This thought had an undercurrent of ancient wisdom which our modern sensibility has felt uncomfortable about including in our lives. The primary one being religion (now a cliche to say that I am spiritual, not religious). I remembered a wise monk who defined the science behind religion as threefold: philosophy without which there isn't really a religion; mythology which helps us remember abstract wisdom in times of need through colorful and lovely stories; and practice (or its pejorative cousin, ritual), without which the philosophy and mythology are mere entertainment. Mindless following of rituals has been widely criticized. And yet, that which is bad, must also be good. In that vein, the author points out the benefit of the Sabbath, not in terms of the particular Jewish holiday, but in the broader sense of taking rest.
So, in praise of the ritual, we note that even if we have not come across the philosophy of taking rest, and heard no stories of the wonderful benefits of resting and reflecting, by engaging (mindlessly) in the ritual of rest and reflection, we get the benefit of it. This is not all that different from brushing my teeth - every time I choose to do it, I get the benefit of dental science without studying it, or without needing to keep reading up stories of all the bad things that happen to people who do not brush their teeth.
Some years back, I was mighty confused about rituals, and I think rightfully so, as there are so many wherever we look. I asked a monk, "How do I know which ritual is good for me and which is not?" He replied, "That ritual which expands your sense of who you are (who you include in I) and connects you to more and more of the universe is good. But that ritual which contracts your sense of who you are and creates disconnection from the universe is bad."
That resolves the strategic question of what ritual to follow. But a tactical one follows. "Suppose I have picked a ritual, like weekly reflection, as beneficial to me. At the moment of undertaking the ritual, other pressing actions seek attention from me. Which way do I go? Should I follow the ritual because I have committed to? Or take care of the urgent task that needs taking care of?"
Pacing by the Santa Clara venue of Wednesday, the answer seemed clear. What matters is the space I'm coming from when taking the action. Is that a space of freedom, where I see the big picture and after taking everything into consideration, act with the deepest authenticity possible? Or is that a space of desperation, where I have lied to myself about having no choice? That, to my mind, would determine whether the decision is wholesome or not.
Finally, a story. This Tuesday, I gave a dry-run for my defense talk and my colleagues pointed out a ton of changes that needed to happen. I didn't think I'd finish on time (for Thu), and hence wrote to Nipun and Neil, letting them know that I would probably not make it (ironical, given the passage of this week). The next day, with a big plan of getting a lot done, I started off for my first appointment with the President of Stanford University. With some time to spare, I walked leisurely by Stanford's Memorial Church, and decided to circumambulate, while saying hi to Jesus. Memories came flooding back - used to do it years back when living on campus. As I walked, Jesus did not speak back, but the flowers did. There were so many gorgeous flowers, and rose bush teeming with buds, that were waiting to burst out in their full glory. There was a lovely fountain that I don't remember seeing before. The trees around seemed majestic. And the stained glass on the church inspired me to remember Christ's deep message.
After all these thoughts, a great clarity arose. I wrote to Nipun and Neil, "Wednesday is my sabbath, and I have time." Of course, the day was just starting. As I walked in to the President's office, with ten minutes to spare, I turned on my laptop, and it went into Rescue and Recovery mode! All my past bad karma of criticizing Microsoft came back to haunt me. After telling myself that this was a test of equanimity, and remembering to pat myself with "All is well," two reboots did the job, and the meeting went fine.
I was looking forward to spending the rest of the morning getting research done, but a mail was waiting for me. A friend had requested that I give a campus tour to a new admit, who was still deciding whether to join Stanford. First reaction, "Oh no!" Second reaction, "Wait, this is a test." So, I called the new admit at the time I was supposed to, and it went to the voicemail. I had a gift of time, and got a lot done over the next 45 mins, after which she called, and I took her on a tour, ending with a lunch meeting with colleagues and my professor. The discussion was intense, focusing on truth-telling, and we all gained so much from that conversation.
Returning, got some more work done until my officemate walked in, and said, "Hi Somik, how are you doing?" Then I knew. This was the test that all the events had been building up to. The old temptation was to say, "Very Busy!! Can't talk!" The new way was to tell the truth, "I have time, and I am spending it on research." My officemate understands this language (we help keep each other honest) and he burst out laughing, as did I.
We ended the day with meeting the Patient from Hell, Prof. Steve Schneider, who dealt with his cancer as a decision-maker, using his education and wisdom to carve out a path-breaking treatment for himself and thousands of others. Hearing his life story over a cup of tea was so inspiring - the gist, the ones who achieve clarity are the ones who are ask the stupidest questions that no one else was brave enough to ask.
As I headed after this to Wednesday, and reflected on everything, I realized that most of my work for the dry run was done, and of high quality, while also having been able to serve those who needed help, and learning from inspiring people. And how much of this would have been missed if I had started the day with a lie - that I am busy! This passage indeed shows that the practice of Sabbath is not a theoretical nice-to-have, but one with great practical benefits if followed. This does not necessarily mean that I will be able to make it each week, but this week's reflection gives me the clarity needed to be aware of the space from which I will make my decision to follow the ritual.
To step it up, someone pointed out that the Sabbath was a state-of-mind that could be had, even while working intensely, and he pointed out the philosophy of the Gita with the phrase "kartaram api akartaram," or "doing without doing." What if we could keep a Sabbath-mind, at rest, while engaged in intense action? Now that is an ideal to aspire for.
Ashok shared how deeply he was touched by the gorgeous temple architecture of South-East Asia (Burma, Vietnam). His rich descriptions of Angkor Vat were vivid - a culture that found the time to create an exquisite community space for reflection and self-growth. I hope he will post some pictures for the rest of us.
Bhupen uncle shared a lovely story - his grandchild pointed to his tummy and asked when he was going to have a baby! He realized he needed to create a practice around exercise, and told his grandchild "6 months!" He also shared how fluidly CF Dad would call him for a game of tennis, and he'd come over and enjoy a game with a heart at rest. He wished all of us the freedom to enjoy life as soon as possible. Now that's another ideal to aspire for.
Praveen shared a lovely reflection which he has written down as a comment, and uncle sang a lovely song (the lyrics are in here as a comment)! A friend posted the song that Meghna had sung so beautifully two weeks back.
The ripples continued - person A was complimented on a T-shirt by B. Person C tagged A with a t-shirt. A took off his t-shirt and tagged B with it (out it on his car). B had done the same a few weeks back for someone else. It is a good world.
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