Music suggestion: Lotus, R.E.M.
Drink suggestion: Lemon balm tea (considered good for stress relief)
I’m a napper. I need them and I don’t mean hyperbrief power naps. I love lazy uninterrupted afternoon snoozes, best served immediately post lunch. If an hour is too long, 15 minutes is too short. Your dark bedroom is too insular, the public park too exposed. No place is better than the living room sofa, so soft and familiar, yet lumpy enough to discourage a slumber overdose. After 30 years of professional life and creative napping “sur place” I have become adept at the Herman Miller Aeron siesta as well, tucked into some discrete corner of my office that offers the fewest views from curious passers-by. My various great assistants over the years, and I have been blessed with the absolute best, knew not to knock between 1:00 and 2:00. Bill is busy.
Today was a perfect nap day. My liver cried uncle after a weekend of wine infusion and a restorative late Sunday afternoon kip was self-prescribed. Friday night started mid-day with a guided afternoon tour of two premier Provence wineries. Along for the outing was my sister Cathy, our expert guide, and a couple from New York who on this warm day shared our preference for dark, cool wine cellars to the white hot Provence sun. The pours were generous and at some point I felt inspired to prepare dinner for our new friends, just married and honeymooning in Europe. I recall plenty of newlywed toasts, a long meal, great conversation and lots of wine. Today there was a Sunday foire aux vins with dozens of the Provence’s best vignobles pouring their top vintages along Aix’s central promenade, Cours Mirabeau. Three euros bought a commemorative glass and all the grape one can endure on a shimmering summer afternoon, strolling under the esplanade’s leafy sycamore trees, fanned by an easy Mediterranean breeze. I found the shade-tree-and-breeze setting particularly inspiring for an afternoon indulgence, and consequent nap. Now I write.
Thich Nhat Hanh argues that naps aren’t particularly restive; one’s mind isn’t calm and the body is twisting and turning. What does he know? Okay, so he may be considered one of the greatest Buddhist teachers of our time, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, heralded champion of rights for post-war Vietnamese peasants, best-selling author on engaged Buddhism and meditation (I could go on and on and on), but couch surfer? Unlikely. Send him to the old Magill family farm for one of our traditional Thanksgiving-feast-then-college-football-afternoons and he’ll be claiming first dibs on one of the precious well-worn sofas for a late day nap; at least that’s my bet.
I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic The Miracle of Mindfulness for tips on meditation. I am by nature a low stress person, but even the most zen amongst us thump into the occasional pothole. My much beloved afternoon nap can help recharge the mental battery, but I will concede to Master Hanh on this point: the nap lift decays quickly in the face of a persistent source of tension. Sometimes what we really need is a lower idle rate.
There is no shortage of stresses nipping at the heels for many of us this summer. Beyond the baseline concerns over parents and children and how the local ball team is playing, the job front is moving from weak to weaker, the outlooks for our retirement accounts are slipping from a concern to anxiety, and our leaders, both political and professional, have become pathetically ineffective and frighteningly disinterested in shielding us from “the worst that can happen.”
If you are unfamiliar with but curious about mediation, like me, here are a few simple steps from The Miracle of Mindfulness:
- Sit upright, either in the lotus or half-lotus position (feet placed on opposing thighs), or Japanese position (knees bent and resting on their two legs). Use pillows as necessary to be comfortable and stable.
- Keep your back straight and your head and neck aligned with your spinal column.
- Focus your eyes one to two yards ahead of you and maintain a half smile, which will allow the facial muscles to relax.
- Concentrate on your breathing. Take in a slow long breath, then let out all of the breath from your lungs deeply. Repeat and concentrate on the breaths, being quiet with and mindful of each one.
- Place your left hand palm-side up in your right palm and let all of your muscles relax. “Be like the water-plants which flow with the current, while beneath the surface the riverbed remains motionless.” Another image he mentions as useful is a pebble tossed into a river, falling slowly to the bottom.
- For beginners, you may want to limit yourself in this position to 20-30 minutes.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that within 15 minutes one should be able to attain a deep quiet if focused on watching one’s breath, keeping the posture, and letting everything else go. He adds that relaxation from meditation is simply the point of departure for a deeper tranquility and a clearer mind.
I realize that with age the practices that allow an effective charge and discharge, both physically and mentally, must evolve. Running has been my main workout for the past 30 years and an excellent way to clear the head. But these 53 year-old knees are now imploring me to adopt a lower impact workout like yoga, and my early experiments with meditation have been promising for the stress relief. If any of you have other suggestions to improve mental and physical health please share them. I remain open to all. Just don’t suggest I give up my nap.
On a completely different note, you may find this recent David Brooks column in the NY Times interesting. He writes about the lifestyle and priorities of septuagenarian Philip Leakey (yes, those Leakeys) and his wife Katy, driven by what Brooks calls a “compulsive curiosity.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/opinion/brooks-the-question-driven-life.html?_r=1&hp