Lost art of lying down

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By 2017-03-18

with R.S. Karunaratne

At dinner one night, Chauncey M. Depew joined a small group of friends who were in the midst of an animated discussion.

"Oh, Mr Depew!" exclaimed one of the ladies, "you're just in time to settle an argument. What is the most beautiful thing in the world?"

"A beautiful woman," replied the gallant Depew, without batting an eyelid. But his companion seemed shocked at his levity. "I contend," she said seriously, "that sleep is the most beautiful."

"Well," said Depew, thoughtfully, "next to a beautiful woman, sleep is!"

Flat position

When we lie down or sleep, we get into a flat position. We can do so in bed, on a mat or sofa with or without a pillow in order to get some rest. However, in modern times the art of sleep or repose is very much under assault. With the advent of smart phones and similar gadgets we are constantly disturbed by the outside world. Some people ruin their sleep by exposing their retinas to the bright blue light of mobile phone screens just before bedtime. The first thing they do in the morning is to reach over to their mobile phones and check the messages that have arrived overnight.

The value of sleep cannot be underestimated. As Heraclitus said, the waking has one common world, but the sleeping turns aside each into a world of his own. There is perhaps, no solitary sensation so exquisite as that of slumbering on the grass or hay, shaded from the hot sun by a tree, with the consciousness of a fresh light air running through the wide atmosphere and the sky stretching far overhead upon all sides. Such a sleep can be idyllic, but most of us are not fortunate enough to sleep in open areas with sky as the roof.

The celebrated Chinese author Lin Yutang said, "It is amazing how few people are conscious of the importance of the art of lying in bed." He said our senses are the keenest in that moment and added that "all good music should be listened to in the lying condition." Before the advent of the radio, television and mobile phones, most people used to go to bed with a book. They would read until they fall asleep. Even Napoleon Bonaparte who built an empire thought sleep was something beautiful. For him it was a luxury. He said he would not exchange sleep for all the thrones in the world.

Roman couch

From ancient times people have designed various items of furniture for lying down. "Klinai" was a legendary Roman couch made from wood or stone. The rough surface was covered with a cloth. For the Romans it was a comfortable piece of furniture for lying down, munching grapes, drinking wine or to exchanging philosophical views. The couch was also a meeting place for potential lovers.

With the passage of time, "Klinai" was replaced by the divan. However, the divan meant different things to different people. A Turkish divan was just a mat on the floor. The divan in a French boudoir was an upholstered bench decorated with tassels. In certain other countries, a divan was a row of chairs clustered around a raised platform. Today a divan is a bed with a thick base and a mattress or it can be a long low soft seat without a back or arms.

With all the comfortable beds, sofas and divans, there is a general disdain for lying down. Some people treat lying down is somewhat unhealthy or hypocritical. The renowned English critic G.K. Chesterton championed each person's freedom and flexibility to decide when to get out of bed or "to enjoy lunch in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes at the top of a tree." He insisted that if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse.

When we lie down our mental makeup and even the structure of our perception can change with a shift of posture. Most writers and painters get new ideas when they are in a reclining position. For some strange reason, we do not get novel ideas when we stand erect or sit in a chair. Solutions come to some of our pressing problems when we view them horizontally. This is also a kind of lateral thinking as opposed to vertical thinking.

Reading sessions

With the rise of the English novel in the 18th century, there were long reading sessions among the educated classes. Some of the 18th century paintings show beautiful women lolling on couches absorbed in reading books. They promoted both the reading habit and the important art of lying down. However, in the 21st century such ideas seem to be no longer valid. Today a reclining pose is generally viewed as a mark of over-indulgence or proof of indolence. According to the way things are moving, even sleeping might be regarded as a mere necessity. Modern man wants to reduce his sleep time and keep awake to do more work. This is necessitated largely by economic concerns more than anything else. If we deny ourselves much needed sleep, we may be compelled to enjoy eternal sleep in death!

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