the argument we still use today of, “But I really need to get this job finished.” Or, “But, I’ve got so much to do.” Or, “I will have just one more game/episode/article/video, then shut it down.”
But, there was one other important concept in his explanation for the month-long holiday which intrigued me and which I want to explore with you in this article. The podcaster mentioned a book that I subsequently purchased and am reading in tiny installments – the better to absorb the lessons. The name of the book is simply called Sabbath and it is by Wayne Muller. It is not a religious book; rather, it explores the age-old concept that was present in most of the ancient civilizations, the practice of periodically dedicating a day for rest and recovery.
For a couple of weeks now, I have experimented with taking one day each week as a sabbatical. Already, I can say that, albeit, with some emotional resistance, it has been a refreshing and enlightening experience. By doing only – repeat, only – the things that absolutely cannot be deferred for even one day, then turning off all the devices and not allowing myself to do any type of digital work for the rest of the day, I find myself enjoying a day with time to slow down and feel more peaceful. If I am not working on the computer all the time, I have more time for my son, drinking a leisurely cup of coffee, spending time outdoors, even if it is only sitting on a bench outside my apartment building, or reading a good book. (Not studying; I mean reading for pleasure.)
Ironically, on those days of retreat, one of the impulses I have to work hardest to stifle is seeing this day as an opportunity for connecting with my friends on social media, or to write a long and witty email letter to distant friends and family, or to make phone calls or video calls. Since all those impulses involve digital devices, they are banned for the day – and for good reason. Sending messages and emails invites immediate responses. It’s hard to relax if you are subconsciously awaiting the beep from your phone to tell you of an incoming reply. This is exactly the kind of thing that opens the door to the unwanted levels of interruptions and stimulation which I am trying to avoid on my sabbatical day. And, obviously, any movie, game, or other forms of entertainment from a digital source is going to raise our level of stimulation… which we are trying to reduce on the day of rest.
On my computer and smartphone, I estimate that I get 100-plus calls, emails, text messages, and notices – every single day. That’s a lotta interruptions and distractions. That’s a lotta extra stimulation from those interruptions and distractions. Perhaps the American writer Ernest Hemingway found a solution that will transfer to our more hectic Digital Age. Back in the 1940s, his Cuban home, Finca Vigia, had only one phone – and it was the old style land-line phone. Hemingway had this phone placed near the front entrance, far from the living area, where he could never hear it ring while he was working, relaxing, or entertaining friends. When the phone rang, a servant or Hem’s wife would answer it and decide if the call was important enough to justify interrupting the boss. (Most of the time, it wasn’t – just like most of our usual calls and messages.) Sounds pretty ideal, doesn’t it?
Every person will have their preferred forms of rest. Perhaps it will be meditation; perhaps it will be physical exercise. For some, it may be a quiet time with family members or friends – the ones who are physically present, not reached via phone or computer. A pleasant, lingering meal (with all the phones turned off) encourages sparkling conversations and good digestion. Since my wife does almost all the cooking in our home every day, I have found that doing some cooking or baking on my sabbatical day is wonderfully satisfying for me. Even the simplest foods, prepared slowly and with attention to detail, can give pleasure – in the preparation and, later, at the table. Plus, I think my wife is pleased to be excused momentarily from some of the unending culinary chores. In other groups, this cooking and baking might be dangerously close to prohibited work. But, for me, since it is an activity that I rarely indulge in while staying eternally busy with my “work”, I enjoy the cooking and find it relaxing.
What about you, dear reader? Is the possibility of devoting one full day each week for a sabbatical from your work appealing? What would you have to arrange before you could do it every week? Could you manage to escape from the devilish grasp of your digital devices? If a whole day if impossible, what if you took only a few hours – or only a single hour?
I urge you to give serious consideration to this idea of taking one day a week for only rest and relaxation, with an absolute minimum of work, rushing, and any form of digital stimulation. What would you do if you regularly had a full day for doing “nothing”? And, what results would you get from such a one-day retreat? I would love to hear some of your ideas and, hopefully, your experiences with this most wonderful of indulgences – a sabbatical. If you can do it regularly, even if it is only for a few hours, it might change your life.