ast year, Rotterdam-based design student Kirsten Spruit created a mixed media installation titled A Space for Lingering. Visitors are invited to lie down on an expansive black mattress, slip on headphones that plays resonant soundscapes, and do nothing. An accompanying film using slow textual iterations (“I feel like I did nothing today”) encouraged thoughts on passivity. Spruit reflects: “A Space For Lingering stems from a research around the feeling of restlessness, of always needing to be productive and efficient, that seems to dominate the lives of many, especially among my generation.”
Is this what rest has become? An exhibit in a gallery, as if it’s a relic of a halcyon past? Something we can do only when invited to as part of an art event? Apparently, yes. According to Claudia Hammond, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind and author of The Art of Rest: “Busy-ness has become a badge of honour. It’s become something we expect of ourselves and other people. Unfortunately, evidence shows that we do think busy people are better. Even rest has, in some ways, been commercialised. Look at the wellness movement. There’s this idea you should be doing things that are good for you.”
The result is taking its toll: we feel guilty when we rest so we don’t do it enough. Earlier this year, research revealed that Americans between the ages of 45 and 65 are more stressed today than people their age in the 1990s. The World Health Organisation has classified stress as the “health epidemic of the 21st Century”.
In Tibetan tradition, gongs are believed to be linked spiritually to the universe (Credit: Alamy)
No wonder. The pandemic has meant that we are simultaneously frenetic with worry, often housebound, and denied access to many of life’s most restorative activities. If global emergencies are showing us anything, it’s that old ways of living aren’t working – for ourselves, for other people, for the planet. We need a reassessment, not simply of our own behaviours, but of society. One of the best ways to do this may be to just stop. “[We are seeing a] gradual backlash against productivity and self-enhancement and a move towards practical boredom, introspection and opting-out,” Holly Friend, senior foresight writer at The Future Laboratory, tells BBC Culture. “With no option but to stay home and recalibrate, consumers are finding themselves experiencing a new pace of life that will impact our daily routines for years to come. This period is giving [people] a chance to get comfortable in missing out and doing nothing, activities that were once shrouded in stigma and Millennial guilt.”
The book The Art of Rest is based on a survey that asked people which activities they found most restful
Change was coming anyway. In early 2019, a survey of more than 2,200 people across the UK found that 78% of Millennials actively engage in JOMO (the joy of missing out, as opposed to FOMO, the fear of missing out), when friends cancelled drinks, or parties were shelved. In February 2020, California-based psychiatrist Dr Cameron Sepah created the concept of ‘dopamine fast’, in which we reject the bings and bongs of modern life. Instead, we should allow ourselves to feel bored or lonely, or to take pleasure in simpler, slower, more natural activities, thereby addressing compulsive behaviours that may, in contrast to the way they’re portrayed, be simply making us more unhappy.
How do we do this? Firstly, by taking care of ourselves, and within this new parameter, there are some old favourites. The Art of Rest is based on a survey which asked more than 18,000 people which 10 activities they found most restful. Number seven was bathing. Hammond’s chapter A Nice Hot Bath (which includes fun facts such as ‘a layer of bubbles prevents heat escaping’) should have us running for the tub. The launch last year of Lush’s We the Bathers campaign, with a short film exploring these intimate moments of self care, now feels like a moment of pre-pandemic intuition.
But there are other types of baths that are gaining in currency. Sound-bath sessions using gongs or Tibetan singing bowls have been named as one of 2020’s Conde Nast Traveller’s biggest wellness trends. Once found principally at New Age retreats, their acolytes today include high-profile figures such as Robert Downey Jr and Charlize Theron. But behind the glossy celebrity patronage lies a long history. For more than 40,000 years, aboriginal tribes used the didgeridoo in similar ways. In the Tibetan spiritual tradition, gongs are believed to have deep spiritual links with the nature of the cosmos.
In her book The Art of Rest author Claudia Hammond explores the nature of relaxation (Credit: Canongate)
Sound healers say the vibrations can relax brainwave patterns, lower heart rate, reduce stress and pain and relieve anxiety. “I came to realise that the deep meditative states I’d achieve through the disciplined practice of medication were achieved much more quickly and effortlessly through sound baths,” reflects Tamara Klien, a sound meditation practitioner. “And I love how they feel. There’s a very particular bodily sensation, which is essentially the body coming into a process of healing itself.” Meanwhile, other Eastern philosophies of immersion continue to guide frazzled Western minds back to their core.
