A Time of Sacred Rest

An Interview with Wayne Muller
By Mary NurrieStearns

Wayne Muller is a therapist, author, ordained minister and founder of Bread for the Journey, an innovative organization serving families in need. We have featured Muller's words previously, as he is a wise and poetic writer about personal transformation. When his newest book, Sabbath, crossed my desk I set it aside for my personal reading. I savored it, for this treasure of a book is medicine for our harried lives. In it, Muller shows us how to create a special time of rest, delight, and renewal a refuge for our souls. He also makes clear how constant striving causes exhaustion, deprivation, and longing for rest and time with loved ones.

Sabbath is a time of sacred rest that restores us, pleasures us and eases the suffering caused by the maddening lifestyle of our modern society. Wanting our readers to discover how Sabbath can reduce suffering and bring joy, I contacted him for an interview at his home in northern California, where he lives with his family.

Personal Transformation: In your book "Sabbath," you refer to the mainstream American lifestyle as the road of progress, one that pursues accomplishment, materialism, and productivity. What is the suffering caused by this lifestyle?

Wayne Muller: 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.

PT: Are you saying that suffering isn't caused as much by the pursuit of accomplishment as by our sped-up relationship with time?

Muller: 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.

PT: When Sabbath begins is determined by forces greater than us.

Muller: 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.

PT: In our society, we think of rest as useless. You describe rest as joyful as well as useful.

Muller: 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. The Sabbath has a joyful uselessness to it. We are not supposed to accomplish anything of any significance so that we can stop looking for what's not there and have the time to drink from what's already here. When we're on the wheel of constant work, our eye is on the next thing that has to be done, what hasn't been accomplished yet. Sabbath is a time to eat what you've cooked, to harvest what you've planted and to give thanks for what you've been given. It's a time to bless our loved ones and to eat, drink, and make love. The sensual delight associated with Sabbath reminds us that one of the fruits of spiritual practice is useless happiness.

PT: As I listen to you, I understand that the Sabbath is a gratitude for and a pleasuring in the abundance of our lives and loves rather than an external pursuit of abundance.

Muller: Right, and in fact, petitionary prayer is discouraged in the Hebrew tradition on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, you don't ask for anything, you just give thanks. You can ask all you want on the other six days but the Sabbath is the day that you just give thanks. Sabbath also brings up a different definition of abundance. Abundance can be an image of more than we need rather than an image of sufficiency that means whatever we've been given is enough. The Sabbath invites us to consider that whatever we have is abundance and that we don't always need to accumulate. Sabbath is about feeling the desperate urge for some new acquisition fall away at the end of the day of walking, praying, napping, eating and making love. You don't feel that desperate need to accumulate after a lovely day like that.

PT: I'm quoting you, "Sabbath; the time to stop, to refrain from being seduced by our desires." Talk about the difference between the pleasure and joyfulness of Sabbath and the seduction of desire.

Muller: Desire is a powerful force. The Buddhists describe desire as a thirsting and craving that is the ultimate source of human suffering. Desire is a fundamental dissatisfaction with what we have and a thirsting and craving for what we don't have. Pleasure and delight is feeling the blessing of what we already have. Our civilization canonizes desire as the engine that drives our monetary system, which is sad because desire, by definition, is based on dissatisfaction. When you're satisfied, your desires melt away. When you have a nice meal, your desire to eat more disappears. When you have a relationship with someone you love, the desire to run off and meet somebody else naturally falls away. Whenever we're satisfied with what we have, desire dissolves of its own accord. We place desire on the altar of our civilization. Once you have one car, you're supposed to want two. Once you have a two-bedroom house, you're supposed to want a three-bedroom house. Once you make $25,000, you're supposed to want to make $50,000. Everything is supposed to grow. The ethos of the free marketplace is that there is always supposed to be more. The Sabbath is a revolutionary challenge to the presumption that that's what life is for.

PT: Let's talk about love. What happens to our innate ability to love when we rarely slow down?

Muller: Love is an enormous word that conveys many feelings and experiences and relationships. There's love of design, love of fragrance, love of our children, sexual love between partners, love of music, love of humanity. Regardless of how we define love or which aspect of love we talk about, love requires time in order to grow. Love experiences require the sweet soil of unstructured time in which we bring presence, resting our attention on the subject of our love. We then have intercourse with those things, intercourse in the deepest sense of becoming one with. Nothing that we love can be bought. Money can't buy you love not because it's too expensive it's the wrong currency. The currency that gives birth to love is time. All love grows in time. When we live without taking time for love to grow, there is only a thin veneer of what we really are looking for. The depth of the love we seek requires time to work in us. Most spiritual traditions counsel that Sabbath time isn't a lifestyle suggestion for your blood pressure, it's a commandment. Rest. You must stop your work and allow yourself to be worked on by time.

PT: What else grows in the soil of time?

