My Modern Shabbat: How I Return Home to the Sacred




Zen Garden at the Osage Forest of Peace, Oklahoma






Saturday morning. I wake up leisurely, leaving bed only when my cells feel completely satiated with rest. On weekdays, I typically start my morning with a cup of coffee to rev up my brain for productivity. Not Saturday. Today I check in with myself: what would be delightful to drink? I decide to make matcha green tea with milk and honey – sweet, mellow, restorative. I sit on the couch to drink it. And I breathe.  

For over a decade, I’ve been taking baby steps to incorporate the Jewish concept of Shabbat, the weekly day of rest, into my life.

My family observed a moderate form of Shabbat when I was growing up. This meant eating a special dinner on Friday nights complete with candles, wine, delicious challah bread, and blessings.

In college, I was accepted into the Maimonides Jewish Leadership Fellowship. Fellows attended weekly seminars and three Shabbatons, which were immersive Shabbat learning experiences. For each Shabbaton, I would hurry from campus in Binghamton, New York to drive out to Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Monsey, New York in order to arrive at the home of a traditional Jewish family before sundown. Once the sun set, Shabbat began.

In the biblical story, earth, light, and all living beings were created over the course of six days. On the seventh day, all creation ceased and a full day of rest was observed. On this day, all of that effortful work was honored, and energy was restored to prepare for the next creative cycle. This day of rest was both reflective and restorative.

Upon my arrival at a family’s home, I would receive a warm welcome and was then shown to my room. I would share my room with another visiting Maimonides fellow. I would then set up my belongings around my guest bed and turn off my cell phone, as it is prohibited to use electronic devices on Shabbat. I’d tuck my wallet into my suitcase where it would remain untouched until the following evening, and my notebooks and pens inside my backpack. Exchanging money and writing are also prohibited on Shabbat.

Any activity that could be considered an act of creation or work is prohibited.

I would then join my host family for dinner. Around a white tablecloth with silver candlesticks, we would say blessings, drink wine, and eat challah. After a delicious meal and plenty of conversation, I’d return to my room to chat some more with my roommate du jour and read a novel in bed. I would go to sleep early and wake up late, proceeding to spend Saturday alternating between talking, sharing meals, and reading books until sundown when Shabbat ended and the new week began.

For a college student whose days were filled with studying, partying, and checking Facebook, these Shabbat experiences were profound. They were grounding; they settled my mind and body from their typical whir of activity. They were cleansing; they filled me with rest, home-cooked food, and thoughtful conversation.

Only by experiencing this day of rest did I realize how deeply hungry for it I was. Though I had never observed Shabbat quite like this before, it felt familiar.

It was as if I was returning home.

I vowed that I would incorporate Shabbat into my life, no matter how modern nor how busy my life became. I know how it feels to live in constant distraction. By creating the space for Shabbat, I secure my return home to a richer plane of existence,  

These are the four guidelines I use to protect this space:

Carve out hours – I choose 6pm Friday to 6pm Saturday.

Unplug – I turn off my cell phone. I turn off my laptop. There will be no texting, emailing, googling, nor calling. I cannot overemphasize how much this adds to the whole experience.

Tune inward – This is a day to return within. I shift my attention from the external world to my internal world. I listen to the signals from my mind, heart, and body to determine how to use the time restoratively..

Honor desire –  Sometimes, my body screams to play outside and enjoy sunshine. On cold or rainy days, all I want is to curl up on my couch with a good book and a cup of tea. I’ve hiked and biked for hours, and meditated in sacred spaces. As long as I’m following my instincts for enjoying life, I’m in the right place.

My Shabbats remind me that I am here, a body visiting this earth. They remind me that there is great abundance in being alive and that I must not lose sight of it. They are a day to zoom out beyond the day-to-day rhythms of my routines so that I may reconnect with my larger sense of purpose. They are a day to zoom in, to sharpen my senses for listening to my inner rhythms that can be so easily drowned out by outer noise. In this weekly ritual, I reclaim my route back to the sacred.



Be a Source of Calm

As a teacher, I learned quickly that one’s energy has tremendous power over a room. 

The confined space of the classroom would detonate regularly with the emotions of thirty children. Like Luke Skywalker I would brace for impact, ducking the beams of anger and frustration as they zoomed by.

To re-establish order in the midst of chaos, I initially reacted by replicating the response of my childhood teachers: yelling. I mustered up a primal fury, inhaled deeply, and with as much volume as I could:


An angry loud voice shocks chaos back to order. But it is a brief victory, and using this voice left me poisoned by a cocktail of fight or flight hormones.

