Saturday, August 1, 2015

On choosing a mattress

Tree bed by Shawn Lovell

In Buddhism, there are five precepts or ethical trainings for lay people. They cover pretty familiar moral territory: you are asked to do your best not to kill, steal, have illicit sex, tell lies, or get drunk. However, if you go on retreat with Buddhist monks or nuns, you are usually asked to respect not just five, but eight precepts for the duration of the retreat. The extra three require you to avoid eating at certain times (such as after noon); to refrain from dancing, singing, music, shows, wearing jewelry and cosmetics; and to refrain from using high and luxurious seats or beds. The precept on sexual misconduct also gets upgraded to refraining from any sexual activity.

It makes sense that on a silent meditation retreat, you don’t want people dancing around singing, playing music, or dressing up in attempts to seduce each other. Observing limitations around eating also has practical benefits for cultivating a clear mind for meditation. But what’s the issue with high and luxurious beds? I guess they might add to the temptation to stay in bed instead of getting up to meditate well before sunrise, but even so, I could never understand why beds get a whole precept to themselves – I really couldn’t see why a comfy bed should be a significant obstacle to enlightenment.

That was until I decided to buy a new mattress.

On the advice of my brother, who had recently bought one himself, I started my search at Snooze. A sales assistant, who happened to be an attractive blonde woman rather similar to the young woman who had successfully helped my brother, guided me through the huge display room of mattresses to a special computerized test bed.

As you recline on the high and luxurious surface of Snooze's bedMATCH® bed, a video plays on a TV monitor positioned on an angle just over your head, informing you that although you may think you already know what kind of mattress you want, *scientific research* has shown that 95% of people DO NOT KNOW what kind of mattress is best for them. Having sown the seed of doubt about your own capacity to successfully choose a mattress, the voice from the monitor goes on to reassure you that it’s OK, because the bed itself will be able to identify the optimal choice for you, based on a *scientific analysis* of your body shape and weight. The bed then gives you a little massage, and like a modern day oracle, reveals whether you need a firm, medium, soft, or super-soft mattress. 

Armed with this revelation, the sales assistant then leads you to a few mattresses of the designated type that cost from $2,000 up. They are all, without exception, high and luxurious – so high that you will probably have to buy new sheets, because the thickness of the mattresses means a normal sized sheet would never fit over them. You are then encouraged to lie on a few of these mattresses in an attempt to detect the subtle differences between them. The sales assistant tries to stop you from lying on too many, though, because (research has no doubt shown that) if you do, you’ll get confused and leave without buying anything.

Actually, psychological research has shown that making too many choices can lead to “decision fatigue” a state in which your powers of self-control are depleted. In this condition, you may allow yourself to be nudged towards an irrational decision by someone else, or your own automatic impulses, or you may become overwhelmed and feel you just can’t make another choice. The sales assistant, with the help of the test bed, has the tricky task of making you feel sufficiently daunted by the huge range of mattress options to rely on her advice, but not allowing you tip over into full scale decision fatigue, a state in which you may become unpleasantly emotional as well as incapable of remembering the pin for your credit card.

The risk of decision fatigue while shopping for a new mattress is high. There are choices to be made, not only between a multitude of brands, and ranges within brands (do you want something from the exquisite, enhance or aspire collections?), but also between different kinds of “mattress technology.” Do you prefer pocket-springs or coil springs? Do you require silk, or can make do with wool, or perhaps organic latex in your pillow top? Then there is the choice between ordinary, non-sentient mattresses and those made from "memory foam," a material developed by NASA in 1966, and now used in some of the most expensive mattresses you can buy. You are encouraged to weigh all these options with care since, as mattress sales assistants will remind you, you spend about a third of your life sleeping and the quality of your sleep impacts everything else you do.

The more time I spent trying out mattresses, reading online reviews of mattresses and talking to friends about their struggles to choose a mattress, the more I became convinced that our society has an unhealthy obsession with high and luxurious beds: the Buddhist precept is more relevant than ever! Anyone who can afford it, and many who can’t, have become like the girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, who arrives at a royal castle drenched by a storm and claims to be a princess. The mother of the prince decides to test the young woman by surreptitiously placing a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather-beds, and inviting her to spend the night in this extraordinarily high and luxurious bed. The girl emerges in the morning, complaining that she was kept awake all night by something hard in the bed, which she is sure has bruised her. The prince is delighted: only a real princess could be so sensitive.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac
It would be easy to see contemporary princes and princesses, tossing and turning due to the lack of a silk pillow top, or a defect in their space age memory foam mattress, as products of contemporary consumer capitalism at its most psychologically manipulative. But it seems the problem is much older than contemporary marketing techniques. The folk tale recorded by Anderson suggests that the link between social status, hypersensitivity, insomnia and excessive bedding has been around for centuries; contemporary mattress sellers have simply tapped into an enduring human weakness. And as the ancient Buddhist precept suggests, it’s on a par with the desire to seek distraction through entertainment, or indulging in food.

For those who have trouble sleeping, Buddhist teachings offer an alternative to expensive mattresses in the quest to obtain an optimal night’s sleep. It is said that peaceful, restful sleep (as well as a beautiful complexion) is a side-effect of practicing loving-kindness meditation, which involves consciously wishing for the well-being of oneself, others, and all living beings. So, may you be well and happy, peaceful and at ease; may you (and any little ones in your household) come quickly to complete enlightenment, or at least to sweet, sound sleep!