Stressed out? Overwhelmed? If you said no, I’d worry whether you have a functioning nervous system. For those of us who don’t get out much now because of the pandemic, even staying home has become a source of stress. We’re isolated or being driven up the wall by beloved family members. We’re grasping at every stress-relief tool we can find. For those who have to leave for work, especially in medicine, reading the headlines before masking up for a shift must make for higher than average blood pressure, at least. Every major health agency has issued mental health guidelines for coping during the coronavirus. Not many governments, however, are forthcoming with funding for mental health support. That’s not even to mention, well…. name your super-colliding global crises….
So, we meditate, or squirm in our seats and hate every second of trying to meditate. Maybe it’s not for everyone. Even as a longtime meditator, I wouldn’t go around proclaiming the practice a cure-all. There are hundreds of traditions around the world that can bring people into a state of calm relaxation and push worries into the background. For reasons of cold, and maybe generous parental leave, certain Northern European countries have turned staying home into a formal tradition. There’s IKEA, of course (not the assembly part, but the shopping and sitting in a newly assembled IKEA chair with satisfaction part). Then there’s lagom, the Swedish practice of “approaching life with an ‘everything in moderation,’ mindset” as Sophia Gottfried writes at TIME.
Hygge, “the Danish concept that made staying in and getting cozy cool” may not be a path to greater awareness, but it can make sheltering in place much less upsetting. A few years back, it was “Move Over, Marie Kondo: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes,” in The New York Times’ winter fashion section. As winter approaches once more (and I hate to tell you, but it’s probably gonna be a stressful one), Hygge is making way in stress relief circles for niksen, a Dutch word that “literally means to do nothing, to be idle or doing something without any use,” says Carolien Hamming, managing director of a Dutch destressing center, CSR Centrum.
Niksen is not doomscrolling through social media or streaming whole seasons of shows. Niksen is intentional purposelessness, the opposite of distraction, like meditation but without the postures and instructions and classes and retreats and so forth. Anyone can do it, though it might be harder than it looks. Gottfried quotes Ruut Veenhoven, sociologist and professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who says niksen can be as simple as “sitting in a chair or looking out the window,” just letting your mind wander. If your mind wanders to unsettling places, you can try an absorbing, repetitive task to keep it busy. “We should have moments of relaxation, and relaxation can be combined with easy, semi-automatic activity, such as knitting.”
“One aspect of the ‘art of living,’” says Veenhoven, “is to find out what ways of relaxing fit you best.” If you’re thinking you might have found yours in niksen, you can get started right away, even if you aren’t at home. “You can niks in a café, too,” says Olga Mecking—author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing—when cafes are safe to niks in. (You can also use “niks” as a verb.) It may not strictly be a mindfulness practice like the many descended from Buddhism, but it is mindfulness adjacent, Nicole Spector points out at NBC News. Niks-ing (?) can soothe burnout by giving our brain time to process the massive amounts of information we take in every day, “which in turn can boost one’s creativity,” Gottfried writes, by making space for new ideas. Or as Brut America, producer of the short niksen explainer above, writes, “doing nothing isn’t lazy—it’s an art.”