One of my psychology professors once described a presentation he made at business conference. His subject was depression among top executives, a problem serious enough to warrant its own session. After running through professional interventions like medication and psychotherapy, he told his audience, “There’s a simpler and far less expensive approach, though I don’t expect many of you to adopt it.”
He told them to choose one weekday a month to call in sick or take a vacation. He insisted on a weekday, since weekends are usually given to errands and chores. The professor called it a “soul day” and the rule was, do nothing of a goal oriented nature. No work, no phone meetings, no fiddling with Blackberrys. This was a day for those little desires at the edge of the mind: a walk in the park, a family picnic when others are working, trying one’s hand at watercolor.
There were lots of protests. When a CEO said he was too busy; the professor said that might be one of the reasons he was depressed. Someone else feared that if he let himself “slack off,” he might not want to get out of bed. “Then stay in bed,” the professor said. “Sooner or later you’ll get bored and think of something interesting to do.”
I heard this story 20 years ago and still sometimes put it into practice. It isn’t just for when you’re feeling blue; it meshes with the biblical concept of a day of rest, but it takes a special resolution, since most of the time, our days of rest are not very restful.
I’ve come back to it now because stepping outside of habitual routines can be a way of stepping outside of habitual ways of thinking, which feel a little stale as the season begins to change. This practice isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes discrimination to separate what I want to do from what I think I should do, or other subtle forms of self-improvement. But I don’t have to get it right, since being perfect takes an inordinate amount of effort.
I began yesterday with a period of an easy sort of meditation, as opposed to some of the more energetic ones. Then I took a walk around the track at a nearby school – no problem there, for walking each day is a pleasure and something my body craves.
Later that day it took some effort not to attack a story that isn’t working, but the anxiety that came with the thought was a clue to let it go. I did allow myself 10 minutes with a tape measure, pencil, and paper to survey which parts of the back yard fence are in need of repair. Goal oriented, yes, but easy and the dogs needed to run around.
That’s how the day went. No reading except the Sunday paper and a light mystery novel. No writing except the opening paragraph of this post which I stopped after 10 minutes because I could feel myself starting to work too hard. No cooking in the evening – we went out to dinner and brought home a key lime pie, my absolute favorite.
Sometimes I think of old pictures of ancestors – those serious, even dour looking men and women, sitting very still as they peer into the camera. Often I imagine them frowning at “a slacker like me,” but maybe not.
I have a 4″ thick family bible that belonged to my great-great grandfather. He inscribed the family name on the cover page in 1856. I imagine him reading the good book aloud to his wife and eight children every evening after dinner. For all I know, he observed the sabbath better than I ever have. His family lived on a farm, and maybe they all took one day a week to rest and give thanks. And eat pie – if not key lime, then almost certainly, apple or peach.
Maybe they knew something I have forgotten – but it is never too late to learn.