By John Lee Pendall
“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative… The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself (Wilson, et al., 2014).”
There’s something about doing nothing that really freaks people out, and it kinda freaks me out that it freaks people out.
I’ve met a shitload of people who can’t handle silence, inactivity, nor being alone. These are great things to learn to endure because we all experience them at some point, whether we want to or not. How we fill those empty spaces—and how we feel about those spaces—says a lot about one’s character, maturity and well-being, because we build our lives and ourselves by filling those spaces. Many of us fantasize about how nice it would be if we could just relax and do nothing every now and then. But, when we’re actually given those opportunities, most of us would rather be doing anything but nothing.
When I’m out and about, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how busy everyone is. They’re talking, texting, reading, writing, eating, drinking, watching videos, listening to music, and I’m just watching it all happen. Even though I wear a newsboy cap and tie-dye shirts, I sometimes feel invisible. I don’t mind it, really, because—as a rule of thumb—people kind of suck.
But, I still feel kind of concerned on everyone’s behalf.
Social psychologists did an experiment once involving silence and inactivity. Participants were asked to sit in a room for 15 minutes doing nothing. If they chose to, they could also hit a buzzer to give themselves an electric shock. Most of the participants shocked themselves at least once rather than be alone with their thoughts for the full fifteen minutes. One dude shocked himself 190 times! Interestingly, more men chose to shock themselves than women, and almost all of the participants found the experience unenjoyable.
I learned in an email chat I had with Wilson—one of the researchers—that they also tried the same study with people sitting in groups instead of by themselves, and the results were pretty much the same. Here’s a PDF of the article if you want to know more.
Toward the end, the authors say that, “There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, [and] exciting fantasies. Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking (Wilson, et al., 2014),” even if what they’re doing is unpleasant.
This disturbs me. My dad wanted to sit outside and listen to some music the other day, but it was a pain in the ass getting my bluetooth speakers to connect. I was sitting with him for a few minutes, and I asked, “Why do you need music? There’s music everywhere: the birds are chirping, the wind’s rustling through the trees.”
“I don’t like the quiet.” He was restless, fidgety, and sighed multiple times until I got the speakers up and running.
I think that learning to endure—or even appreciate—silence, inactivity, and solitude builds character. It helps us to grow up. If we can learn to endure our thoughts, boredom, the desire to do something—anything—then we can come to endure a lot of the things that life’s going to throw at us. I mean, what is loss but someone or something we love falling silent, leaving us alone, and no longer being active in our lives? If we can learn to lose the people and things we love while they’re still with us, then we’re going to suffer a lot less when they’re truly no longer with us.
If we can lose ourselves in silence every now and then, then we’re going to suffer a lot less when our time comes as well.
We’re going to be able to choose doing nothing over doing something stupid that we’re going to regret later. Patience, tolerance, self-control and active listening could all increase if we just learned to stop and do nothing for 15 minutes each day. You don’t even have to meditate; you could just sit there and learn to cope with just sitting there. I’d still recommend meditating, though, but that’s just me.
It’s typically the mind wandering—our own thoughts and feelings—that scares us when we’re confronted by silence. We’re not really afraid of silence and being alone. We’re afraid of ourselves because most of us just don’t really like ourselves all that much. We’re afraid of the questions we might ask ourselves when we’re alone; we’re afraid of the answers.
Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll start to see through our fantasies, and then feel trapped in the nets we’ve cast around our lives.
When we’re inactive, all of those harmful, cognitive habits flail for handholds because we’ve sawed off the branches they’re used to swinging to. This is usually an unpleasant experience. Samatha meditation gives attention something to hang onto in those moments, so that the mind isn’t rushing around trying to keep up with all the craziness it’s suddenly been bombarded with. Then, when the mind isn’t flailing about, Vipassana lets us sit down with all those cognitive habits and say, “Ya know, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but you’re like a phantom, a bubble, a mirage, a lightning flash in the dark sky. You aren’t me, and I’m not you.”
Or like Sarah said to David Bowie in Labyrinth: “You have no power over me.”
When you don’t mind being alone, then you have the power to walk away. When you don’t mind doing nothing, you have the power to stop doing dumb shit. When you don’t mind silence, you have the power to endure the noise. Then we can ask an important question: Who am I when I don’t try to fill up all the empty spaces in the day?
References: Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgate, E. C., Gilbert, D. T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., & Shaked, A., (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345(6192). DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".