Yelling fights fire with fire by adding more anger and anxiety to an already angry and anxious situation. It does not spread calm and certainly does not spread joy.  I was determined to change response to find one that would build an environment of calm joy.

I did not have control over how 30 young people presented themselves at school. But I did have control over how one person presented herself.

The only energy that I could control in a given space was my own.

I started by building calm within myself. I located it within my breath, my body, and my voice.

I practiced breathing slowly, deeply, and mindfully. When in chaotic situations, I inhaled the chaos and exhaled space. When surrounded by anger, I inhaled the anger and exhaled acceptance.  

I noticed where anxious energy was absorbed within my body. When my shoulders rose to my ears, I consciously lowered them.  When my eyebrows raised into my forehead, I relaxed them.

I kept my voice slow, creating space between the sounds.  I kept my voice low, leaving room for quiet amidst the noise. 

I was becoming a conductor of calm energy, radiating it through the room. My calm energy could cool the surrounding anger and chaos.

To add joy to my energetic brew, I focused on smiling. I changed my default facial expression from serious neutral to a light smile. Smiles are contagious: when you smile at someone, they usually catch it and smile back. As I am out in the world, I can smile and spread joy to the people I see.

By adjusting my bodily habits, I learned how to be a source of calm joy to the people and spaces I encountered. This was more cooling than yelling would ever be.

We have incredible power to impact the spaces that we occupy. We can spill out angry, fearful energy and fan flames. Or we can choose to smile and breathe, and spread cooling peace.


Embracing Discomfort


“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland




We are alive and so we change.

Change that moves us forward and upward is growth. Sometimes we grow gradually and unfold into an extension of what we already were. At other times, we burst in a sudden moment of radical transformation. In the hatching of eggs, the blooming of flowers, the eruption of caterpillars into butterflies, living beings outgrow one stage of their lives instantaneously to thrust forward into the next one.

Humans have the option to integrate mindfulness into this process. We can choose to notice our radical transformation and reflect upon it, appreciate it, and act upon it. We can pause in such times to take stock of our growth and access deeper levels of appreciation for what it means to be alive.

When we realize how far we have come, we can marvel at where we are.

To be able to savor these delicate moments, we must first learn to recognize their arrival.

Radical transformation begins with discomfort.

Discomfort is an alert. It is an unpleasant sensation by design, a catalyst to frustrate and ignite us.  Intolerable discomfort is the force that propels babies out into the world, chicks to break free from eggs, butterflies to rip through their cocoons. Once we have exhausted the reserves of nourishment in a given space, it is urgent that we move on.

I have often felt the profound discomfort of an outgrown space. I felt it during my senior year of college as a maddening impatience to graduate and enter the “real world.” I felt it during my tenth summer at sleepaway camp as a deep sadness that it was time to move on and spend my summers elsewhere. Most recently, I felt it as a hunger for quiet greenery which propelled me to relocate from my populous urban home. In each of these moments, my discomfort led me forward to new spaces for my expansion.

Discomfort hurts. That’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy. Discomfort means we are alive and growing. There are all sorts of remedies, strategies, and substances available to eradicate discomfort. But like any other bodily alert, suppressing a symptom does not address the source. The only way to find true freedom from discomfort is to listen to it.

When we listen to our discomfort, we gather clues about who we are becoming. 

Listening to discomfort is frightening because it could mean an ending. A leaving behind, a goodbye, a death of sorts. If our fear is strong enough, we may choose to retreat from our growth so that we may find refuge in familiar old skin. Or perhaps our fear is paralyzing and we freeze, lingering too long in an outgrown space. We lose our newly amassed reserves of nourishment and wither back into a wilted version of ourselves.

Or we could choose bravery and hope. We could accept the invitation and move forward into the unknown.

We could integrate the feeling of death with the feeling of new life. We could feel the sadness of shedding old skin alongside the exhilaration of the mystery yet to come. We could own the potential and strength in our newfound bigness.

Acknowledging our arrival at an ending illuminates the opportunity to craft a beginning.

Moving forward is a vote of confidence in ourselves.

When we listen to our discomfort and follow it forward, we restore trust in our inner wisdom.  A caterpillar is innately scripted to become a butterfly, and so we are are innately scripted with directions to our fullest selves.

Sometimes the only way to grow into is to grow out of. Outgrowing is uncomfortable. Rather than push away discomfort, we can invite it inside and listen to what it has to say.  We can celebrate its arrival and thank it for coming. Then we can pack up our old shells, cocoons, and skins, thank them for their service, and along with discomfort, send them on their way as we move into the future.