In preparing to lead the Coming Home retreat in November with my partner Karyn Bristol, I’ve been waking up in the early morning to reread one of my all-time favorite books: Sabbath by Wayne Muller. My copy is dog-eared and yellowed with many highlights, notes in the margins, the corners turned down. Every time I pick it up and read even a paragraph or two from its musty pages, my breath deepens and the tight places in my chest relax.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this weekend retreat. It has a very different focus than my other classes and workshops. It’s not about how to write a memoir or complete your novel—or how to pour out stories in a smooth, passionate flow on the page. It’s not about craft or even self-expression. It’s about reclaiming what we’ve given away in our acquiescence to the wild pace, outward focus, and busyness that characterizes so many of our lives.
Every aspect of the weekend will be designed to help us stop our momentum, remind us what truly matters, and achieve lost balance in our lives. And in the process, hopefully, rediscover our capacity for joy.
They say you always teach what you need to learn—and this is certainly the case for me here. When I look at all the individual things I’ve created, manifested, and brought to fruition—each of them individually has merit. One of the aspects of the Buddha’s eight-fold path is right livelihood, and my work definitely qualifies.
The work I do is good. It helps people express what’s deep inside them. It changes their lives. It builds community. It opens people’s hearts and heals them. It is deeply connected to my purpose and is a natural extension of who I am. Yet when all of those wonderful things are lined up together, when I look at them in the context of how I actually live my life, they keep me on a treadmill, catapulted from one wonderful, meaningful experience to the next. Because of course, each of these projects, classes or retreats require preparation, planning, promotion, and a million details that have to be tended.
When checking things off my to-do list is one of my greatest sources of pleasure, it’s certain something is wrong in my world.
This was the passage from Sabbath that stopped me in my tracks this morning:
“Sabbath requires surrender. If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop—because our work is never completely done. With every accomplishment there arises a new responsibility. Every swept floor invites another sweeping, every child bathed invites another bathing. When all life moves in such cycles, what is ever finished? The sun goes round, the moon goes round, the tides and seasons go round, people are born and die, and when are we finished? If we refuse rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we die.
“Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished. The old wise, Sabbath says: Stop now. As the sun touches the horizon, take the hand off the plow, put down the phone, let the pen rest on the paper, turn off the computer, leave the mop in the bucket, and the car in the drive. There is no room for negotiation, no time to be seduced by the urgency of our responsibilities. We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable. The galaxy will somehow manage without us for this hour, this day, and so we are invited—nay, commanded—to relax, and enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world.”
I just love that.
Now what would happen if, instead of consulting my to-do list every morning, I reread these two paragraphs as my morning meditation? What might that practice do to my “nose to the grindstone” lifestyle? What would it mean to celebrate my “relative unimportance,” to bask in my “dispensability,” to practice saying no instead of yes to my work, to my beloved students, and to requests for me to always do more?
As I write these words, I realize that the most important no I need to say is not to anyone outside myself. It is to me—to my crazy mind and its endless generation of wonderful ideas. I must learn to say no to the part of me that is driven, that insists, “I have to do it, and I have to do it now,” to the me that revels in being on task and making things happen.
My friend Nona said to me the other day, “I remember when you had cancer six years ago, you swore to me that you would never let your life get out of control with doing again.”
And yet my personality habits, reinforced by our culture and my own “success” are hard to break. Like all habits, changing something this entrenched begins with setting an intention—followed by the mindfulness to notice (and forgive) the myriad times each day I get sucked back into the trance of doing.
Paying attention, with compassion and humor, will gradually lead me back to a place of balance, enabling me to discover little Sabbaths in the texture of my days. And that’s what I want—to work when I work and rest when I rest. To create space in my life for mystery, spontaneity, and joy. Isn’t that where real life truly happens?
If you’d like to join Laura and Karyn in this search for a slower, richer, more meaningful life, there’s still space in November’s retreat.