In an utterly compelling and engaging book, “The Art of Rest”, British author, occasional TV presenter, and frequent radio presenter with the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4, Claudia Hammond, takes head on, the one elephant in the room which has been singularly responsible in stymying creativity and exacerbating stress levels in the modern contemporary professional world. The hustle and bustle of everyday life, the perennial rat race, not just leaves a greater part of the populace disillusioned, exhausted and unhealthy, but also takes away the critical aesthetics of contentment and fulfilment from the very lexicon of life. At the heart of the book lies the “Rest Test.” The Rest Test represents a survey involving 18,000 participants spread across 135 jurisdictions. The participants provided their own choice of activity that each one considered to be the most restful. “The Art of Rest” dissects the top 10 activities (in reverse order) that were considered to be most restful by the participants. So, without further ado, here goes a concise review of the top 10 activities that participants in the aforementioned study deemed to be restful. With an avowed objective of not depriving readers of Ms. Hammond’s unique and lovely work, I am providing a mere sneak-peek into each activity:
It is not surprising at all to see an ancient Buddhist technique find itself in the list of activities deemed to be most restful. As Ms. Hammond informs her readers, ‘The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness” defines the practice as “the skill of thinking you’re doing something while you are doing nothing.” This Tantric relaxation methodology perfected by experts such as Jon Kabat-Zinn has almost discarded its avatar of a noun to become a ‘hot’ verb. From Corporate Boardrooms to Constituencies of Ministers, mindfulness is the order of the day. While there is no doubting its efficacy in so far as stillness of a mischievous mind is concerned, as Ms. Hammond warns her readers, this is not for everyone, and aspirants should be careful and convinced about the authenticity of Mindfulness courses and the experience of the teachers.
9. Watching TV
Yes! You read that right! Poleaxed? If yes, we are not done yet. The ‘Idiot Box’ that has been at the receiving end of so many recriminations and reviles might not be that insidious an influence after all. In a study that has now attained legendary proportions, and has also been encapsulated in stupendous detail in the best seller “Flow”, Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered, amongst others, that people declared that watching TV was more relaxing than playing sport or even going to clubs. But as Ms. Hammond illustrates, TV viewing is not immune to the rule that anything done in excess is dangerous. While you can indulge in a nostalgic delight dished out by a Big Bang Theory or 2 ½ Men, (the Charlie Sheen version only), once in a way, ensure that you do not binge watch for more than five hours a day, since a Japanese study found in 2016 that if people exceeded 5 hours of TV watching a day, their risk of dying from pulmonary embolism doubled! Correlation and causation notwithstanding, it pays to be safe. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the telly, except on those occasions when there is a live telecast of a cricket match, which unfortunately is almost every day!
Who on earth would have thought that a mind which impudently wanders off in the middle of a conference to mull about dalliance with damsels and duels with demons would constitute an exercise in restfulness! Not until one read Ms. Hammond at least. She brings to our attention a complicated method named Descriptive Experience Sampling which is used to analyse daydreaming and its patterns. The psychologist Russell Hulbert identifies five elements that creep into the wanderings of the mind: visual imagery, inner speech, feelings, sensory awareness, and unsymbolized thought. The brain as Ms. Hammond explains even when in a state of rest is extremely busy with its hardwired circuitry as illustrated by the pioneering neuroscientist Marcus Raichle. If the word daydreaming sounds too very prosaic then how about ‘mind wandering?’ Left to its own contrivance, this mind wandering focuses on the future. As Ms. Hammond illustrates once a future event actually occurs, this mind wandering ensures an element of preparedness in the dreamer.
7. A Nice Hot Bath
Even though the merit of a good bath has been extolled since Roman times, I will give this a go since yours truly has to be contended only with a walk-in shower! Watch out for the name Amou Haji.
6. A Good Walk
The virtues of walking have been explored, evaluated and expounded at length. The therapeutic benefits of a peripatetic lifestyle have been captured in reams that would take more than a lifetime to absorb. Some of the inveterate walkers are immortal geniuses such as Henry David Thoreau, Soren Kierkegaard, William Wordsworth, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle etc. They have all declared an invigorating walk to be an uncompromising facet of their life. However, the most absorbing aspect of this Chapter is the author’s own experience hiking through the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile to view the three vast granite spires. These are the spires after which the park itself takes its name. Ms. Hammond’s agony and ecstasy during the hike itself and the transformation the experience ushers in her makes for some remarkable reading.