Muller: Some people lament the fact that we've lost the traditional values in our civilization, and write books about honesty, courage, integrity, and responsibility. While I appreciate the question of where these values have gone in America, I think it's dishonest to question individuals in a civilization without looking at the civilization itself. Our civilization requires people to trade time for money. Honesty, courage, mindfulness, and integrity can't grow without time for thoughtful reflection on our behavior. These values require time to be together with one another, to teach each other how it is to be in the other's company. That's how we grow in relationship skills. When I see the impact that my tone of voice or actions have on my children, by taking the time to listen to what they have to say, then I, God willing, learn how to be a better parent. We can't purchase these things. They only grow in time.

PT: Discuss the Biblical scripture Mark 2:27, "You are not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath is made for you."

Muller: Some of us associate Sabbath with dry, boring Sundays of our childhood, where Sabbath was the day you had to get dressed up and not have any fun. That's not what I'm invoking. I'm invoking what Abraham Hesholl, the Jewish scholar, calls the day of delight. The Sabbath precept in most religions is a vehicle for our delight. We don't have to fill our time with twelve hours of prayer and fifteen hours of synagogue to be religious. The Sabbath isn't a responsibility, it's a gift, and if we don't take that gift, we all suffer. The point isn't to take the Sabbath in order to avoid spiritual trouble with a cranky God who's going to punish you. The point is to take Sabbath in order to be as nourished, fed and delighted as we're meant to be.

PT: Does Sabbath require a certain intention or expectation as we undertake it?

Muller: According to Isaiah, Sabbath is supposed to be a delight. The Sabbath is a gift of time. We live in time; our lives are made of days and how we use the time that we've been given. The Sabbath is an instruction about how to feel the rhythm of time. Our heart and lungs are a rhythm. The tides of the earth and the seasons have a rhythm. Everything alive has a rhythm, and if we fall into Sabbath rhythm, we fall into rhythm with the heartbeat of the world. When we work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we live like people who are at war, we live in war-time. What's the war about, whom are we fighting and how will we know if we've won? The Sabbath intentionality is to open up a space for listening to that which is most precious, nourishing and deeply true, and letting ourselves be worked on and delighted and fed.

PT: Say more about letting ourselves be worked on.

Muller: There's a story about a nun who used to walk the fields where they kept cattle, near the convent. As she walked she looked for herbs. There were about a half dozen herbs growing naturally in the field. The herbs she stumbled upon helped her decide what she was going to cook that day. A visiting herbiculturist explained to the convent residents that rather than allowing the cattle to graze the whole field, it would be better to keep them in a small section of the field for a period of time and let the rest of the land lie fallow. The herbiculturist recommended a Sabbath for the land, something the Hebrews talked about 3,000 years ago. This Sabbath consisted of letting the animals graze and fertilize one section of the land, then moving them after a season from one section of the field to the other. One spring, after two or three years of this practice, the nun went looking for herbs and found about a dozen new herbs growing in the field that had never grown there before. Nobody planted them, nobody seeded herbs in the field. When the cattle roamed the field, the herbs tried to come up but they never made it. They were in the soil, but because of the constant activity of the cattle on the ground, they never had the time or the space to break through the ground. In a way, Sabbath time allows those plants that are ready to break through the crust of the soil of our life to do so. If we presume that we have to make everything happen, that the only way to get herbs in the field is to plant them, we never stop or rest, and we never know that the herbs come up by themselves.

PT: Let's move to a discussion being Sabbath. You quote Mother Teresa as saying, "Let us remain as empty as possible so that God can fill us up." How do we become Sabbath?

Muller: A couple of images come to mind. As a psychotherapist, I noticed over the years that I did less therapy and more holding the faithfulness present in the midst of whatever sorrows or aches people brought to me. Even on my good days, the best I could do was sit and patiently see where they were already the light of the world, where they were already saturated with Buddha nature. My job was to sit there with no agenda and to simply be in their company as they poured their sorrows into this empty vessel that we became together. Then the grace, the courage, the inner light whether you call it Buddha nature or kingdom of God that refused to be extinguished, slowly arose of its own accord, without anyone doing anything to anybody. The quote, "to attain knowledge every day, something is added to it; to attain wisdom every day, something is subtracted," also speaks to us being the Sabbath. There is a way in which we empty ourselves of preconceptions and presumptions. Emptying ourselves of expectations, we can be filled by whatever winds blow through us, cultivating what Suzuki Roshi called the beginner's mind. You can cultivate emptiness through a Buddhist meditation practice where you follow the breath and allow the preoccupation with thought to soften and fall away. In the emptiness, new kinds of peace, equanimity and well-being become possible. Sabbath is an opportunity, every week, to have a new beginning, where all things become new, as it says in the Christian gospel.

PT: Talk about the relationship between Sabbath and healing.