Last year, the Woodland Trust suggested forest bathing should be included among non-medical therapies recommended by GPs. Developed in the 1980s in Japan, where it is known as shinrin-yoku, forest baths are not simply walks in the park. “People initially think they’ve been doing this all their lives,” Gary Evans, founder of the Forest Bathing Institute, told the Observer. “But it might be a brisk walk, or you might be worrying about where the dog has got to. A better way to frame forest bathing is mindful time spent under the canopy of trees for health and wellbeing purposes.”
None of this comes as a surprise to Hammond, in whose book taking time in nature comes second, after reading. “Walking through nature puts things into perspective and makes us think about how we’re a tiny part of the bigger world,” she reflects. She interviewed nature writer Richard Mabey, who suffered from depression, and who found sustenance in nature. He told her: “You would gaze at a patch of saltmarsh for 10 minutes and it would be completely different at the end of that time, from what it was before. It was that which most profoundly affected me – to be part of a living system.”
Rest gives us time to re-centre ourselves, something we’ve lost the ability to do during recent years – Holly Friend
We’ve forgotten all the good things that rest can bring us, in addition to better physical and mental health. “Rest gives us time to re-centre ourselves, something we’ve lost the ability to do during recent years,” says Friend. “The relentless push towards self-optimisation has distracted us from the benefits of relaxation, pleasure and even boredom, states that have proven to make us more productive.” Far from being suspicious of dead time, we should be embracing it. “Unfilled moments, moments when you don’t have entertainment, or moments when you don’t have companionship, may actually spawn creativity,” says emotion historian Susan J Matt.
Other philosophers are foreseeing a world in which one of the best ways to rest is to help society at large. In Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, women’s rights activist Adrienne Maree Brown aims to reframe ethical and activist behaviours as personal liberation. Meanwhile, Cambridge philosopher and existentialist Sandy Grant foresees a pleasure economy, in which giving things up is actually – fun. “Instead of enjoying cars others cannot afford, holidays others cannot take, what if I decline enjoyments that exploit or hurt others?”
Forest bathing was developed in the 1980s in Japan, where it’s known as shinrin-yoku (Credit: Alamy)
If that doesn’t take the shine off empty proactivity and aspiration, nothing can. Perhaps because of this, experts are starting to reframe rest as the ultimate act of rebellion. Whether it’s forest baths, gong baths or bath baths, it’s a way of stepping off the hamster wheel. In 2018, Georgina Johnson’s mini-manifesto Slow Fashion to Save Minds called on readers to consider the true cost of the ways, often artificially accelerated, in which they lived and worked. Her new book The Slow Grind looks at sustainability from the perspectives of mental health, fashion, race, education, social justice and climate change and asks how we can build back differently.
Speed may be one of the first things to ditch. “Enjoyment and rest are increasingly becoming political acts against the mechanism of current systems,” says Friend. “In the past decade, leisure has become entangled with guilt, as the fetishisation of business has driven an expectation that even free time should be spent refining ourselves physically and intellectually. But with isolation and solitude rapidly becoming the new normal, rest becomes an easy, enjoyable practice of resistance to current systems.” Absolutely, says Bridget Luff, movement and meditation guide. “Slowing down allows us perspective – and it is the antithesis of what western society dictates.”
“A nap, meditation or just a pause without a screen, stepping out of the web of sales, stories and dictums we’re constantly fed, allows us to be in a more truthful reality,” she adds. “Rest is an act of quiet rebellion, allowing us into new ways of being and seeing the world.”
Resting can be a form of ‘pleasure activism’ according to author Adrienne Maree Brown. (Credit: Getty Images)
Holly Friend adds: “Taking a step back, pausing, and re-evaluating the stressors of our lives is necessary to achieving skills that we need more than ever – such as resilience. Amid a year that has blindsided us, we have come to realize that as humans we need to be ready to adapt and shift priorities at a moment’s notice. Rest is becoming integral to this. In order to deal with such extremities of the world, we need to feel calm, collected and focused.” The next time you want to take forty winks and friends and family tut disapprovingly? Just tell them you’re rebelling.