Summer holds the opportunity for each of us to explore and embrace the ancient practice of leisure. The reverence of leisure time is an age old time honored practice throughout the history of humankind. History teaches us that since the beginning of time humans have been challenged to create a balance between work and leisure in their lives. In recent times workaholism had almost been revered in our culture and working over 8 hours a day has become the rule instead of the exception.
Balance and lack of leisure time was even a problem in the second century. I discovered this story about a famous monk in the early Christian church in the second century, when I was teaching world religions and I believe it is worth repeating.
“One day a hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. What kind of spiritual guide was this?
But the old monk said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So the hunter did. Then the old man said, ‘Now shoot another.’ And the hunter did. Then the elder said, ‘Shoot your bow again. Keep shooting; keep shooting; keep shooting.’ And the hunter finally said, ‘But if I bend my bow so much I will break it.’
Then Abba Anthony said to him, ‘It is just the same with the work of God. If we stretch ourselves beyond measure, we will break. Sometimes it is necessary to meet other needs.’ When the hunter heard these words he was struck with remorse and, greatly edified by Anthony, he went away. As for the monastics there, they went home strengthened.”
One of the least accepted spiritual practices in America today is the ancient practice of leisure. Leisure has two aspects, play and rest. Even Abba Anthony in the second century was warning people about the critical role of leisure. Leisure is about balance and our society’s skewing of time is off balance. Nature created balance with day and night, but with the advent of electricity and human-created light sources, we can and do continue to work later and later into the night. Balance with our families is becoming harder and harder as well. As a consequence our souls are drying up. We need to heed the lesson of Abba Anthony, taking time from our work to play and rest.
Americans have forgotten how to play and rest. We are the hardest working nation in the world. We glorify work and workaholics. This has thrust our society out of balance. Remember the image of the teeter totter on the playground? There was always one person on one end and one on the other. This is a lesson in balance because we know that for both people to have the fullest experience on the teeter totter they had to stay in constant balance. Our bodies are depleted and exhausted from how hard we are working. So are our souls.
Leisure is an essential part of our spirituality. Leisure is one of the most difficult spiritual practices to achieve, because we’ve become doers and makers, and forgotten how to be dreamers and reflectors. We have all but forgotten the lost art of teaching people to be reflective.
The concept of Sabbath, or rest, exists in all major world religions. The Sabbath is not about God needing rest, it is about teaching us to rest. The Talmud gives three reasons why the Sabbath is critical: it equalizes rich and poor; it gives us time to evaluate our work to see if it is good; and it gives us time to contemplate the meaning of life. The book of Genesis tells us that after the work of creation, God stopped and rested from all work. Rest was such a revered practice that God blessed the experience of rest.
Isn’t it sad that in our society we teach everyone to work, but we don’t teach them to play? Play was the basis of leisure time throughout all societies. The function of holy days and festivals was to provide all levels of people the opportunity to play and celebrate together. It was an opportunity to equalize social classes through leisure.
Leisure is for holy things; it engages the heart and stretches the soul. Leisure is the gateway to experiencing balance in mind, body and spirit.
On the Playground of Life
Leisure is not a vacation from life, rather is brings meaning to life because it allows us time to be contemplative. Leisure is not withdrawal from the human race; it is essential to the health and happiness of the human race. Work becomes more meaningful and has a purpose when we experience leisure.
Relearn play and rest. Now is the time to explore and discover new ways to play and rest. There are a variety of opportunities for you to commune with nature this summer. Be creative, explore new possibilities. Make it fun. Explore your city; there are so many events that allow you to experience rest and play. From museum openings, art festivals, free concerts, zoos and historical sites, to the resplendent beauty of a fully blossomed tree , all these and more will move you into more harmony and balance at home, work and in your community. The internet is a great resource for finding current activities in your neighborhood and innovative hot spots to replenish your spirit.
For rest time, take a nap! Science now tells us that the health benefits of a good nap are enormous. Go sit under a tree. Do you remember when you were a child sitting under the tree and looking up through the umbrella of branches as you watched the leaves blow in the slow summer breeze? Lay in your yard surrounded by the aroma of the summer grass. Try resting in the grass with your children or by yourself and re-discover the shapes hiding in the clouds. Visit a local park and rediscover yourself on the playground and always remember leisure is meant for a time of exploration and discovery. Let this summer be filled with rest and play.
The key to leisure is mindfulness, awareness and balance. Use your leisure time as an opportunity to cultivate the practice of mindfulness and challenge your self to be aware of every gift summer brings. Just as winter is an opportunity to experience practices of solitude, to explore movement inward to our selves, summer holds the possibility to move outward into the natural world as we experience the inner sensuality and beauty of the season. Nature gives us winter and summer to illustrate the necessity of balance, the rhythm of nature, much like the ancient Asian symbol of yin and yang, or the sacred rise and fall of the tides of the ocean.
Summer is an incredible opportunity to experience your senses in new creative ways.
Take advantage of the unique scents of summer. Be challenged to discover the smell of the roses and other magnificent flowers in new more meaningful ways. Make a list of items you will investigate anew with your nose this summer. Go smell of a flower, saltwater, BBQ, or a mountain breeze. There are a kaleidoscope of sensory experiences just waiting for you. Listen to the sounds of summer. Listen to the tiny goldfinch outside your window, the ocean pounding on the shore as the sea gulls swirl above your head. Taste the abundance of foods associated with the leisure and play of summer. The feasts created by our grills, fresh fruit like watermelons, home grown tomatoes, pure abundance.
Practice awareness by experiencing the colors of summer. Notice the colors of plants, flowers, grass and trees that surround you. Try to observe the many different shades of green. Discover the deep voluptuous green of a pasture to the variegated tapestry of an oak leaf. Becoming mindful of the color and shapes of nature is a lesson in awareness.
Explore the sensory experience of your body during this summer. In the winter our bodies are covered up with layers of clothing; socks, shoes, sweaters, and jackets. This summer is an opportunity to disrobe in a physical and psychological sense. This is time of year when the world physically sees your body. There is a vulnerability when we expose our bodies to the public. Be aware of what is going on within you during this season of bathing suits, shorts, flip flops and sun. Be mindful as you see your toes and feet, your body in a bathing suit, your bare legs and arms. Summer can be a time to bring up your body issues.
Summer is a glorious time for community. You may travel to family reunions, visit friends and relatives or escape by yourself.
Summer is pregnant with possibilities. This is your life. It is your summer. It will swiftly speed pass by. I invite you to discover a new part of yourself this summer. Live an intentional life this summer and everyday of your life.