16 April 2016

Ode to the ideal silent room - Volkskrant 15-04-2016

By: Ruben Jacobs 15 April 2016, 19:50 (translated)

I visited the Egmond Sauna with my girlfriend. According to the website 'for more than 30 years a concept in Haarlem and far beyond'. No trendy, luxurious, large-scale wellness complex, rather the intersection of a brown pub and a kitschy oriental bathhouse.

During a small sanitary interruption of the sauna session I read the following text on the door:

The use of the Google glasses is not permitted in the Sauna of Egmond. We trust that you understand our house rules.
The sauna is a small, warm, wooden room where the hypermodernity can not be controlled

It was 2014. After a chuckle came the realization: the sauna is one of the last offline spaces in our society. The swimming pool? Parents also sit there with their smartphone during their child's class. Being on the plane online is no longer special. There are forests with wifi, and cemeteries. The next turn is the church.

But the sauna is a small, warm, wooden room that hypermodernity can not control. This two-thousand-year-old phenomenon is apparently immune.

The Google glasses is, as is known, not yet broken, but the Sauna of Egmond had the defense ready. 1-0 for the Sauna of Egmond. On the website I read that CEO Cees Aalders likes to be 'a forerunner of things like that'. For the sake of the privacy of his guests, Aalders forbids everything 'that has a camera on it'.

Such privacy measures have an important consequence. The mysterious silences, the cautious glances - in the sauna is something central that for us, modern high-tech beings, is increasingly difficult to experience: our physicality. An environment of 90 degrees Celsius is ideally suited to get out of the head and get into the body. In the sauna one experiences his physicality from head to toe. And there is nothing to distract us from. That is in stark contrast to how we experience ourselves when we are sitting behind the laptop, for example. 'We get used to a life in which work - and often identity - is mainly spiritual and not physical, and in which interaction takes place virtually', writes Australian philosopher Damon Young in his book How to Think about Exercise (2014).

Our complaint about restlessness, overstimulation and - mental - fatigue is largely the result of this split existence between head and body work, between body and mind. Statements such as 'I am too much in my head' or 'I am not in contact with my body' are symptoms of this modern struggle with our physicality.

Attention to physicality
The sauna-hours and wellness weekends in your overfull agenda indicate the body-tinginess that has become normal for us

A little more than a year before his death, the then Thinker of the country René Gude concluded in an essay that all attention for physicality in our modern times points out that the human body is no longer a matter of course. 'The sauna hours and wellness weekends in your overflowing agenda point to the body emptying that has become normal for us. Teaching yourself to "listen to your body" means that you have lost it ", says Gude.

Ironically, the attention paid to our physical health and well-being does not necessarily improve our dealings with our bodies. The writer Bregje Hofstede, my companion, wrote recently in a piece for De Correspondent: 'The danger is that we use the physical well-being - yoga, superfoods, RunKeeper and so on - to increase the offer without lowering the demand. I myself learned to carry out robbery on my body more efficiently - to make it even more useful for the mental work I wanted to do. '

Individual solutions
Recognizable. As a 'principal worker' I have always regarded my body as a vehicle of my beloved spirit. My visits to the sauna, however relaxed, are not only an escape from my joint life, but are also in the service of the same joint life.

How do we escape this physical self-exploitation? How do we regain a healthy relationship with our body? Hofstede notes in her essay that a collective problem, such as the burn-out, is usually fought with individual solutions.

The fundamental problem is that we have elevated mental labor to the highest good and have surrounded us with ever more effectively designed digital technologies that draw heavily on our visual and cognitive abilities. Try not to have a 'disembodied' lifestyle in that violence. If we really wanted to find our physicality, our moments of rest and attention, then we would have to change this whole life world together.

This starts with the realization that we as humans are not lords and masters of ourselves, however much we would like to believe that: our environment largely determines our way of acting and thinking. In a wrong environment, a good and healthy life is virtually impossible. Social boundaries are not always limiting, but can also be liberating. In Sweden, for example, they have Fika, a deep-rooted tradition to jointly (obligatoryly) take a coffee break two to three times a day. The result: Sweden is the least stressful country in the world.

Slow technology movement
Personally, I thought of the offline train compartment: you can finally look back outside

In the Netherlands, too, there are voices for such collective agreements and arrangements, such as the 'e-mailless Friday' or 'quiet spaces' in higher education (the University of Amsterdam). Personally, I thought of the offline train compartment: you can finally look back outside.

Striking is the slow technology movement, which tries to take a different design course. Instead of getting people 'hooked' to their devices, these designers promote a more moderate strategy based on reflection and mental calm. One in which our physical involvement with the world is not scrupulously ignored, but that this world is literally and figuratively embraced. A chair that functions as a computer mouse, in which you have to move the body forward or sideways to give computer commands. Braille techniques in the use of digital technology. An email limiter in which you can indicate at the beginning of the day how many emails you want to receive on that day, with how much time in between.

Primary contact
Until our society is set up with more social boundaries and joint living rhythms - if that is not the case - the sauna, as a place where there is no digital connection and where we have to do it again with our body, is an extremely suitable environment to reflect on physicality in times of virtual mind expansion. There is no escape in the sauna. You sit there, completely naked, every sound, the flow of every body juice, you can hear. Closing is practically impossible. The sauna has the ability to get us together quietly. And to remind us that our primary contact with the world is one of groping, of feeling.