An alcoholic who’d been sober for a couple of decades once shared with me what he felt was the most useful advice he’d heard in life: “Don’t just do something! Sit there.”
I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I hope by the time I’m done with this piece, it will make some sense.
The wonderful folks at The Shabbat Project asked me to blog a little about Shabbat and its connection to addiction and addiction recovery.
First, I want to try to explain how all of us, on some level, can personally relate to the problem of addiction, and then, I think it will be easier to understand how Shabbat can form part of the solution.
Have you ever felt unsettled, restless and annoyed for any combination of reasons, or even for no particular reason? Have you ever felt like life itself has overwhelmed you and you just want to be able to escape for a while?
We may be adults with decent coping skills, but sometimes, rather than deal with reality, it’s tempting just to tune out from it. There are any number of socially acceptable, seemingly innocuous forms of distraction – for example, zoning out in front of a computer screen for a while, or engaging in comfort eating. (“I really ate the whole cake?”) Who among us hasn’t escaped for a while with a bit of innocent distraction?
What I want to try and demonstrate is that this discomfort with reality, and this need to distract ourselves, lies at the very heart of addiction.
Most of us tend to think of addiction only in its more advanced stages, so we hear the word "addict" and picture a junkie in an alley – which also means, of course, that most of us automatically cease to relate. But, what we don't always think about is what makes that junkie in the alley so uncomfortable with life in the first place, that he or she needs to self-medicate like that. What is he or she trying to accomplish?
It’s not just about feeding a physical dependence, which is why even after addicts detox and gain chemical sobriety, they so often gravitate back to their old ways. No, what the addict is looking for – even when they don’t physically need the chemical anymore – is distraction. Because it’s distraction that makes life feel a little bit more liveable. Never mind the irony that the addict’s form of distraction actually makes life unlivable. That only proves the point.
But can’t we all relate, on some level, to the deep, inexplicable need to distract ourselves from life – even when we know that the distraction doesn’t really solve our problems, and that the distraction itself is harmful to us, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally?
Can’t we all relate to that peculiar hankering to just do something (anything!) that will make us not feel whatever it is that we would feel right now if we weren’t distracted?
We know only too well that we’re not looking for a real solution; but we want an escape. So we reach for that phone, or that cigarette, or we call that person who is unhealthy for us. We check our email for the 10th time this hour. And we have another piece of cake. Or was that two pieces of cake? We watch the football game. We check the scores of 10 other games while watching the game that we’re supposedly watching. And we check our email 10 more times. And we have another piece of cake. Is that three now? But who’s counting?
What we really need to do is just STOP.
Yes, it’s frightening to stop. It’s frightening to not do anything. We’d much rather be doing something – anything – even when we know deep down that we’re only spinning our wheels. There’s a strange comfort in spinning our wheels; because as long as we’re doing something, as long as we’re busy, as long as we’re distracted, we’re okay for a moment – even though we know we’re only fooling ourselves.
When what we really need to do is just STOP.
We need to let go for a minute and feel exactly what it is that we don’t want to be feeling. We need to let ourselves experience the present as it is, without distraction, leaving ourselves unprotected right here in the moment.
And this is what Shabbat is. Six days a week we are meant to go out and be doers and contribute to this project called creation. But there comes a point when G-d tells us to put down our work and stop doing.
On Shabbat, G-d has us learn how to be okay with life as it is, how to allow ourselves to experience the moment without trying to take away or add.
Shabbat tells us, “It’s okay. You’re okay. You don’t have to stay busy all the time. You don’t always have to be doing something. You don’t need to be distracted.”
And when you don’t have to do anymore, you can finally just be. And that’s when you find out who you really are. And that’s when you gain the strength to face life just as you are without distraction.
Not surprisingly, the ability to do nothing – and more so, the ability to feel okay while doing nothing – is one of the tools that many addicts in recovery pick up as they learn how to successfully live life on life’s terms. And that’s the meaning of, “Don’t just do something! Sit there.” It means that when life has you all strung out, you retain the ability to take a deep breath, stand right where you are, and experience the moment as it is.
There is a foundational mystical idea in Judaism that G-d recreates and renews the world every moment. And this is precisely how we are meant to experience the world on Shabbat. Moment by moment. Each moment on its own terms.
This Shabbat, take one minute to consciously do nothing and let yourself feel reality as it is, just as G-d is creating it. And when you do that, try to remember how it feels to simply be present in the moment without having to occupy yourself. Then, try to bring that feeling with you into the week.
And the next time you’re feeling restless for no reason and just want to check that email or eat that fourth piece of cake, let it go. Don’t do. Just be.
Rabbi Shais Taub is an internationally acclaimed expert on Jewish mysticism, also known for his pioneering work in the field of addiction recovery. His work has been recognised and extolled beyond the Jewish world. He has been hailed as “a phenomenon” by the New York Times, and “an expert in Jewish mysticism and the 12 Steps” by National Public Radio. Rabbi Taub's major work, G-d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, was the best-selling Jewish book on Amazon.com, and was praised by Publishers Weekly as "a singular resource for those in need". He also writes a weekly column for Ami magazine, and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post. An authority on the foundational Chassidic spiritual text, Tanya, Rabbi Taub is the author of several celebrated works elucidating the principles of Chassidut, and the founding director of “Conscious Contact”, an organisation providing a forum for Jewish prayer, meditation and spiritual elevation.