My first encounter with ‘mindfulness’ was several years ago when I found myself living in France under stressful circumstances. Not only was I adjusting to life en français and a new job teaching English at a French secondary school, but an ongoing situation in the UK was taking up a lot of my time and emotional energy. This draining situation affected my spiritual life too: I couldn’t pray and for various reasons I didn’t get to church much. Worse, I had no outlet for my increasing frustration. The ‘noise’ of all this became acute: at night it felt like the walls were closing in on me, like I needed to burst out of them and run screaming for the hills. Like I needed to plunge into the ocean and wash it all away.
I confided some of my personal situation to a friend who advised me to use the mindfulness techniques that had helped her through situations of severe clinical anxiety. ‘Imagine your thoughts are like leaves floating in a stream. Don’t try to block them, just notice them approaching and then watch them go past.’
Although my mind was too chaotic at the time to make much sense of this, I did find that attempting to ‘live in the moment’ (which is essentially what ‘mindfulness’ boils down to) was helpful. If I was lucky I could catch the breeze and fly, be involved in my task, and simply forget the meta-narrative, the constant voices in my brain that were attempting to catch me and drag me downwards. Far from thinking less, it allowed me to think more, that is, to think more freely. To imagine, as well as to ‘experience’ and ‘just be’.
I wonder if the Sabbath, at its core, is about this kind of restfulness, this mindful respite from our shadow selves. By ‘shadow self’ (a Jungian term), I mean that part inside that screams at us, deadens us, causes us to live in fear, that accuses us. Christians might call this adversary ‘Satan’ (from the Hebrew for Accuser), or might see it as St Paul did in terms of ‘flesh’ (the old, guilty self) and ‘spirit’ (our new identity in Christ).
If the shadow self has a will, it is certainly to hold us back from our imaginations, our hope, and our ability to live in the present reality. It constantly attempts to make us live in the past – regret, shame, or even a kind of romantic nostalgia (‘everything used to be so much better…’), or else in our future, which we imagine to be dark and full of fears. Or perhaps we escape into wild fantasy in which we metamorphose suddenly into a perfect, impossible ideal version of our selves who is able to cope, able to save, able to win, only to ‘come down’ from elation into the reality that we do not measure up to our own perfect standards.
To sabbath is to stop all of this for a set period of time. To stop the striving and seek a perfect rest. ‘Come to me’ says Christ, ‘and I will give you rest’. Sabbath is the embodiment of these words.
If you gave me a pound for every sermon I have heard preached about making a place for the Sabbath in our lives, I would be fairly well off by now. I think I’ve said it myself from the safety of the pulpit. But oh, how much harder to actually do it! Church leaders are the very worst at doing the Sabbath properly. We like the busy-ness of Sunday. We like the safety of having to organise the service. It means we don’t have to stop, we don’t have to ‘just be’. We are full of the importance of ‘being’ for everyone else.
Sabbath is frightening for those of us who get a lot of self-worth out of the things we do. We’re not sure who we are without our jobs, our ministry, our roles and our usefulness. So we don’t rest and we work and we work and then eventually we burn out and start making poor choices. It is incredibly difficult to release ourselves from this cycle, because if you ask, we’ll say YES. We don’t believe it will work without us, you see. There is a hint of pride in the mix too. And a lot of shame, because we at some point learnt or were told that our value lies in what we achieve only. And everyone likes a hard worker, don’t they?
But the reality is, we all need our Sabbath. We all need to give ourselves a break from the Accuser. We all need to be mindful and to rest.
Sabbath can be a Sunday, but it can also be a Friday afternoon. Or an hour lunch break on Sunday set apart by committing to eat lunch with a loved one, a friend or a partner.
Sabbath can involve a church service, but it doesn’t have to. And for some, it might be best that it doesn’t. Does your shadow self just love Sunday worship, using it as an opportunity to beat you up about how sinful you are? Does church trigger feelings of anxiety for you? Is it an unsafe space because of past hurt? Then it is not Sabbath any more. Does this mean stop going to church completely? No. But it might mean planning a different day for your Sabbath rest.
Sabbath is mindful. Choose an activity that will bring you joy and allow yourself to become absorbed in that joy. Listen to the wind. Listen to God. Listen to yourself, but give the Accuser a day off.
Sabbath is a choice. A choice to lay down burdens of past and future and spend a day in the present with the God-with-us who told us not to strive, not to worry (Luke 12:29).
How will you make room for Sabbath in your life?