Taking the time…

I love playing guitar. It relaxes me and challenges me. And when I really get into a groove, I enter a zone where time stops and nothing else matters. Sometimes it lasts but a moment, and sometimes it goes on and on. It’s what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Making music gives me such great pleasure. If I had to pay a premium for every moment of my time spent, I would say that time playing guitar is great bang for my buck.

Sadly, aside from services, I rarely play music. I’m the kind of person who always has to be doing some productive, and building for the future.

I remember, in college, I really wanted to improve my guitar-playing. I also knew that being so busy with my classes and jobs, there was no way I would actually take the time out of my schedule for this kind of pleasure. So, I found a loop-hole in my system. I learned that at York University (my alma mater) I could take private musical lessons for academic credit. I signed up, and I did practice— after all, my grades depended on it.

Though I could not justify devoting regular time for pleasure alone, I could easily justify using time to achieve my longer-term goals. And this is often my life. But, it is not the example I wish to set.

I recently finished a life-altering book called Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Brigid Schulte writes, in the introduction,

This is the day I have been avoiding for more than a year. Today, I am meeting with John Robinson, a sociologist who for more than a half century has studied the way people spend their most precious, non-renewable resource: time. Robinson… [collects] detailed time diaries, counting the hours of what typical people do on a typical day, and publishing the scholarly tomes summing up the way we live our lives. For his pioneering work, his colleagues call him Father Time. And Father Time has challenged me to keep a time dairy of my own (Schulte, Brigid. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. New York: Macmillan, 2014. 3).

What would we discover if we kept a time diary? Where would the bulk of our time go? How much of our day would be devoted to work, and how much to loved ones? How much of our time would be devoted to others, and how much would we keep for ourselves? And, how much would be spent building for the future or acting out of commitment to the past, rather than living in the present moment?

Some of us might have trouble writing down just one thing at any given minute in our time-diary, since so much of life seems to be spent multi-tasking. Could we write down one hour, one half-hour, or even ten minutes, where we focused on one thing, without diverting out attention towards our next appointment or what we would put together for dinner; where we did something, anything, without pulling out the blackberry or android or whatever else to respond to the buzz of a message?

Would confronting our daily schedules frighten us, as it did for Schulte?

On Yom Kippur, and throughout this whole period of the Days of Awe, we take note of how precious life really is, and how special are the few years we’re given on this earth. Too often do we just keep swimming, trying to remain afloat in the sea of life’s never-ending demands. Rarely, it seems, do we stop and take a few moments to just breathe— to appreciate, reflect, shut out distractions, and focus on what’s important in a given moment. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all the days in between, we take a serious look at our own mortality, and we consider, did we use our time well? Did we burn through our hours in massive quantities, or did we manage, throughout the days of this past year, to savor time’s quality?

For most of us, time is something into which we pack as much as possible, as there is just so much to do. With so many things demanding our attention, it is often the quality of each moment that we lose time for. When we have to tackle ten things at once, we lose the ability to do one of those things really well and we get overwhelmed.

It’s funny, we have so many devices that were originally intended to save us time: microwaves, washing machines, frozen meals, smart televisions, and smart phones, and everything else supposedly hyper-intelligent. What we missed though as a society was that with these time-saving tools would come more tasks, more products, and more that would demand our mental attention— that time-saving devices would often become time-consuming devices.

Rabbi Edward Feinstein writes about a friend of his who works as an attorney, who describes his stress built up from “time-saving devices:”

Once, a contract, a letter, a proposal came in the mail. You thought about it, drafted your response, and sent it off. Total turn-around: about a week. Then came express mail. The proposal comes FedEx by 10:30 AM, and the response is expected the next day. Then came fax: The response is expected by day’s end. Then came E-mail. Now the response is expected instantaneously (http://www.americanrabbi.com/pardon-me-do-you-have-the-time-by-edward-feinstein/).

A few months ago, I was feeling rather overwhelmed, from all the emails and text messages to which I continually needed to respond. I decided to use a time-tracking application to track my day at the Temple, to better understand what was happening with my minutes and hours. Surprisingly, I found that e-mails only take up 6% of my day. How could this possibly be? I realized that the problem was not in the actual quantity of messages, it was in the way I addressed them. Rather than checking my inbox once in the morning and once at night, I almost continuously reacted to that little window that pops up announcing a message’s arrival. Even when I choose not to respond immediately, I will still notice that box, and lose my focus. Though I may not always be reading my emails, it seems that I am always processing them. And I am not alone.

Jonathan Spira, author of the book Overload!, found that,

…just reading and processing the daily onslaught of e-mails can occupy over half a worker’s day. His surveys have discovered that two-thirds of workers feel that they don’t have enough time to get all their work done and 94% have at some point felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation (Schulte, 64).

For me, it’s emails. For others, it’s keeping track of the kids. Or aging parents in need of care. Or the next project, or test, or opportunity. The incredible world we live in provides us with a never-ending stream of possibilities. If only they would come one at at time, so that we could meet them with full attention, and take a breath here and there! But, because we live in a highly-competitive society where we must be the best, and where we must take advantage of every opportunity, everything that comes knocking must be welcomed in.

The first step is always recognizing that we have a problem.

