A day of rest. A day of mindfulness, of slowing down to appreciate life. A “Sabbath.”
Regardless of religious background, a day devoted to spirituality — to “be” instead of to “do” — calls for motivation, creativity and planning.
Cell phones, e-mail and texting keep us wired in to the hubbub of work and daily responsibilities, large and small. Tendencies toward workaholism, consumerism, busy-ness and financial insecurities make it harder than ever to carve out “down time” on a regular basis.
No wonder stress and anger are such common problems.
Most of the world’s religious traditions recognize the importance of setting aside time for spiritual practice. In Christian denominations, Sunday is “The Lord’s Day” and in earlier times it was devoted to Church, Bible study and family.
When I was growing up in Iowa in the 1950s, stores were not open on Sundays. Taverns closed early at 1 a.m. on Sunday. Following the example of God’s work schedule, the seventh day was considered a day of rest.
In Catholic convents, a monthly “Day of Recollection” was a regular retreat day, free from the responsibilities of teaching, nursing or other ministries, to nourish and preserve the spiritual core of religious vocation.
In Orthodox Judaism, no work is done from Sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.”
While it is not required, it is a custom in Islam for the remainder of the day to be taken off after the prayer gathering at the mosque on Fridays at noon. In Buddhism, the rainy season was a time to settle into a monastery for intensive months of spiritual practice.
How can the wisdom of taking a day off for spiritual nourishment be adapted to our times and be relevant whether someone is affiliated with a particular religious tradition or not?
The first step is to take responsibility for scheduling and designing a day for spiritual practice. With experience and an attitude of trial and error, the day will become increasingly meaningful. Planning is crucial, whether it is an afternoon, one day a week, once a month or a few times a year.
If this is to be a day for personal spiritual practice, family and close friends will need to know and be supportive of time spent alone. The day before, it will be necessary to tie up loose ends, put business matters on hold or let colleagues know you will not be available for a set time. Some thought should be given to having good reading, simple food and a journal or music ready.
What are some things to do? Sleep late. Get up slowly, meditate and have a long bath. Meditate more, light incense and read uplifting literature. Listen to music, re-pot a plant, grind beans and sip coffee slowly. Hang out. Nap, do yoga, meditate (or pray) some more.
Practice mindfulness. Be aware of each thing you are doing, however small or routine.
Pay attention to what you are thinking, then bring your attention back to the breath or to what you are doing.
For example, while washing the dishes, if I think “I need to prepare a lecture,” I notice this, but then turn my attention to the feeling of warm water on my hands and the smell of lemon soap.
If I am sitting on the deck and I think “What a nice, warm day,” I notice this, and then bring my attention back to the feeling of my breath moving in and out.
What are some “don’ts?” TV, computer, car, phone and mail! Call a moratorium on doing tasks you should do, doing things to get caught up or doing tasks to get them over with. Don’t rush.
Because we have Zen Center programs on Sundays, I have had Fridays for my day of spiritual practice for the last 15 years. It has been the cornerstone of my spiritual life.
It can be helpful to join in on retreat days offered by religious groups. For example, the Zen Center’s summer “Beginner’s Mind” Day of Practice offers meditation periods as well as eating and working mindfully, in silence and in community, throughout the day.
Of course, a day of personal spiritual practice is different from a day off for vacation, museums, sports, family outings, all of which are also valuable.
Will it be selfish or indulgent to take this time away from family, friends and work?
By stepping back periodically, we return to our schedules, responsibilities and loved ones refreshed, with new insight, balance, patience and kindness.
THE REV. DEBORAH BARRETT is a Zen teacher, minister and counselor at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa. She teaches comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton