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The Importance of the Siesta

It is tempting to pretend that the body has no particular claim on us – and to overlook how much it controls who we can be, what we can achieve and how we’re able to think.

We may, for example, mistakenly imagine that the ideas circulating in our minds must always be a product of reason, and rest upon intellectual foundations assembled from sober arguments. The way we feel about politics, our assessment of our professional futures, our view of holidays or the manners of our children can appear to have formed in our minds on the basis of rational induction alone. But in truth, much of what is in consciousness is merely the shadow and puppet play of the body’s inclinations, playing itself out in the theater of the mind. A passing mood of intense optimism may in the end come down not to our thorough or realistic evaluation of the prospects for humanity, but to the ingestion of 250ml of orange juice; while an equally strong mood of despair and fury may be founded not on genuine grievance, but on a collapse in blood sodium levels.

We are especially inclined to forget the extent to which what we think has been coloured by how much we have slept. It is well understood by wise parents that the very young should only go for so long without a nap. After baby has spent a pleasant morning, after friends have come around and brought presents and made animated faces, after there has been some cake and some cuddles, after there have been a lot of bright lights and perhaps some songs too, enough is enough. Unless some urgent preventive measures are taken, baby will start to look stern and then burst into tears and the experienced parent knows that nothing is particularly wrong (though the baby may by now be wailing): it is just time for a nap. The brain needs to process, digest and divide up the welter of experiences that have been ingested, and so the curtains are drawn, baby is laid down next to the soft toys and soon it is asleep and calm descends. Everyone knows that life is going to be a lot more manageable again in an hour.  

Sadly, we exercise no such caution with ourselves. We treat our brains as if they were robust computers rather than delicate organs housed within a fickle animal that must carefully be soothed, watered, fed and put to rest. We schedule a week in which we will see friends every night, in which we’ll do 12 meetings (three of them requiring a lot of preparation), where we’ll make a quick overnight dash to another country on the Wednesday, where we’ll watch three films, read 14 newspapers, change six pairs of sheets, have five heavily meals after 8pm and drink 30 coffees – and then we lament that our ideas feel a bit scrambled and that we are close to mental collapse. We refuse to take seriously how much of our vulnerable babyhood is left inside our adult selves – and therefore, how much care we must take of our bodies if the mind is to have any chance of retaining a hold on sanity. What register as anxiety, ill-temper and sadness are typically not real phenomena, but symptoms of our bodies’ enraged pleas for us to put them to bed.

Hubristically, we assume that most of daylight hours can sensibly be devoted to work without any ensuing cost or penalty. But the body insists otherwise. Unless we are too stubborn to hear it, it will always call out – at around three in the afternoon, in that widely-known but rarely mentioned blank zone where, in organisations and offices around the world, despite a patina of activity, nothing of value has ever been thought or done – to be lain down somewhere on a bed, divan, sofa, corner armchair, field or hayloft and left to itself for twenty minutes.

The sophistication of any civilisation could be measured via a people’s readiness to accept – whatever the inconvenience – a primary role for the siesta and the extent to which it can build in measures to accommodate it in its architecture, social routines and works of art.

Joaquín Sorolla, La Siesta, 1911

The siesta symbolises a mature recognition of our fleshly reality and of the limits set by our biochemical makeup to our ability to think and act well. We are not being lazy, we’re acknowledging that we are not sole masters of our house and that if we are to permit the best of ourselves to emerge, we have to do justice to our stifled yawns.

A civilisation that doesn’t accept a role for siestas is also likely to be one that can’t accept a place for dying or more generally cannot come to terms with the limits placed on human endeavour by biological reality. It is a civilisation that hasn’t squared up to its own nature.

When we have learnt how to stop and take a nap, we are also likely to have grasped that we are mortal – and must therefore at all times be kind enough to ourselves and others to pay heed to the wisdom of exhaustion.

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