In our busy lives, it can be challenging to find time to chill out and then achieve quality rest when we do. Yet, rest is essential for building wellbeing; for one, it helps our bodies to replenish. In this blog, I share a simple practice I observed while in the field in Peru to help enter this state.
Learning El Descanso in the Field
One day my team and I returned from the field early and I decided to go pass by la tienda, the local store, close to our house, to buy some items to share for afternoon tea. Not long after, I left the store with a bundle of goodies and began the short walk down the lane home, when I came behind an elderly gentleman. He was waddling down the street with ease and grace, greeting neighbours along the way. I slowed down my normal brisk walk to a slow glide and kept a respectful distance between us. He then arrived at the edge of my two-storey concrete house, which was bounded by a low-standing wall. As he came to the wall, he turned and plonked himself down and begun to stare into the distance, towards a mountain. Curious I stopped to watch him. After retiring into this position, I could tell he was still very alert, but deeply relaxed; his eyes were bright as if animated by a silent conversation with the cool afternoon air or perhaps the mountain he was looking at. Then, something happened that was completely unexpected: the air around us started to buzz as if electrified and a far moments later, I felt time slow down, right down until it came to a standstill. A few moments later, his reverie was broken and the gentlemen got up and went his way and I went mine.
While this experience lasted just a minute or two, it had a long-lasting and profound effect on me. I believed I witnessed the gentlemen practise el descanso, which simply means in Spanish ‘break’. However, it is not a ‘break’ in our sense; we tend to associate taking a break as tuning out; for example, slumping in front of the television after a long and hard working week. As the renowned storyteller and psychologist, Clarissa Estes Pinkola wrote, el descanso is quite the opposite: it is a ‘conscious’ practice.
El descanso might be thought of as a type of single-pointed meditation, which utilises selective attention. In Buddhism and Hinduism, this technique commonly involves focusing the mind on sounds, including seed-sound (bija) mantras, or the breath and objects, such as mala beads, can be used to foster concentration.
I don’t believe that the Peruvian gentlemen intended to meditate or attempt to induce a calm state, but my experience with him reminded me of the powerful benefits that can be gained from single-focus meditation.
As contemporary neuroscience tells us, meditation is an effective way to alter our state of consciousness and induce more relaxed states (see Gellhorn and Keily 1972, for example). In Buddhism, single-pointed meditation is said to cultivate a quality of mind, called Samatha, which is both settled and ‘attentional’ and is gradually attained. (see Wallace 1999).
Take Breaks in Nature
Since prehispanic times, ‘breaks’ or ‘periods of rest’ in the Andes are often taken outdoors, in communal places, such as plazas. When I first arrived in the Andes, I was told the key to travelling long distance was to take ‘un descanso’ when tired. This was especially important when climbing mountains. They encouraged that when you need to, you plonk yourself down close to the trail or road you are following and just sit and be: take in the world around you. Where I lived in the Andes, there were well-known places of rest, such as large rocks on the side of the road.
Like many people, I learnt the importance of taking rest regularly the hard way: I was a high achiever and always felt I needed to be doing ‘something productive.’ I often refused to listen to my body’s signals to slow down until I became ill, often with a cold or flu. Then, towards the end of the PhD, I developed chronic illness and fatigue and I was forced to look at my lifestyle. I choose to begin to learn how to time-out and this served not only to help me physically recover but also restored my relationship with creativity.
How you can practise el descanso in your everyday life?
I often practise el descanso as part of my daily constellation of rituals. Although it is a simple practice, it can take time to master. The essence of the practice is to stay alert and to select a single focal point in nature and just focus all your senses. If your mind wanders, gently direct it back to the task at hand.
Be open and curious – and see what happens next.
If you would like to share a practice you utilise to cultivate calmness, please share with us below. We’d love to hear from you.
Photo Credit: Louis Hansel