Tap into the Sabbath practices of a hibernating bear. Unplug, rest ... and just be.
There is a myth that mama bears have babies in hibernation and don’t even know it. When I first heard this idea, I admit I was a bit jealous—birth without pain or distress? Ease-filled sleep for months? Sign me up! Eventually, of course, I found out that human perceptions of hibernation are too good to be true. Yet, I remained fascinated with the concept.
Lockdown and shelter-in-place protocols have had many of us feeling like we are in forced stasis. Yet, if you are anything like me, your life got busier rather than calmer. As we come out into the world, adopting Sabbath practices might help us return to balance.
As we come out into the world, adopting Sabbath practices might help us return to balance.
While the idea of Sabbath, also referred to as Shabbat, comes to us from Jewish roots, it can inspire people of any spiritual path. Shabbat’s origins lie in the creation myth: It’s said that after six days of creating, God ceased on the seventh day. Instead of acting, God took in creation, spending time in it just as it was—without any need to do, create, or fix.
The practice of Sabbath extends this from the Divine to us humans. “We strive for six days of the week to affect the world. Shabbat is an oasis in time where we stop to appreciate the journey of life, meditating on how far we’ve come,” explains Rabbi Daniel Bortz in his book Beneath the Surface: How to Live a Life of Purpose In Tune With Your Soul. “When Shabbat concludes, we start the new week mentally and emotionally rejuvenated, equipped to face whatever may come our way in the week ahead.”
[Also read: “From Sickness to Sabbath: Embracing Rest.”]
Reframing Restrictions Into Freedoms
I confess, when I first learned about Sabbath as a child, I felt sorry for my Jewish friends. How sad that they couldn’t cook, or drive, or spend money on Saturdays! I couldn’t have been more wrong. Luckily, my friends gently helped me shift my perspective, explaining that they willingly chose to set aside certain activities from 39 categories. (For the curious, these are outlined more fully in the Talmud.)
Like any traditional practice, modern adherents interpret the guidelines to make them relevant to changing lifestyles. For example, most of us aren’t threshing or winnowing daily, right? So we may need to translate a bit. In essence, we are asked to cease creating in favor of resting and being.
Many Jewish teachers caution us from oversimplifying these terms. “We often rest by lying on the couch watching television or by taking a vacation. But the type of rest that leads to spiritual renewal is different,” offers David A. Cooper, author of the classic Renewing Your Soul: A Guided Retreat for the Sabbath and Other Days of Rest.
According to Cooper, true Sabbath “requires quieting the mind and soul through spiritual practice, dwelling on the higher realms, and absorbing oneself in contemplation of the Divine. From this, we gain a new appreciation of our relationship with the Universe and hopefully deepen our awareness and our sense of purpose.”
Rather than viewing Sabbath as rigid rules that restrict us, we can develop practices that encourage spiritual renewal. For example, every Saturday morning until noon, I take a digital Sabbath—freedom from my phone and computer—setting aside the fear of missing out to connect with the natural world—squirrels, birds, and trees.
Many animals take time to slow down, reduce their metabolism, and conserve energy. Zoologists assure us hibernation is not merely about escaping the cold nor a complete shutdown of the body.
What might we learn from the practices of the wild ones? While it may not be practical for us to curl up in a den for months, setting aside a day each week—or a shorter scheduled Sabbath-ish time each day—can help us quiet our minds and connect to something more important than our endless to-do lists. Here are a few ideas to start with.
Breathe Like an American Black Bear
Many of us are familiar with the bear approach—eat a ton of food, line a den with leaves, then spend a few months vegged out. And yet, zoologists tell us that bears still “do” during this time—they just do … slower. For example, during hibernation, a bear takes only one to two breaths per minute!
Try it: Choose a time each day to observe your breath. Schedule it into your phone as Sabbath Time. Then, just set your timer for 10 minutes and sit still. Tune in to your inhales and exhales. Don’t try to change the speed of your breathing. Often, just the act of mindful observation will align you with an optimal breathing speed.
Connect Like an Australian Echidna
One of the Earth’s oldest surviving species, the prehistoric echidna survived while its neighbors went extinct. The Australian Academy of Science suggests, “Because the ability to lower metabolic rates meant those animals that could do so were more likely to survive, over time evolutionary processes selected for animals that were able to hibernate.”
Echidnas’ tiny faces and long noses are surrounded by a preponderance of long beige-and-black spines that camouflage them in grasses and brush—and inspire their common name: spiny anteater. And while you might think that being covered in spikes might prohibit connecting with others, the usually solo echidnas often mate in the middle of hibernation!
Try it: Set aside one afternoon a week to connect with your mate. Rather than being rushed into sexual intimacy or lovemaking, spend time relaxing together beforehand and afterward. Set aside your phones and devices in favor of side-by-side activities that can delight—like reading together in bed with a bowl of fresh, juicy berries and hot tea.
Unite Like a Box Turtle
Classified as endothermic, box turtles cannot make their own body heat. So, they rely on their environments to provide warmth. When temperatures cool, they dig deeper and deeper into the ground. Without heat, they remain awake but are very sluggish, eventually entering a state herpetologists call brumation. Like the box turtle, we can become sluggish when disconnected from Spirit. For many of us, that connection to the Divine is essential for helping create something we cannot make on our own.
Try it: Set aside one day each month to connect with God—by whatever name or concept you use to define the Divine. Create an oasis from the busyness of the working week. Engage in contemplation and reflection on your life and your connection to the Universe you live in. Meditate, pray, sing, or go forest bathing. Bask in wonder and awe that our world even exists. And offer your thanks to that which created it.
Want more on furry friends from Sarah Bowen? Read: “6 Sustainable Gardening Tips for Animal Lovers.”