In his book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Daily Lives, Wayne Muller tells a story about the nuns at the Abbey of the Mississippi.
Here’s the basic
The nuns managed a piece of land on which cattle roamed free. A few wild herbs grew on the land. Sister Gilchrist, one of the nuns, would often pick the herbs and add them to the meals she cooked for the other nuns.
The sisters engaged a consultant to advise them how to use the animals and land more efficiently and sustainably. The consultant advised them to change the grazing habits of their cattle.
Instead of allowing the cattle to roam free, they penned the cattle into a smaller area to thoroughly graze and fertilize a small patch of land, allowing the remainder of the field to lie fallow.
After a period of time, they penned the cattle into a new area. They repeated this process, rotating the area on which the cattle grazed.
After two years of this process, Sister Gilchrist went out one day to pick her wild herbs.
Muller describes what happened next:
To her astonishment, she found not only the few herbs she was familiar with, but over a dozen new ones that had miraculously appeared, apparently out of nowhere. Several new grasses had germinated as well, grasses that, when the cows began to graze on them, proved so nourishing that the sister were able to stop supplementing the cows’ diet with corn.
What Blew My Mind
Here’s the thing that blew my mind: the sisters at the abbey did not plant any new seeds for herbs or for grass.
They did not plant any seeds at all.
The seeds for these new grasses and herbs had been laying dormant in the earth. They not previously had the chance to grow because the cows grazed everywhere all the time, trampling the earth and preventing growth.
Simply by allowing the sections of the field to fully rest, the seeds deep within the earth finally sprouted, with varieties of grass and herbs that had never grown there before.
As Muller explains,
When the land and the seeds were given a necessary sabbath, the earth could then, in its own time, reveal the breathtaking wonders of which it was naturally and easily capable.
5 Lessons I Am Taking From This
Cattle and farming are not my area of expertise. But this story blew my mind for the application to my own life, and possibly to yours. Here’s what I take from this.
(1) Direct Your Focus
First, it speaks to the power of focusing on one idea at a time, while allowing the others to rest.
I tend to have a lot of ideas. I want to bring them all to form at once. I’ve gotten myself stuck numerous times trying to go down two paths, trying to run one business while pivoting it into another. It resulted in burnout and breakdowns, often leaving me further away from what I wanted than when I started.
This is a reminder that focusing on one part of the “field” at a time — one idea, one business — while the others rest leads to better results.
Second, it reinforces the value of focusing on one task at a time rather than multi-tasking. Many high achievers pride themselves on their ability to multi-task. Most job descriptions demand this “skill” from applicants. Multi-tasking is a myth. Focusing on one thing at a time is always more productive.
(3) Let Nature Take It’s Course
Third, this reinforces that nature knows what she is doing.
I’ve worked with many coaches and mentors who like to use the farming analogy to goal-setting, planning, and sales. Some of my feminine wisdom teachers talk about planting seeds and cultivating my garden. In the real estate world, coaches instruct agents to “farm” their territory: spread your seeds everywhere and work the land.
As a city girl, I’ve never quite wrapped my head around the farming metaphors. My thumbs are not green. Case in point: they say you can’t kill bamboo. I’ve done it.
This story illuminates for me something I’ve noticed in my time in Panama: mother nature has got this covered. We don’t always need to plant seeds and work the farm. All we need to do is stay out of the way and stop trampling over the natural order of things.
Fourtht, this story reinforces the value and importance of rest. This, of course, is (likely) Mullers’ main reason for including this story. Sabbath is a book about rest (although, secretly, it’s also a book about productivity and marketing, and cultivating deeper relationships, but that’s for another time).
This is so crucial it warrants repeating:
The seeds for the new herbs and grasses were laying dormant in the earth the entire time. They emerged only after the land rested sufficiently.
Without proper rest, we cannot produce. We cannot be productive. Without rest, nothing flourishes.
(5) Stay Open
Finally, there’s a lesson here about staying open to what wants to emerge.
My outcome in coming to Panama was to engage in a period of much-needed rest, to embrace my winter so that I can restore and harness the energy to embark on a new phase of my work.
While I’ve been focused on the ideas and projects that I’ve been consciously seeding for several years, I hadn’t considered that the possibility that new flowers might emerge from seeds that have been dormant within me.
The New Questions I’m Asking
All thoughts and ideas spring from questions. I learned from Tony Robbins that if you want better results, you’ve got to ask better questions.
This story leads me to ask some new questions:
What seeds are laying dormant within me that I don’t even know about? Are there seeds that would provide even more sustenance and nourishment to myself and others if allowed to emerge and grow?
What might emerge if I allow my mind and body — the generator and incubator of the dream and idea seeds — to truly rest?
What if the challenges and struggles I face in my work are not signs of “resistance” or fear, but simply signs that we aren’t fully rested?
What are “the breathtaking wonders of which [I am] naturally and easily capable?”
I invite you to consider these questions too.
Maybe, like the earth, we are capable of giving and producing more, with greater ease, if we only allow ourselves sufficient and thorough rest.
Photo: Horses grazing on the side of the road in Santa Catalina, Panama. January 2019.