Creative stillness


The author Elizabeth Gilbert once said in an interview that she thinks that she and her sister ended up as authors because as children, they were taught how to do boring things for long stretches of time. And that out of the boredom grew creativity.

How many of us remember the experience of waiting for the bus with nothing to do but wait? Without a cell phone to distract us? When was the last time you just sat and did nothing? No screen, no talking, just sitting and being in the moment? Have we all forgotten how to watch the world go by?

Once a month I go to spiritual direction, which is essentially God therapy for clergy. I inevitably race into my spiritual director’s office after grocery shopping or driving carpool, or sitting in traffic for too long. When I walk in she always asks me, “Would you like to get quiet for a while?” My instinct is always to say no, to take advantage of my time by talking. But instead I always say yes. Yes, let’s just sit and be quiet and see how I’m really feeling today.

My mind shuffles through the broken record of usual refrains that are always on the tip of my tongue. The lists, the inner critic, the familiar voice of my mind trying to dominate my heart and soul. Then I breathe, and sit, and breathe some more, and force myself to just be, so I can find out what’s actually going on for me in that moment. And sometimes-often, actually-if I’m quiet for long enough, I do hear something. I see an image spring up that represents the state of my soul, or I remember a conversation I’ve forgotten, or I hear a snippet of a song that was lying dormant for the past month. And I trace the steps of those hints, those breadcrumbs, and I find my way back to where I am, right now.

Those images and memories almost always lead to a moment of clarity, an aha! moment that sets my mind on a path to discovering something important, or learning something I’ve needed to learn. A path to creativity and understanding. Or, as Gilbert says in that same interview,

“Oh, my God, this is a spark of creation that I’m working with, and this is magic, and this is life seen through new eyes.”

I don’t think that Elizabeth Gilbert is Jewish, but she certainly has a Jewish teaching to offer the world. Shabbat is, on the one hand, a day of gratitude. Of being thankful for all that we have, since the rest of the week is spent trying to acquire more.

But even more than that, Shabbat is a day of just being. Of stopping. Of being present with our families and loved ones. Of doing nothing so that our own creative thoughts and feelings can rise up from the ashes of our trampled work weeks. Shabbat is a day of creation from inaction, of inspiration born of stillness. It is a lifeline for any person willing to surrender to it.

My wish this Shabbat is for all of us to have just one moment–one minute, or one hour!-when we are all present enough for the light of connection and inspiration to emerge from the depths of our worn-out bodies, to guide us to life as it should and could be someday.

Shabbat shalom,
Cantor Chabon