Religions have long known that getting away from it all is good for the mind, body and spiritKristen Lucken, Brandeis University
Summer vacations are coming to an end – though not everyone took one.
Under federal law, U.S. companies aren’t required to offer a single paid vacation day, compared to the at least 20 required in the European Union. About 1 in 4 U.S. workers don’t receive any, and even among those who do, few make full use of them. More than half leave at least some vacation days untouched, and almost 1 in 5 say they feel guilty leaving the office, according to a 2019 survey by Priceline.
Americans in lower income brackets are less likely to get away on vacation – a particular concern this summer, with food and gas prices high.
This no-break culture has real consequences for physical, mental and spiritual health. A 2014 Gallup poll found that taking regular vacations with family and friends is linked to a higher sense of well-being, regardless of one’s income. Activities that lead to an improved sense of well-being are positively associated with improved health and productivity.
The importance of getting away from it all isn’t just backed up by contemporary research, though. As a scholar who studies the sociology of religion, I know that religious practices have long emphasized rest and contemplation, which not only improve a person’s mental and physical health, but can also boost a sense of spiritual well-being. And escaping the busyness of everyday life does not have to drain one’s wallet.
Faith, contemplation and rest
The Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam view a day of rest each week as a sacred right and responsibility of believers. The traditional Jewish Shabbat offers a 24-hour period beginning at sundown on Friday when the busyness of everyday life halts. Participants gather to worship, share a meal, study and pray.
Similarly, practicing Muslims celebrate their holy day on Fridays. This is a time when Muslims step away from work to attend a midday jumah, a prayer service at a local mosque, where imams offer sermons on a range of intellectual, spiritual and practical topics and lead congregations in prayer.
Although attendance numbers are declining, many Christians observe the holy Sabbath on Sundays through church attendance, communal worship, music and the sharing of the Eucharist, when Christians consecrate and consume bread and wine representing the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Christian Sabbath represents a time to rest, pray, worship and spend time with family.
Branches of Islam, Christianity and Judaism additionally call for regular times of prayer and contemplation as part of daily and yearly cycles. In the Islamic tradition, stopping to pray throughout the day represents one of Islam’s five pillars of faith.
Through the practice of meditation, religious traditions quiet the senses to achieve a mindset of rest that they believe brings about heightened consciousness. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains teach the concept of dhyana, which generally translates to “contemplation.”
Through yoga, meditation and other contemplative practices, practitioners can achieve a state of meditative consciousness and self-awareness that can lead to better mental, physical and spiritual health.
Quieting the mind
Religions emphasize the need for rest and quiet reflection so our overcluttered minds can focus on prayer and other contemplative practices. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul discusses how cultivating the “fruit of the spirit” through prayer and contemplation moves us toward patience and away from egocentrism.
Buddhists believe that quieting the mind through meditation can help people recognize that their feelings, perceptions, worldviews and even the self are impermanent features of life that can cause suffering. It can also help people contemplate their connectedness to the world around them.
Rest and contemplation help connect religious people with the deeper sources of meaning they seek to cultivate through scriptural study, meditation and prayer. As the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton explains in his 1948 autobiographical book “The Seven Storey Mountain,” contemplation is a time of rest, the suspension of activity and a “withdrawal into the mysterious interior solitude in which the soul is absorbed in the immense and fruitful silence of God.”
Health benefits of rest and meditation
Medical science has become religion’s unexpected partner in confirming the benefits generated by these religious practices.
Researchers have found an association between downtime, learning and creativity. Sleep, nature walks and exercise offer a number of life-enhancing benefits, including improved memory, productivity and physical health. Recent advances in neuroimaging technologies have allowed researchers to observe brain changes during times of intense prayer, yoga and mindfulness meditation. Scientific evidence suggests that engaging in these practices may lead to improved health and well-being.
A broad range of clinical studies note that regular meditation can physically alter the brain and how it responds to the world. For instance, these practices have been found to transform the brain’s neural pathways and create new neurological networks that can lead to improved health and well-being.
Research on the practices of Japanese and Chinese Buddhist monks reveals benefits for physical and mental health. Furthermore, active meditations, such as yoga, qi gong and tai chi, are found to increase a sense of well-being through the regulation of mood and the reduction in anxiety and depression.
If you can’t break away from work this summer, you can still improve your physical, mental and spiritual health by taking time to rest, exercise, sleep, meditate or pray. Think of these practices as mini “staycations” that allow us to vacate our minds of stress and worry while improving our well-being.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 23, 2021.