"Never be afraid to sit awhile and think."
--Lorraine Hansberry, "A Raisin in the Sun"
It was the kind of news item that can easily get lost in the torrent of information we wade through these days, but one which demands a second look. In the July 4th issue of the journal Science , researchers reported on eleven studies in which participants were given a seemingly straightforward and simple task. To sit in a room, all by themselves, for six to fifteen minutes and just think, with no external stimuli. No phone, no computer, no reading material, no writing implements, nothing, save their own company.
Here's where it gets a interesting and then a bit weird. A majority of the folks did not like being alone in thought or daydreaming, not at all. As University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson reported, this discomfort with solitude was widespread, from the old to the young, from college students to retirees. "Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time."
Now the odd part. Wilson and his colleagues decided to give some participants the option of administering mild electric shocks to themselves for stimulation while alone, to presumably take away their boredom and discomfort with solitude. Hmmm...sit still and ponder, let the mind wander, or zap one's self? Twelve of fifteen men and six of twenty-four women chose this self-inflicted pain! One man even shocked himself 190 times!
Concluded Wilson, "The mind is designed to engage with the world....without training in meditation or thought-control techniques...most people would prefer to engage in external activities." I kind of get that and yet....is self-reflection, keeping one's own company, just sitting and thinking sometimes, really all that bad? That hard? So difficult that some of us would even choose to experience pain over being alone?
We do live in a time when external stimuli is more available than ever before in human history. I've become much more aware lately of how cocked and ready so many folks are with their cell phones, in hand or in pocket. When the conversation lulls or the movie ends or there is some space to just be, so many of us now reach right for our device and then look, swipe, type, and lose ourselves in that screen. At home we flip on the radio or turn on the boob tube or crack open the computer without thinking. At work the "ding" of constant emails interrupts any chance to wonder and wander in thought.
The price for such unconscious addiction to stimulation? No time for careful thought. No space for creative impulses, an "A ha!" moment. No chance to give our brains a rest from constant activity. To think freely, to journey within, to slow down and just be still. To hear the sound of our own breathing. To face into the relationship we have with ourselves. To pray to and know and be known by our God. To be a human being and not just a human doing.
I'm lucky. I get paid to think, as a pastor and preacher and writer. The truth is our world expects most of us to be constantly on the go, on the run and forever engaged with the external. The next shoe to tie or dinner to make or soccer game to rush to as a parent. The next project to tackle at work. The next TV show to "showverdose" on, as Netflix beckons to us.
But to be still? Really thoughtful? Even, especially in 2014, we need this "activity" too. Need to find spaces and places for reflection. Church. A screened in back porch. A hammock. A favorite well worn path in the woods or on the beach. A comfy chair in the corner.
It's all about balance. Thought then action. Prayer then wisdom. Daydreaming then direction. Wonder then work.
To sit. To think. Can we do it?