Now more than ever, people are seeking a reprieve from the constant pressure to achieve, produce, and consume. While many turn to sporadic bouts of mindfulness and meditation, organizational change specialist Marilyn Paul offers a complementary solution that is as radical as it is ancient. In her new book An Oasis in Time, Paul focuses on the profound benefits of taking a modern-day Sabbath each week for deep rest and nourishing renewal. The energy, perspective, creativity, sense of well-being, and yes, increased productivity that ensue are lifesaving.
Drawing on Sabbath tradition, contemporary research, and interviews with scores of busy people, Paul shows that it is possible to introduce these practices regardless of your religious beliefs. Starting with just an hour or two, you can carve out the time from your packed schedule, design your weekly oasis experience, and most importantly, change your mind-set so you can enjoy the pleasure of regularly slowing down and savoring life every week. From surrounding yourself with nature to practicing rituals for beginning and ending oasis time to implementing strategies for connecting with friends and family, self, and source, you will discover practical ways to step off the treadmill and into timeless refreshment on your way to a calmer, richer, more fulfilling life.
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Part I: Getting Started
LIVING IN OVERDRIVE
We're Moving Too Fast
We live in speeded-up times. We value hustle, big goals, and the rush of accomplishment. We love efficiency and effectiveness. Even our leisure activities can feel like boxes on a checklist. Meditate: Check. Exercise: Check. Volunteer: Check. Cook a nice meal: Check. Plan special activities with the kids or with friends: Check. We add more and more tasks to our days until our lives feel more like one long list of things that must get done than a series of deeply soul-satisfying experiences. In his famous movie Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin plays his Little Tramp as a factory worker at a company whose goal is to speed up production. To that end, the company introduces the Billows Feeding Machine, which feeds lunch to the workers while they are still on the assembly line. Work never stops. The proud inventor of the machine, J. Widdecombe Billows, introduces Charlie's character to the revolving platefuls of food, the automatic food pusher, and the hydro-compressed, sterilized mouth wiper. There are three delicious courses, but poor Charlie cannot eat fast enough, and the machine goes out of control, maniacally slapping food all over his face. Today, few of us would even consider a three-course lunch; instead, we eat nutritional power bars so we can skip lunch altogether and keep working. Is Charlie, the Little Tramp, enjoying his lunch break? Of course not. We're not enjoying ours much either.
WE ARE WORKING TOO HARD
Let me introduce you to a few people I know who are trying their hardest to live well and who feel trapped in nonstop activity. Alan, a computer-savvy physician, went into health information systems with a strong sense of a healing mission, fully intending to contribute his unusual skill set to transforming the way medicine is delivered. But his description of an average day shows the deep impact of his team's chronic overwork. Sleep poorly. Awaken worried about getting through day because of fatigue. Pledge to stay cool, avoid snapping. Arrive in time for first meeting, but without real time to organize day because meetings start earlier and earlier-eight o'clock is the new nine o'clock. Rush from meeting to meeting-never fully prepared. Keep trying to stay friendly, calm, avoid "anger seepage." Rush home late, no time to clean up from day. Many things undone, swear to do them that night. Skip exercise. Cranky with family. Wife, kids don't think you are much fun. Work after dinner but don't finish. Go to bed worrying about items left unfinished. Fall asleep at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. after taking an Ambien. Alan sees the irony that his own health is suffering as he misses out on good times with his family and feels constantly overwhelmed and exhausted. He wants to break free from the cycles of tension he feels caught in- recently, he started meditating, which helps a bit-but most of the time, he just can't stop, even to take one weekend off. Like many people, Alan lives in a tyranny of busyness under a trance of constant action. Alan is just one of millions of people struggling to keep up within a culture avid for productivity. The American Institute of Stress reports that job pressures are far and away the major source of tension for Americans. Job stress costs an estimated $300 billion (yes, that's billion, not million) a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs.1 Ironically, ongoing stress ultimately causes people to work far less productively, thus requiring more time on the job to complete the same amount of work. Why do people put up with the stress? When people believe that their value comes from their accomplishments, it is especially hard to stop striving for those accomplishments. Barbara is a lawyer for a real estate conglomerate outside of Atlanta. Like many lawyers, she tracks her time in six-minute increments. She's under constant pressure and feels that she doesn't have enough time even to track her time properly. She is constantly behind. Weekends are a blur of catching up on errands and household maintenance and squeezing in a workout and an occasional brunch with friends. Barbara deeply values her friendships and misses time connecting with herself and others. She would love to take a break of some kind, any kind, but she is too far behind to consider a vacation. Like many Americans, Barbara feels that if she takes time off, she will put her work and her job in jeopardy. Americans have among the fewest paid days off of workers in any developed country, and what days they receive are often forfeited: In 2013, US employees failed to use 500 million vacation days-more than $100 billion worth of paid time.2 Additionally, the United States is the only advanced economy that does not mandate vacation time. Twenty-five percent of full-time workers in the United States have no paid vacation at all. Not surprisingly, 70 percent of Americans feel vacation deprived. By contrast, the Netherlands is almost as productive as the United States, yet the Dutch "work shorter hours each day, get six weeks' paid vacation, and are even given an 8% holiday bonus," according to a 2012 Time article.3 Layla is an interior designer in suburban Chicago. She chose to work from home so she could have more control over her time and more time with her kids. But it's not working out that way. Layla loves her work. Color, texture, and fabric feed her sense of vitality, and she has a special gift for helping people create a deep sense of home. But her days are a conglomeration of attending client meetings, ordering furniture, writing proposals, invoicing, and responding to urgent client requests. Her kids are in after-school care, and her weekends are packed with errands