Friday, March 11, 2011

Reestablishing a Deeper Rhythm

We all reenter "real life" after a break in different ways. Some of us hit the ground running, reinvigorated by the reprieve. Many slowly overcome inertia to gradually get back up to speed. Still others are brought low by reality, thrown back into life's mundane rhythms kicking and screaming.

Regardless of your style, real life reentry offers an opportunity to adjust the rhythmic pattern to create a healthier pace. It may mean taking on a new healthy practice or making a tough choice to eliminate one-thing-too-many from the weekly schedule.

In "The Gospel of Relaxation," psychologist and philosopher William James writes, "Neither the nature nor the amount of our work is accountable for the frequency and severity of our breakdowns...Their cause lies rather in the absurd feelings of having no time, in that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature and that solicitude for results, that lack of inner harmony and ease..."

Surely we can identify with the sensation of stress James describes. But what does he mean by "absurd"? We don't have enough time to do all the things we hope to accomplish.

The absurdity lies in the reality that stress over not having enough time actually reduces the amount we have. Not only does stress interfere with our brain's ability to function effectively, it literally kills us, shortening our lives. Maybe we don't need to adjust our schedule so much as our attitude and outlook.

For James, the quintessential pragmatist, this reorientation of outlook is the most obvious value of religious faith and practice. "The sovereign cure for worry is religious faith...The turbulent billows of the fretful surface leave the deep parts of the ocean undisturbed, and to him who has a hold on vaster and more permanent realities the hourly vicissitudes of his personal destiny seem relatively insignificant things."

As I reviewed my journal's catalog of confessions in celebration of Ash Wednesday, a clear pattern emerged. I consistently neglect the more distant "vaster and more permanent realities" for the immediate and urgent realities which will ultimately vanish away. I become too absorbed with the details of my little life and don't take the miracle of life itself seriously enough. I become so preoccupied with my "to do list" that I fail to fully appreciate the people in my life and the preciousness of our time spent together.

In this light, I see the foolishness of foregoing my daily practices because there is just too much to do. The question is not whether I can afford to fit a "quiet time" into my busy schedule. The question is what must I do to maintain peaceful perspective on what's ultimately important when I inevitably fail to accomplish all that I set out to do.

What are the rhythmic practices which bring you life and reduce death-dealing stress? How do you appreciate the time you have instead of stressing over the time you lack? What practices might help you infuse the daily rhythms of your life with the big picture priorities you hope to live by?

1 comment:

  1. Scott - Interesting post, especially as I sit down at my kitchen table with a stack of books in front of me, both lamenting the week of spring break that has escaped me and freaking out over the little time I have left to do all my research papers.

    I wonder how important rhythm is in fully appreciating the big picture elements or in simply reducing stress. Personally, when I try to establish daily habits of reducing stress - waking up early, for example, or eating healthy, calling my mother, doing my reading ahead of time, etc. - failing to fulfill these promises of positive action can cause stress. When I promise to wake up at 6 and get work done before school, accidentally turning my alarm off and awaking at 10 can ruin my day.

    While positive habits are important, however, I tend to focus more on perspective and attitude. After all, a positive habit - like going to church, for example, or playing basketball twice a week, making time for friends, etc - is only healthy and stress-reducing insofar as the attitude with which you approach and perform the action.

    My strategy for keeping stress low and staying in touch with my big picture, therefore, is self-examination and self-knowledge. It's important to know when you just need to buckle down and do work or take a break and go to a movie by yourself. My habits, then, don't consist of rhythmic practices but of periodic exercises in self-examination, which can often manifest themselves in music and writing, conversation and time with friends, or simply in watching a funny tv show or going to a special lecture at school.

    These exercises help me gain the right perspective on my work - both immediate and life-long. They help me order my priorities, make sense of my emotions and thoughts, and find meaning, appreciation, beauty, and joy in everything.