I spent a lot of time watching the leaves blow in the wind, or staring at the sky. I read a post by Shauna Niequist on Storyline, and I remembered something Frederick Buechner wrote about the difference between being lazy and slothful—that people who spend time watching bumblebees may actually be doing something quite important.* For Buechner, the sin of slothfulness more closely corresponds to the zombie-like busyness many of us slip into: going through the motions of life instead of actually living.
I was feeling pretty good about myself. After all, I was really living the contemplative life. And I finished five books in three weeks! And then, just as I was deciding what books to read during the last ten days of summer, I had this thought: maybe I should stop reading.
Ok, that was strange.
The first time I heard of taking a break from reading, I was in an undergraduate class reading Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. She writes about the benefits of living a week without reading. When I read her suggestion, however, I completely ignored it. STOP reading for a week? I was trying to stop watching TV so I could read MORE.
But this time, when I thought of taking a week away from reading, I felt differently about it. My three months away from academia were nearly over, and I was still feeling like I wanted a break. I decided to try it.
And so, immediately after creating a blog to track my thoughts about what I read, I’m here to say that for me the first step was to stop reading. And I am not simply talking about books; I stopped reading online articles, and I (nearly) stopped reading my facebook newsfeed. Magazines, memes, mail—anything that was not necessary to keep my job went unread for a week. (Ok, I did flip through and Us Weekly on day six, but that was 70% accident.)
There were two beautiful things that happened to me during this time.
The first is that my mom and sister came to visit me, and we spent four days going on adventures. Setting aside my reading for a week allowed me to be fully engaged in the experiences we shared (including a trip to Disneyland and to Thousand Steps Beach in Laguna).
The second is that I went to a class on Mindfulness taught by Dr. Jeremy Hunter. He practices Zen meditation and teaches a class on self-management at CGU. Hunter describes life as a series of moments, each moment consisting of three things: a physical sensation, an emotional response, and a thought or story behind it all. Mindfulness is about recognizing that none of these three things defines you as a person–not even your thoughts. Meditation is a matter of recognizing we are in a rushing river of experience and information so that we can step out of this river and watch it. When we do this, we begin to distinguish what our true identity and place is. I would call this prayer: stepping away from daily life and connecting with the God who is our source–reminding ourselves that possessions, emotions, hormones, illnesses, successes, griefs, relationships, and worries do not define us.
By the end of my week without reading, my mind was much clearer than it has been in quite some time. I realized that too often I take on the arguments and problems of the literature I encounter, and it weighs on me. Maybe for you it’s not what you read; it’s what you watch, listen to, or the people you work with. We all take in elements of our environments each day, and we often start slipping into the mindset that they define us. It takes courage to sit in silence, breathe, and focus on letting go of all of those elements. It takes courage to believe there may be something deeper, and to be alone without distractions long enough to search for it.
As I have eased back into the lifestyle of heavy reading that is part of being an English M.A. student, I have been attempting to make time in my schedule to experience life outside my studies the way I did when my mom and sister were here, and also to take a few minutes each day and be mindful through prayer.
I would encourage you to do the same; step out of the river that is stressing you out, that is starting to define you, and engage with life in a different way, free from distraction. You could go for a walk without headphones in, drive home from work with the music off, go somewhere beautiful and enjoy it with a loved one, or take ten minutes to focus only on your breathing. Whatever you do, I hope you feel the refreshment and clarity I did after my week without reading.
*You can read Shauna Niequist’s post here: http://storylineblog.com/2013/08/28/why-you-should-waste-some-time-today/
And Frederick Buechner’s chapter, “Sloth” can be found in his book Wishful Thinking: a Seeker’s ABC