The sufferings are of different kinds, some obvious, others delicate and not so obvious. On the obvious level, as we become busier, we move quickly and hold many responsibilities in our hands, so that even when we try to do good, we do good badly. We don’t have the wisdom required to hear what is truly necessary to hear right action, right understanding, right livelihood. We inadvertently break things even as we try to fix them. Our busy-ness becomes a kind of violence because it destroys the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful. On one level, suffering comes because we inadvertently bring harm to the world that we’re trying to help, whether we’re raising money to pay the bills, serving the homeless, or feeding the hungry. Having been in non-profit worlds for twenty-five years, I can say that the faster we go, the more we unintentionally mishandle the ones we love. They become an object of our ambition rather than the subject of our heart’s attention, which requires a certain amount of time and company as well as money.
On more delicate levels, suffering comes because we don’t allow time for the ache in our soul to be healed or for us to be shown the way. In spiritual practice we invite forces larger than us, such as Jesus, Mary, or the Buddha, to work on us in some way. Some amount of time is required for us to be worked on. Healing doesn’t always require us to work; sometimes we need to be worked on. Sabbath allows us to compost in a way that the quiet seeds planted in the soils of our bodies, hearts and minds can germinate. If the seeds that we so diligently plant with our spiritual practice aren’t given a period of dormancy, then like iris bulbs planted in the fall, without dormancy, they will not flower in the spring. We lose the harvest of our practice if we don’t have time to take our hands off the plow and rest in the hammock of delight provided for us by the Sabbath precepts of many spiritual traditions.
Are you saying that suffering isn’t caused as much by the pursuit of accomplishment as by our sped-up relationship with time?
The problem is imbalance. Clearly both time and action are necessary. Things need to be done in the world. Homes need to be built, children need to be raised, food needs to be grown, medicines need to be discovered. Because we’re incarnated in human bodies, there are things in the world that require our attention in order for us to be healthy and to grow as a family of beings on the earth. The problem is not necessarily working hard, the problem is working so hard and long without rest that we begin to imagine that we’re the ones making everything happen. We begin to feel a growing, gnawing sense of responsibility and grandiosity about how important our work is and how we can’t stop because everything is on our shoulders. We forget that forces much larger than we are, in fact, do most of the work. When we don’t stop, we don’t remember that. One thing I love about the Sabbath practice in most spiritual traditions is that it starts at a particular time, like the sun going down in the Jewish tradition or the sun coming up on Easter Sunday morning. The onset of Sabbath is usually tied to the sun or the moon, something that you can’t mess with. You can’t negotiate away the time to stop working. You can’t say, “I’ll stop as soon as I finish this report.” Sabbath time is the time when we get stopped.
When Sabbath begins is determined by forces greater than us.
Exactly, and it invokes humility by remembering that the peace we bring to the table, while precious, is also quite small. For some people that might seem like an insult, but for a lot of us, it’s a tremendous relief.
In our society, we think of rest as useless. You describe rest as joyful as well as useful.
We need to listen to the spiritual traditions. Jesus said, “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy,” and “Come, that you might have life and have that abundantly.” The Buddha spoke about joy being the fruit of spiritual practice. No spiritual tradition says that God wants us to be exhausted. No scripture says we’re supposed to be totally burned out. Almost every scripture says that the fruit of life is joy being happy in all that we have been given and all that arises in the course of human life. There are sorrows, but the more spacious we become, the more joyful we become in being able to embrace everything.