5. Doing Nothing in Particular
This is the most peculiar, yet most obvious choice for activities epitomizing rest. Hence it is a surprise that is occupies only the fifth, and not a higher place. For a bewildered soul, the answer lies in the very quandary. In a world where a premium is placed on sleeplessness, workaholism and accumulation of flying miles (at least before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic), doing nothing in particular can seem to be the most difficult act. I thought I wouldn’t do anything for a fixed period of 2 hours post lunch this noon. An hour and 25 minutes after consuming my food, here I am furiously typing away at my laptop eager to complete this review and tag Ms. Hammond on Twitter! This Chapter is a perfect complement to Jennifer Odell’s brilliant book, “How to do nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” But as Ms. Hammond clarifies doing nothing does not mean sitting in a statuesque fashion and glancing at the wall in front. This refers to consigning the taken for granted hustle and bustle to the confines of neglection and doing something that will accord relaxation.
4. Listening to Music
An act which resonates with universal acceptance, listening to music bags the 4th place in the survey on most restful activities. Ms. Hammond illustrates in detail why. Extensive research has been performed on the myriad ways in which music soothes and mellows a restless mind – and head. For instance, mothers started playing Mozart to babies after a research waxed eloquent on the positive impact of listening to Mozart on infants. Even though there was skepticism in terms of correlation and causality, there is no disputing or doubting the alleviating effect music can have. Yet another study conducted on Finnish teenagers revealed that music at once made them feel relaxed and also instilled in them energy. I personally play an advertising jingle on loop whenever I hit the sack.
3. I want to be Alone
“Me Time” has to be arguably one of most frequently employed words of late. A need to extricate oneself from the claustrophobic grip of a mad, perpetual motion machine that is the everyday rat race has spurred people to seek solitude. A solitude that is quite different from loneliness. Ms. Hammond educates her readers about empirical evidence that unearthed the startling fact that a study of eighteen-to-twenty-five-year olds in the USA revealed that spending time alone was associated with greater creativity. However, Ms. Hammond also warns her readers of the peril of getting into a rut of loneliness as was illustrated in great detail by great figures such as Petrarch, Montaigne and Wordsworth.
2. Spending Time in Nature
In sharp contradistinction to walking, spending time in nature refers to getting oneself ‘immersed’ in nature. Ms. Hammond illustrates this fact beautifully with reference to the Great Fen Conservation Project which is currently one of the largest restoration projects of its type in Europe where a barren landscape is being restored and transformed for the benefit both of wildlife and of people. With an ornithologist for a father (and an avid gardening enthusiast herself), Ms. Hammond undoubtedly possesses the credentials to hold forth on the benefits of being enveloped amidst nature. This Chapter has one of the most poignant passages in the book. Ms. Hammond explains the ‘overview effect’, (the impact which a view of earth from outers pace can have on people) as elucidated by Annahita Nezami. The intense feeling that almost overwhelms an astronaut not just makes us realise our infinitesimal place on the Planet but also makes us cherish the same. Remember “The Pale Blue Dot?”
An inveterate bibliophile myself, this finding warmed the very cockles of my heart. The participants in the Rest Test overwhelmingly voted “reading” as the most restful activity of all. I can unequivocally and wholeheartedly vouch for the same. Irrespective of the genre, a book paradoxically keeps me both rooted at a spot for hours on end, while at the same time transporting me across continents separated by mountains that are unscalable and oceans that are unnavigable. Whether it is a Carl Sagan or a Virginia Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald or Daniel Kahneman, I am an armchair Alexander Humboldt measuring the world from the confines of my settee. Digest this: “A poll of 5,000 people living in Britain found that 38 percent of those who watched TV in bed said they sleep poorly most nights, while 39 percent of those who read before they go to sleep said they sleep very well.” That, ladies and gentlemen, should seal any debate!
“The Art of Rest”, is persuasive, provocative and poignant. An essential read in today’s tumult and turbulence caused by a pandemic and exacerbated by politics.
(The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond is published by Canongate Books and will be released on the 20th of October 2020.)