The insurance claims world, where I spend much of my time, is a noisy and demanding arena. In certain seasons of the year, one might even say it is relentless. I have had colleagues who routinely scheduled vacation time only to come into the office so they could catch up on work without being required to answer the phone. Because I now work in the field and from my home, I lack one of the benefits of the corporate cubicle: a workspace with at least partial walls delineating where work is expected to happen, and a wired phone to confine it to that space. Instead, I always carry two phones with me (one work, one personal, so I at least maintain that distinction) and am expected to respond. And my desk shares space in the house where I eat and sleep and relax and read.
One of the gifts of my weekly visits to the monastery a few years ago was that, in the hills, there was no cell service. Entering the grounds was in some ways like entering Superman’s fortress, the silence of the place, at least in my mind impervious to outside forces, a truly enveloping one.
The lack of service was so certain that I stopped leaving my phone in the glove box and even neglected to turn it off when I arrived. This was a mistake.
During one noontime visit, my phone, which was set to vibrate, started to vibrate. Even with the padding of my body and a down-insulated vest, when a vibrating cell phone meets the acoustics of a vast sanctuary of stone walls and hard wooden pews, vibrate should really say reverberate. I lunged as discreetly as I could, there on the kneeler, folding my body over the sound, knowing that to pull the phone out and turn it off would have been even noisier.
The monks were gracious enough to continue along unflinching, though it seemed a helicopter had just landed on the altar. I did get a little ribbing from one of the brothers over lunch. What I had done was impolite, of course. But it also felt ruinous, as though this event was a small desecration of a space that offered such strength in silence.
I have learned, over time, and am still learning in some ways, when I truly do need to be connected to my phone or computer, and when they can be turned off and set aside.
In The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer talks about our “need for an empty space, a pause, ” and notes that this is “something we have all felt in our bones; it’s the rest in a piece of music that gives it resonance and shape.” While he claims no particular connection to a religion, he recognizes the practical implications of keeping a Sabbath of sorts, of “doing nothing for a while.” And has discovered that, contrary to his fears that taking time away from work will just mean more work later, that “the more time I spend away from my work, the better that work will be.”
The need for such a pause in our lives is great. Iyer notes,
Some people, if they can afford it, try to acquire a place in the country or a second home; I’ve always thought it easier to make a second house in the week—especially if, like most of us, you lack the funds for expensive real estate. These days, in the age of movement and connection, space, as Marx had it in another context, has been annihilated by time; we feel as though we can make contact with almost anywhere at any moment. But as fast as geography is coming under our control, the clock is exerting more and more tyranny over us. And the more we can contact others, the more, it seems, we lose contact with ourselves.
Many people find that “second house in the week” by setting aside a day a week to read, or the practice of sitting still outside, if even for a few minutes each day. I take a partial digital Sabbath, devoting a good portion of one day each weekend to reading and writing, without connection to any devices. Creating these spaces in our lives, even if small, can help us consecrate what Rabbi Heschel, as quoted by Iyer, calls “a cathedral in time rather than in space.”
We’re reading The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere together this month. Are you reading along? Perhaps you would share in the comments about your experience with (or need for) creating a “second house in the week.” How have you been able to carve out small pauses in the busy spaces around you? What stood out to you in the chapters this week?
Our Reading Schedule
Photo by Blake Buettner, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.