Vacation: you can take back your mind to do with as you please

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In anticipation and celebration of summer vacations ahead, here's a short chapter, "Rejuvenation," from my first book, Just Think: Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul.

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Right before a vacation, my mental stress seems to peak. I can hardly concentrate or generate ideas. It is hard to think a thought through to completion. I want to leave my mind’s contents on my desk alongside my papers. I long to lie on a beach with an empty mind, using it only to read the novels packed in my bag.

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Once en route, I want to escape immediately to vacation mind-set. I try hard not to think about anything required of me. This attitude prevails for some time into the vacation. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, my mind is piqued by some remembrance of a project, goal, or interest. I may even visit a bookstore and come away not with an escapist paperback but a serious book about that project, goal, or interest. Eventually I take out my notebook and write down an idea. I’ll do such and so when I get back, I think. I get excited.

This pattern of revival is confirmed by Anne Morrow Lindberg in Gift From the Sea: “At first, the tired body takes over completely. As on shipboard, one descends into a deck-chair apathy . . . And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense—no—but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach.”

What accounts for the transformation from a prevacation squeezed-shut mind to a mind open like a sponge? Quite simply, a true and solid break (as opposed to a break of the sort that can be as full of requirement, action, and chaos as any other day). A solid break is a time in which the mind can empty itself of overused and boring thoughts. A time in which the superfluous can boil off, leaving a rich core concentrate.

During a solid break, the tedium can be forgotten and mental ruts washed smooth. The original passion of projects and goals can refuel the energy that the extensive “to-do lists” associated with them have spent.

During a solid break, you can take back your mind to do with as you please. You can use it yourself or just let it exist. Let it lie with you on a beach chair. Let it move only when it’s ready.

Without downtime, the mind becomes as ineffective as a muscle that is continually contracted or a sponge that is never squeezed out. Solid breaks of one, two, or more weeks probably provide maximum recovery time, but shorter breaks and daily downtimes, in the form of relaxation and an adequate night’s sleep, are also valuable and critical.

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Shockingly, a weekly day of rest has the same stature within the Ten Commandments as the admonition against murder. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath, to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work...” A weekly day of rest, in full knowledge of bills to be paid and work on the desk, of towels to be washed and groceries to be bought. A weekly day of rest taken freely, proactively, worshipfully, without guilt. Rejuvenation as commandment, not luxury.

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[Photo: taken on a beach on Cape Cod last summer when we were there for our son's wedding.]

Heschel on Sabbath rest and beauty

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In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, he uses a phrase big enough to hold the entire book, "The seventh day is like a palace in time." The word "palace" conveys the sense of beauty and delight that comprises this day of rest. Like a palace, the day is set apart from the surrounding days. Honored. Protected.

"How should we weigh the difference between the Sabbath and the other days of the week? When a day like Wednesday arrives, the hours are blank, and unless we lend significance to them, they remain without character. The hours of the seventh day are significant in themselves; their significance and beauty do not depend on any work, profit or progress we may achieve. They have the beauty of grandeur."

"In time" distinguishes the day from existing "in space." Our civilization is "a conquest of space,” wrote Heschel. We increase our space, enhance it by acquiring things to occupy it; by so doing we increase our power. But space is bought with time and time is the domain of God. On the Sabbath we admit the holiness of time and refrain from using it on things of space.

"What is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the hearts? It is because the seventh day is a mine where spirit's precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine; a dimension in which man aspires to approach the likeness of the divine."

Using poetic language and style, Heschel weaves together allegory, quotation, liturgy, midrash, exegesis, and reflection to construct a defense for the Jewish understanding of the Sabbath. Heschel's work is a classic authority on the topic of the Sabbath, quoted in most serious works on the subject, and has given this Christian Protestant woman much to ponder about the Sabbath and the architecture of time.

The honoring of the Sabbath – the second commandment – as described by Heschel has no hint of sacrifice, sternness, or restriction but instead rings of abundance, joy, delight, and beauty. No thought of work or worry shall touch the Sabbath. No collapsed exhaustion shall fill its hours. It is the feast of the week. The festival for which the six days of work prepare.

"The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living."

So what shall the day ahead hold? A long walk; worship; good simple food; silence; an afternoon nap; coffee with someone I love; no worries for tomorrow (always hard to do); music; time in the sunshine; a half-finished book. Your day ahead?

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[Photo: taken at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden last summer, on a Sunday outing.]

Open post, insert silence

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with an old friend and talking of many things, including our mutual craving for silence and the challenge of carving out moments of silence in a noisy busy world. On the drive home, I remembered a blog post I did many years ago about silence and decided to repost it.

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In lieu of words I'm offering you...

Silence.

How long do you spend reading a single average blog post? Ten seconds? Two minutes? Five minutes? That's how much silence I'm offering you instead of the same time equivalent in words. For example–if two minutes is what you usually spend, then set a timer now for two minutes, or alternatively, check your watch; be silent for the full two minutes. By silent, I mean the no-words-anywhere kind of silent.

Start now. Shhh...