Did you know there are a significant number of people who’d rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly in a room with nothing but their own thoughts for just 6-15 minutes? So reported Kate Murphy in Sunday’s New York Times, with her excellent article, “No Time to Think”. In an article she cites from Science Magazine, researchers were amazed with results from several different studies involving 700 people, “In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.” You can read the full, fascinating report here. Apparently, participants were interviewed before the experiment, and all said they’d pay not to be electrically shocked, but when push came to shove, 65% of the men, and 15% of the women ended up opting for self-administered shocks as opposed to just a few minutes of sitting with their feelings.
Researchers theorized that the difficulty for people arose because their thoughts tended to be negative. That does seem to be our default setting, that “negativity bias”. Back in the days when we were living in caves, this was probably a key factor to our survival. We needed to worry about things like being eaten by saber-tooth tigers. We needed to be on the alert for danger, we needed to be thinking ahead about all the things that could befall us. And even though most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten for lunch at this point, we’ve replaced those primal worries with other pressing anxieties and stresses of the day. So given the opportunity to sit quietly, without distractions, without our mobile devices, without anyone calling or texting or emailing, chances are, our minds will start to lean into those fears which are often hiding just below the surface. Maybe we worry about what we’re doing with our lives, or we feel anxious about the state of our relationships with those closest to us, or we start thinking about financial pressures. Maybe we feel lonely, or bored, or deeply unfulfilled. Maybe we’re enraged, but we keep ourselves busy enough that we don’t have to feel that often. There are all kinds of uncomfortable feelings we humans experience—shame, doubt, guilt, envy, jealousy, despair, grief—just to name a few, and no one would invite these feelings into his or her living room for tea. Nonetheless, we’ll be visited by all of these perfectly natural, human emotions form time to time. And if we distract ourselves, or numb ourselves or busy ourselves so we don’t have to face those feelings, we also lose an opportunity to know ourselves, and to grow.
We have such fear about being with what is. Maybe we think if we stop and breathe and get quiet, we’ll remember that we have a finite amount of time here, and so does everyone else, even those we treasure beyond words. Maybe we’re scared that old pain will rise to the surface and overwhelm us. But this is the stuff that keeps us miserable and suffering. The denial, the avoidance. If we refuse to look at our issues, our problems, or pain, then all of that remains bubbling below everything we do and say. Living your life on the run is no way to do things. Not knowing yourself is the loneliest thing there is. Getting quiet and allowing your feelings to arise, peak and subside, is a beautiful lesson in impermanence. No feeling is forever if you acknowledge it. If you repress it, it’ll just keep coming after you. And if you develop a practice of sitting quietly and observing your breath, your thoughts and your feelings, you’ll find such relief. You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. You have the ability to step back from all that white noise and take a good look and listen to your internal dialogue. You’ll find, if you haven’t already, that “you do not have to believe everything you think”. You’ll find that everything is in a constant state of flux, including you. You’ll find that you have the power to choose one thought over another, and that this power will give you your life back. To the extent that you’re able to face your pain and work with it, you’ll be able to set yourself free. Otherwise that stuff owns you. It rules your world, and there’s just no need for that.
It is true that the rules of this game are not easy to swallow. If we’re lucky, we get 80, 90, maybe 100 years, as do all the people we love, if they are also lucky. That’s not a lot of time. But it’s enough time to have a blast. It’s enough time to live with your heart wide open, and to love the people in your life with everything you’ve got. It’s enough time to take in the insane beauty that’s around you if you look up from your phone now and then. Now AND then. Yes, some of it is devastating. We’ll all be heartbroken from time to time. Some of us will endure knifing losses. But there’s also joy. There’s also the laughter of those people you adore. There’s holding hands. There are hugs. There’s the ocean and the sun on your face, and the wind in the leaves of the trees. There are moments that take your breath away and fill your heart with yes. You really can’t have one without the other. If you numb out the pain, you numb out the joy. And that’s a great way to miss what could have been 100 incredible, interesting, meaningful years. Don’t let it happen.
Sending you love,