Muller: A friend of mine had cancer and he went through chemotherapy. By the third round of chemotherapy going through the infusion of chemicals and having his body checked over he said, "We have to stop this, because it feels to me that through these treatments, it's like you plant seeds in my body, and every week you tear the seeds out of the ground to see if they've grown any roots yet." He added, "We have to let the seeds that have been planted in me get a chance to germinate, take root and grow, we have to leave them alone, we have to let them be." Like love, healing grows in the soil of time. Healing requires time for the body/soul/spirit to reorganize itself in a new way. Transformation is dependent on right effort, right understanding, right livelihood and right mindfulness, but it also requires a willingness to surrender into the arms of the divine. It requires a surrender into knowing that forces larger than us can have their way with us and do the work that they need to do on us without our being involved directly. Obviously, physical rest is important, but also, the rest of thinking that it's all up to us, one of the gifts of Sabbath, allows those things working on us to do their work so that we can be the recipient of their blessing. It's hard to be blessed if you don't stand still.

PT: This culture of progress focuses on individual pursuit and implies that we are alone. The Sabbath reminds us that we are connected to something greater than our individual selves.

Muller: In most Sabbath traditions, there is at least some time dedicated to gathering in community with other people. We gather with friends or with family. We put our hands on the heads of our children and offer them our blessing or we go to church or the synagogue. We have some kind of worship with other beings. We get isolated in ever-smaller cubicles into which we are being put in the marketplace. Sabbath time brings us back together.

PT: In the same way that marketplace activities separate us from people, busy-ness separates us from ourselves. If keeping busy is, at times, an attempt to cope with suffering inside, won't resting on the Sabbath bring all that forth?

Muller: Certainly, some of our busy-ness can be a mask for ache, sadness or grief. A couple of doctors told me that living so close to people's illnesses and often deaths, they fear that if they stop and feel their deep sadness they would weep for a month. A lot of treatment speed is to avoid the invariable tenderness that would arise if they were open all of the time. Another physician made the same point from the opposite direction. In medical school, he learned to be exhausted, which is, as I understand, the primary curriculum of medical school. The more tired he got, the more tests he ordered on people. As he grew more exhausted, he could rely less on his intuition, his quiet voice that told him what was going on with a patient. When he got some rest and returned, he could hear what was going on with a patient and order one test to confirm the diagnosis. Even when the practice of speeding up to avoid suffering looks like a good idea it isn't necessarily ultimately a useful practice.

PT: Although pain that we have been avoiding may arise when we rest, the comfort that soothes the pain also emerges in rest.

Muller: A lot of people are afraid to stop because they're afraid that if they do, they will feel those aches or an emptiness inside that frightens them terribly. That's why I think very few Sabbath practices focus on self-introspection. Sabbath is not to go inside and find who you are or to root out all those demons, it's to stop and enjoy yourself. It's seductive for the mind to think that it always has to work on problems. If we presume that larger forces than us are already at work on our problems, we can sing songs and have a good time while the forces work on them.

PT: As we relax and tap other sources of strength, when it does come time to talk through our aches, we're more able to do it. We are less overwhelmed.

Muller: There's less desperation.

PT: Before we close, discuss Matthew 6:21, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Muller: Jesus is pointing to a simple principle of spiritual physics whatever we give our time and attention to gets our love. If we give all our attention to our job, we'll be successful at work and other things will fall by the wayside. Whatever we give our attention to flourishes it's going to end up on the altar of our life's story. If you want to know what you love, open your appointment book. Whatever you give your time and attention to is, in effect, what you really love. Sabbath practice invites us to be more intentional on a regular basis, making sure that we put on our altar things that are delicious and delightful so that when we taste, hold, and dance them, they bring us delight and help us remember that we're the light of the world and that God wants us to be happy and not exhausted. Sabbath is a time to treasure those things that are completely free and gratuitous the smell of warm bread, making love with your lover, taking a walk in nature. When we make time for those things, we begin to remember that joy is one of the things that a human life is for.

There is little permission in our culture for Sabbath. In fact, the only permission we have is illness, so cancer becomes our sabbatical. When people get a life-threatening illness like cancer or AIDS, everyone agrees that it's all right for them to take time off. But to say, "I'm leaving now and I'm not going to work today," is looked upon as self-indulgent and people feel guilty. In reality, it's a commandment in most of the world's spiritual traditions. If we don't take this time, we will not do well in the world. It's hard to live ethically without rest, when we speed along trying to get projects done. It's easier to talk ourselves into lying about this or that because we know it'll help get the project done. The more we live without rest, the easier it is to live out of balance. It's strange, living in a world where no one feels permission to rest, while we simultaneously claim to ascribe to spiritual traditions that insist that we rest. I'm making a plea for Sabbath-keeping, reminding people that they already have permission to rest. Sabbath doesn't need to be justified with the promise of some great spiritual insight. Sabbath is a gift that we're supposed to drink from.