and cobbled-together playdates. When asked about the possibility of dedicated time off each week, Layla responds, "I love the idea, but that's out of the question. I just have too much to do." She's been having trouble sleeping as she runs the everydayathon, an apt term coined by Loyola University philosophy professor Al Gini, PhD. Self-employment, sadly, doesn't get us off the treadmill. Layla joins the millions of us who are sleep deprived-40 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll. Good sleep is just as important to our health as exercise and good food. Researchers have found that remaining awake for 17 to 19 hours in a row leads to an impairment of cognitive abilities similar to being legally drunk.4 Imagine what happens after days, weeks, months, and years of sleep deprivation. Yet many of us believe that we can forgo hours of sleep and pay no price. From an early age, Nashville-based James looked at his overworked baby boomer parents and swore he was going to live a different kind of life. Now he's a musician who loves playing gigs on weekends and working with troubled teens during the week. He has a couple of interesting part-time jobs, and he makes sure he always has time for music, his true love. Yet James doesn't get a break either, for, as he told me, he never feels that he has quite earned it. He's considered practicing a type of Sabbath time, but he rarely thinks he has done enough to merit carving out real downtime. He knows he would love it, but, like his parents, oddly enough, he can't make the time to fully rest and renew his soul. Alan, Barbara, and Layla face the same challenge in their individual ways: Our culture is obsessed with getting things done. Even James, the musician who has constructed his life to avoid being like his overworked parents, struggles to take time for himself. The social and economic pressures of work and achievement are so fierce that they even shape the experiences of those who consciously try to resist them. We live in a world that doesn't understand the true, measureable value and benefits of downtime, and we are suffering because of it. Do you see yourself in these stories and statistics? I do. I move too fast and do too much. I'm juggling work, motherhood, marriage, improving my health, connecting with friends, and homeschooling my son, not to mention trying to get good food on the table and maintain a livable home. I'm always striving to learn how to manage my time better and be more focused. In fact, I wrote a book about it: It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys. Fortunately, I have found this weekly release valve that saves my life. That is what this book is about. Before I describe the path to oasis time, however, I want us to understand some of the causes and effects of our nonstop lifestyle. It's worth naming the high price we pay so that we fully commit to envisioning new ways of getting our lives back.
HEALTH COSTS OF STRESS
Stress can motivate us and boost productivity in the short term, but the chronic stress most of us experience is toxic. Here's how costly long- term stress is to our health: According to the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of health-care costs are associated with chronic illness, and stress is a key driver of chronic illness . More than 133 million Americans- or 45 percent of the population-have at least one chronic condition, such as arthritis, asthma, cancer, heart disease, depression, or diabetes. And these are just a few examples of the many chronic illnesses that negatively affect the lives of Americans.5 Consider, for example, the impact of stress on one of our country's most costly chronic diseases, diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, "In people with diabetes, stress can alter blood glucose levels in two ways: People under stress may not take good care of themselves. They may drink more alcohol or exercise less. They may forget, or not have time, to check their glucose levels or plan good meals. Stress hormones may also alter blood glucose levels directly."6 Some studies have suggested that unhealthy chronic stress management, such as overeating "comfort" foods, has contributed to the growing obesity epidemic. Half of us in the United States are either diabetic or prediabetic. Stress leads to insomnia. More than 40 percent of us lie awake at night because of stress, and losing even one hour of sleep a night significantly hampers everyday performance. Stressed-out adults can lie awake for hours or turn to sleep medication for help, but sleep aids have significant side effects. Sleeping pill use and emergency room visits that result from overmedication with sleep aids are both on the rise.7 Stress may be linked to alcohol overuse. Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for 88,000 deaths each year, more than half of which are due to binge drinking. About 38 million US adults report binge drinking an average of four times a month, with an average of eight drinks per binge. Most binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent, and one cause of binge drinking is reported to be "winding down" or relaxing after a stress-filled period.8 What is causing the stress that leads to so much illness? Workplace-related stress can be blamed for a lot of it, but other stressors include worries about money, housing costs, and family relationships. Unresolved conflict with other people is a source too. Additionally, loneliness and social disconnection are significant stressors that can lead to poor health. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that high rates of loneliness were correlated with the occurrence of heart disease in women.9 In contrast, National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner has written about scientific research into longevity in certain areas of the world where high numbers of people live into their nineties and hundreds in good physical and mental shape. Now known as Blue Zones, these areas share one essential factor: a sense of belonging, or what Buettner calls "timeless congeniality." The American Psychological Association reports that extreme and long-term stress can take a severe emotional toll. While people can overcome minor episodes of stress by tapping into their body's natural defenses to adapt to changing situations, excessive chronic stress can be psychologically and physically debilitating. Unlike everyday stressors, which can be managed with healthy stress management behaviors, untreated chronic stress may result in serious health conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system, all of which contribute to diabetes and prediabetes.10 The $300 billion annual cost of job stress mentioned earlier doesn't capture the costs to our lives day to day and year to year. Stress makes our lives harder to live and reduces the pleasure of living. We struggle with creating deep and lasting friendships. We struggle to feed ourselves healthfully. Our enjoyment of ourselves and each other is largely diminished as we race from one activity to the next and then collapse, exhausted, at the end of the day. This is not how we want to live.