Tuesday, December 4, 2012


The western sky is an extraordinary pale green shading lower to warm yellow and further down into almost orange, with dark purple trailings of cloud here and there to give it contour. Here in Chiang Mai it’s just past six oclock and time for night to fall.

Many people here have already closed the shutters or sliding metal doors on their shops and businesses and headed home for a well-deserved rest. Others, especially bars and restaurants, are just opening for business. 

It’s “well-deserved rest” that I want to talk about here, “down time”, to use another term. Several days ago I read a posting by a meditation guy about our brain’s need for down time or repose. His argument is that our brains are designed for long pauses where nothing much happens, a time to reflect and be centred, rather than engaged in active “seeking”. He’s starting from the premise that the way humans lived in the time before cities developed involved long periods when nothing much happened, and where there was no stimulus for the brain. He says if we time-machined back to that time, we’d be bored silly.

And he argues that meditation techniques were developed by the great religions precisely when humans developed cities and started living in  stimulating environments. He says we are born with the urge to seek stimulus. And in the modern era we can go on doing that 24/7. Just as the modern easy availability of sugar (another thing we are genetically programmed to want and seek out) leads many to over-indulge, so the easy availability of distraction, of things to want and seek for and obtain, leads to over-indulgence and is damaging to our health.  The article is here: http://www.wildnessandwonder.com/2011/06/downtime-for-the-brain/

I’m not sure of his science or his reasoning from the Paleolithic, but I do agree that taking a pause from the hamster wheel of running in endless circles checking Facebook and links and then Twitter then circling back around to Facebook with perhaps a stop in to check personal mail, and so on, can dull the mind and lead to a kind of self-loathing. And of course it also cuts deeply into the capacity to get any original thinking or work done. At least that’s the case for me.

A long while ago I wrote about the need to allow ourselves “buffer days”, days when we don’t work and don’t put pressure on ourselves to produce. I’d argue now that there’s an urgent need to give ourselves a holiday from the button-pushing stimulus seeking that our laptops or smart phones entice us into. There are days when I have lots to get done, and so I am not tempted into the round-robin described above. But on days when I’m at a loose end, or procrastinating about getting started on a project, I’m vulnerable to getting sucked into the whirlpool. And then an hour or two later I realise how much time has passed, and I feel a little nauseated. 

I wrote all the above two evenings ago.

Since then I have taken several breaks from the hamster wheel, and it has felt so good. The most outstanding brain rest was the long bicycle ride I went on yesterday with three guys who pedal a lot here in Chiang Mai and know good countryside routes. We ended up covering about 110 km (over 65 miles), on what was a beautiful but very hot-in-the-early-afternoon day. Whew!

I was immersed in conversations occasionally, but was mostly in a nice undemanding zone of pedalling and looking at the places I was passing by: fields of rice stubble with lean lop-eared white cattle grazing, often with an egret perched on their shoulders; hamlets and villages with shady trees and wooden houses and small village markets; clumps of tall graceful bamboo; and in the distance beautiful hills/mountains, cleanly etched on the near horizon. A perfect day, except when the heat bouncing back up off the tarmac at around 1 pm started to make me feel a little queasy.

(Perhaps I wasn’t coping as well with the heat because of our lunch. We stopped at “the pig place” as they called it, on a small road off the road to Pai. There the poeple roast/grill whole pig, one at a time, then cut it in portions and charcoal grill it a little more. Unbelievably delicious, as was the nam jiim sauce they served in it (a touch of coriander seed in it) and the som tam. Meat at midday is not recommended when there are over 50 kilometres to cover in the hot afternoon! But it was so special that it was worth the discomfort of a little queasiness an hour later.)

I cannot imagine sitting still for long periods and meditating. But moving meditation, being out in my body and centred there rather than in restless thoughts, sure seems like a good way of having brain “down time”. 

Other options, pleasurable ones, are a little less kinetic, and also wonderful: singing, drawing or making some other creation, walking, swimming... Even getting lost in a good book can still your brain’s searching.

While I was on book tour this fall I failed to take the pauses I needed, I got swept up in the buzzing to-and-fro of schedules and other people’s expectations. The one exception was when I was in St Helena for the CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference. The conference itself was intense and charged, but each morning while I was there I was able to swim lengths in a lap pool, getting up at 5.30 to swim in the calm California-scented darkness. It was healing in ways I didn’t realise at the time.

Now as I pack up for a short trip into Burma and then a flight back to Toronto for a month there (I’ll be back in Chiang Mai in mid-January), I’m imagining forward as I try to decide what to pack and what to leave, and at the same time in a small way mourning the fact that I am leaving just as I’ve found ease and restedness. 

AFTERTHOUGHT: It’s the King of Thailand’s 85th birthday today. When I went out for coffee near Chiang Mai Gate this morning, almost everyone was wearing yellow in his honour. I read on Twitter and elsewhere that many people are lined up in Bangkok to see him, or planning to watch the ceremonies on TV this morning. And on the King’s birthday the rule is that no alcohol is served, so though restaurants are open, straight bars will not be.

No comments: