Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Schprock Rest Cure (Results May Vary)

A while ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a novel set in a Swiss alpine sanatorium not long before the Great War began. The book has its share of symbolism, and the sanatorium is meant to be a microcosm of the world, and there are dense passages about the nature of time and motion and politics and religion and the human "organism" that are very deep. However, I would like for moment to skip all that literary stuff to simply comment on sanatorium life and how I wish I could be a patient in one.

First off, there are no sanatoriums like the one in the book anymore, and the described "rest cures" have long been proven ineffective, whether for tuberculosis or for anything else (some rest cures for the mentally ill weren't even restful). In the book, each patient has his own room with a balcony, and each balcony has a special lounge chair. Several times a day, in between five enormous meals and scheduled periods of light walking exercise, the patients must rest in these lounge chairs during all weathers. Something about the pure air and the higher elevation combined with rest was supposed to have a curative effect. In cold weather, the patients use special blankets and fur-lined sleeping bags. In extreme cases, people are confined to their beds for weeks at a time. The director of the sanatorium, a character named Dr. Behrens, is a big, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met type who tells the patients what to do with an authority that none question.

Of course, before reading this book I had already been aware of sanatoriums. I've read a couple of Somerset Maugham stories that take place in a sanatorium (Maugham actually had TB and spent time in one). In the movie Alfie, the Michael Caine character found himself in a sanatorium for a time. I believe Moe of The Three Stooges had a nervous breakdown and was sent away to a sanatorium (not the real life Moe, but the Moe in the stories). And there have been times of great stress and anguish in my life when I would have liked nothing better than to find myself wheeled out onto a daffodil-sprinkled lawn by a pretty Swiss nurse, a blanket spread over me, to simply sit and contemplate the lovely mountain scenery while sipping tea.

Of the sanatorium stories I've read, most of the patients are comfortable, ambulatory, and enjoy quite a social life. As their primary mission is to rest and get better, this leaves them plenty of time for card games, reading, intrigues, friendships, stimulating conversation, and so on. Their health is monitored and they are cared for. They are removed from the world and are, quite frankly, pampered. And, yes, although I am not proud to say it, that appeals to me.

As I mentioned, the kind of sanatorium I crave does not exist anymore, and even if one did exist, I wouldn't be able to afford to stay in it. They were expensive. But I do find the sanatorium life I read about attractive because of the promise of stress relief, the structured setting, the society of likeminded people, and the idea that taking it easy and following simple instructions like eating as much good food as you can, taking pleasant strolls and simply resting is somehow healthy and productive . . . as opposed to the notion that cloistering yourself like that might be interpreted as checking out of life or really just loafing around.

So I wondered, could ask my own inner Dr. Behrens to work up a daily rest cure, one that I could fit into my life, a systematic way of achieving a little serenity, to unplug a little? After all, I do have to work and pay bills and be responsible. I can't book a cruise or go on a retreat for the rest of my life. In fact, I have been on cruises and retreats and have found myself itchy after a few days to get back to the stress and responsibilities from which I fled.

Here is what I try to do every day:

1. Ride a bike for at least sixty minutes.

2. Take a hot shower.

3. Meditate for twenty minutes.

Nothing very elaborate or mysterious, but I wind up feeling as relaxed as an overcooked piece of linguine on a hot July day. Now, if I may jump to number three for a second, when I say "meditate," I am referring to a device I bought a few years back called Resperate, a product billed as a treatment for reducing blood pressure. For this you need to wear headphones and clip a sensor belt around your middle torso to monitor your breaths. It's basically breathing to music, music programmed to slow your respiration down as you follow it. Somehow breathing slower dilates your blood vessels, which in turn lowers your blood pressure. Not even the manufacturer completely understands why it works. Anyways, I call it "meditation made easy" because you're just following music, not focusing on a candle flame or a mantra or any of the other things that quickly defeat my tiny attention span. After some practice, I've found I can do three breaths per minute, which is really quite slow and something you necessarily have to concentrate on doing.

The cycling part isn't tough either because I commute to work by bike anyways. In the evenings, I expand my route home to 15 to 18 miles (I live only five miles from the office). It's important to note that I like cycling, it's not a chore, and I mostly find the route home pleasant despite the rush hour traffic. There are a few hills along the way to get my heart rate up and a few homicidal drivers to elevate my heart rate even higher. The point is, the aerobic activity works out a lot of the daily stress build-up and that, followed by a hot shower, primes me very nicely for meditation.

There are, of course, other things that I find restful which you can consider adjuncts to the rest cure, such as performing mindless chores while listening to an audiobook. Repetitive activities like yard work, dish washing, folding laundry and snow shoveling are especially conducive. Five-minute catnaps are also good. But really, for me, it all boils down to the three Bs: bike, bathe and breathe. And that, my friends, is how I will live to be 120.