How many of us stop and say, “Hey, email! Phone! Friend, project, dinner on the stove, can you wait 5, 15, 30 minutes? I’m taking a breather right now.”  Too often, we spend so much energy reacting, that we lose our ability to focus, appreciate, and enjoy moments. Which is a problem. To function well, we need quality moments; we need periods of being in the zone, of flow, and we need spaces in between. Schulte tells us that,

Leonardo da Vinci regularly took off from painting for several hours at at time and seemed to be daydreaming aimlessly. Urged by his patron, the prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie, to work more continuously, da Vinci is reported to have replied, immodestly but accurately, “The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less” (Schulte, 267).

To be at our best, we need time to breath. We all want to be the top workers, the best parents, and incredible spouses and friends, but in order to succeed in any of these areas, we must remember that we need time for ourselves, to find perspective and presence.

The Danes are the happiest people in the world, according to the 2013 United Nations Happiness Report (http://unsdsn.org/resources/publications/world-happiness-report-2013/). They have a concept called Hygge (pronounced hooggeh), which roughly means, being the moment. When drinking a cup of tea, they actually drink that tea. When writing an article, they focus on writing that article, and save their email for later. When having dinner with loved ones, they put their phones away (Schulte, 231). It would seem that the Danes are among the happiest because rather always pursing “more,” and “better,” they are able enjoy what is here, and what is now.

Those who are happiest have no more than the rest of us, nor fewer demands on their lives. What is different is how they approach their times, and what choices they make. While some of us choose to deal with the quantity of demands upon us, those who are happiest, it seems, focus on ensuring their time has quality.

And there’s good news! By virtue of being here to hear this sermon, you have taken some time for what’s important. And even better news, you’re in the right place, as Judaism has so many ways to help us deal with life’s onslaught. I’d like to present a few ways, from our tradition, to help us better fill our days with meaningful moments.

1. In the words of Louis Armstrong, “what a wonderful world.”  In Judaism, we understand that this world is so incredible, filled with beauty and wonder, and the appropriate response is pausing, with awe. We say in the morning liturgy, מה גדלו מעשך ה׳ – How great are your works O God. Built in to our tradition is a system for expressing awe. We place value on noticing. On looking at the majestic trees growing in the yard, at how they stand strong and yet dance in the wind, at how they provide shade and coolness in the sun’s heat. Or noting the scent of a lily in our gardens, or smiling at the sound of laughter from children playing in the street. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls this kind of appreciation “radical amazement”— the most basic way that we human beings find God in the world, that we find quality. Even if only for a few seconds.

2. Gratitude. I remember asking two friends of mine, a couple, when I met them in Jerusalem for dinner, what was new with them, and they said that they’ve been working on cultivating gratitude for everything in their lives. Doing so has made them significantly happier. In Judaism, we’ve got a blessing for everything: rainbows, exercise, new cars. When we bless, we take note of what we’ve got and say thank you. And while sometimes we use the words of our tradition, sometimes we offer whatever it is in our hearts. Just noting how appreciative we are for what we have— our homes, our families, our friends, our jobs, the food on our plate, can make a big difference in our lives. Writer Melinda Beck, reporting on a decade of gratitude research in The Wall Street Journal, writes,

Adults who often feel grateful are more generous, more empathetic, and ”have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not… They are also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly have greater resistance to viral infections (Schulte, 210).

Counting even a few blessings each day can make a huge difference in our lives. And, we have a Jewish structure to help us find these moments for reflection. Many Jews pray three times a day: Shacharit in the morning, Mincha in the afternoon, and Ma’ariv in the evening. Regular prayers mean that we form a regular habit of stopping what we’re doing, and moving into a different state of mind. Almost a meditation.

Being realistic, I understand that praying three times daily may be a little much for us, but the model itself, of regular times to stop and reflect, could and should be of great to use to us.

How many of us can actually say that we take time for mindfulness, reflection and meditation even once a day? Forget prayer and meditation— do we even have a daily moment of stillness? Perhaps, a challenge for the year might be daily praying, meditating, or mindfulness, to ground us, pause the attack of information, and check in with our souls. Before we know it, we’ll be filled with awareness and fortitude, with gratitude and peace.

3. Sometimes, a moment here or there is not enough. Awe and gratitude help, but sometimes we need something bigger: a chunk of time where we are free to desist from every day’s work, to forcibly put down our phones and be with those we love. Judaism gives us these gifts: the holidays and Shabbat. Occasions where our tradition demands of us that we drop that which stresses us out, and instead, give a full day, or several, to being with family, going for walks outside, reading books, singing and praying and synagogue, eating delicious meals. Put this way, our holy days almost seem like luxuries! Like something we don’t necessarily deserve, because there’s so much to do and accomplish. Because we want to be the best employees and volunteers, better parents, and more successful providers. But, as many of us have realized, celebrations in time are not luxuries– they are necessities. We all need breaks for our minds and spirits to stop and recharge. That these luxuries are actually checks and balances, to ensure that we make time in our lives for peace, and quality.

In his book the Sabbath, Rabbi Heschel writes,

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [humanity]’s progress than the Sabbath? (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

For me, Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah— all these sacred days are times where I let go of past and future; where I can just be in the present, and embrace life.

This Yom Kippur, I challenge each one of us to make that time diary and assess our lives— not our actions, as we often do on Yom Kippur, but our time. How we’ve spent it, divided it, and shared it. Whether we’ve taken some for ourselves, and whether we’ve used it well. In doing so, we might see exactly where it is that we need a little bit more awe, or gratitude, and we may better recognize how important sacred celebrations in our lives can be.

Time is our most precious commodity, and it is finite. This coming year, may we use time well, for what matters most. May our lives in 5775 be filled, through that which we already have, with blessing and meaning, peace, tranquility, and enjoyment.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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