Vanity thought #1480. Theology of rest

Yesterday I mentioned a TED talk looking sermon delivered by a female pastor, Rhesa Storms, on spiritual importance of leisure and today I want to look at it in detail, not just for the content but also because of its unusual presentation.

Vimeo has lots of videos from that church and the format appears to be standard – sermons are delivered from the stage, there’s a band there, too, though they leave the stage during the actual sermon, and there’s a giant screen hanging above with powerpoint like bits of important information shown to accentuate the talking points. I checked their website, they say they have to do it this way to accommodate modern tastes and they have nothing against traditional churches, they just feel they can reach more people with their kind of presentation. Fair enough, it works, but I don’t know what could be missing.

We have the format for our Bhāgavatam class, for example, we can easily change it but we won’t dare to mess with the formula given by Śrīla Prabhupāda. Sitting on the floor for an hour is never going to be comfortable for westerners, there isn’t any visual stimulation, the musical number is rather short and after that people tend to drift away and doze off. Tons of ways to make improvements but we’d rather elevate ourselves to Bhāgavatam standards than lower the class to fit ours. We need to learn to sit and listen very attentively, and we need to ask pertinent questions afterwards. It worked for Mahārāja Parīkṣit, it worked for the sages of Naimiṣāraṇya, why fix something that isn’t broken?

There are attempts to “improve” our classes but they never stick. There are people bringing guitars and playing a chord or two every few minutes, there are people seeking constant engagement with the audience, asking questions or making the class into a conversation, there are classes with multimedia support, one can find everything, but, as I said, these newfangled methods never stick. I guess it’s because while they might be attractive to neophytes, devotees with experience and maturity find them tasteless and distracting, and, basically, reflections of the ego of the speaker, which should be ideally transparent.

I guess we can do all these things when we do outside programs, get them by hook or by crook, but temples are different, temple is where we have to make the effort to reach God, not demand God to accommodate our restlessness and lack of attention.

Speaking of restlessness – the sermon, right. Rhesa starts with begging permission to divide the audience into early birds and night owls. I guess people are too sensitive these days that you need to make sure they are not offended by being classified according to your wishes. She then accuses early birds of being smug and challenges their workaholic outlook on life. In New York, she quotes someone, if you are early to bed and early to rise then you never meet any prominent people, which, I guess, is true, but that’s obviously not why she decided to talk about leisure. It’s just a testament to the fact that our lives are being governed by genuine asuras.

She then turns to the definition of success and cites an example of Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post, which is the most successful online news publication in the world. I mean all big papers have websites but Huffington Post is a website without a paper. Building it from nothing was certainly a mammoth task and at one point Arianna was so exhausted that she fell face down in her office and broke he cheekbone. I don’t know how it could be possible but it happened. This is from her book about her success but at that point she realized that lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood meant she probably wasn’t as successful as she appeared. Doctors said she simply needed rest and it couldn’t be substituted by any medical treatment.

Rhesa then wants the audience to empathize with the admission “I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired.” It resonates deeply with the New Yorkers, I would imagine, and this takes her to the heart of her sermon – importance of rest. She cites various statistics about Americans being the most overworked people on the planet and how badly it reflects on their health. People in other countries smoke and, put butter on their bread and drink wine with every meal but who gets with the highest rate of heart disease? The Americans, of course. I think by now it’s common knowledge but her question is – if people know about the importance of rest, why don’t they do it more?

She answers that it’s the surrounding culture that forces us to value work and equate rest with laziness. In other words – Kali yuga, she got that right. We need to isolate ourselves from this outside influence, and that’s why we have temples and we chant our rounds, that’s why we keep four regs and stay off the TV. Rhesa gives an example of a successful businessman who, in a TV interview, was asked “How do you accomplish all that?” and he answered “I sleep only four hours a day.” That’s how we are all led to believe that success and rest are incompatible and we start to look at people who sleep more and work less as lazy. See how it isn’t only sex or violence that can corrupt us when we watch TV but regular, decent by any other measure programs, too.

Rhesa then makes another important point (predicted in Bhāgavatam about Kali yuga, btw) – we are culturally taught to measure success by outward signes – job, house, cars and vacations we can afford, in short – money. Giving up personal comforts to earn big bucks then seen as an acceptable trade-off – rest for money. She then piles another nice one – if we read predictions about the 21st century made only some fifty years ago we find that our greatest problem would be too much spare time and deciding what to do with it. It clearly isn’t.

Fifty years ago it was perfectly possible to have only one income in the family, have a stay-at-home wife, all the amenities suitable for that age, raise kids and pay for their college, and save for the retirement. You can’t do that on two incomes now, and lots of people are forced to work two or even three jobs. Whatever the “progress” has delivered to the mankind, spare time isn’t it. Somehow all this science and technology hasn’t made our lives easier but only forced us to work more and more for the privilege to read news on iPhones while on the toilet.

I remember reading one such article where the “average” man would have all his work done in four hours, thanks to his personal computer, and then booked skiing holiday in Switzerland online because he had just returned from Spain last week and his tan was still perfect. All of this has come through, expect for the four hour workday part, which means you’ll never get the time to fly to neither Spain nor Swiss Alps, nor, probably, the money. But the possibility is there, there are lots of Internet jobs that would let you rake in the money if you just click on this ad, or, in any case, you just have to work a bit more, push yourself a bit harder, and success will be yours.

Fools, literally the asses, donkeys with carrots dangling at the end of their sticks. And they call this “progress” and “civilization”. Well, somehow even Christians get it, and there’s more to come from that sermon, but I need to take my rest, too.


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