Okay, I’ll openly admit I find periodic contemplation and reflection to be beneficial, and tend to think other people do as well. Now I’m realizing the error of this assumption, at least according to an article in the August 9, 2014 edition of Science News that features this headline: “People find solitude distressing; Study participants chose electric shocks over quiet thinking.”
The article summarizes psychologist Timothy Wilson’s research from the July 4 Science issue with these conclusions: “The human mind wants to engage with the world, even, it appears, if that involves pain…thoughts are hard to control and steering them in pleasant directions may be particularly difficult.” Wilson tested a variety of groups of different ages from different locations. Subjects in each group found that “sitting alone and thinking was more unpleasant than various forms of distraction.“ The study’s participants were not allowed to read books or listen to music for fifteen minutes. Some of these participants had been previously shocked in another study and had reported they’d pay money not to be shocked again. Yet, when those same subjects were asked to “spend 15 minutes in solitary thought, 12 of 18 men and 6 of 24 women voluntarily gave themselves at least one shock rather than think quietly.”
Wilson speculated that some people had “a greater need for novel and intense experiences…[which] may have boosted their rate of self-administered shocks.” Jonathan Smallwood, a psychologist at the University of York in England concluded: “Solitary thought helps people to make sense of past experiences, a vital but difficult exercise that may explain the discomfort that people felt…and wide spread use of cell phones and computers to deal with boredom may be undermining the capacity for self-reflection.”
Is self-reflection that unpleasant? Some people say self-reflection may be unpleasant to those who suffer from ego-driven grasping and fixation. Others would call that statement too judgmental and opinionated. Some might point out that grasping and fixation is the fundamental obstacle to a path of liberation. Others would say, no, the obstacle to liberation is oppressive governments around the world that keep people from obtaining freedom and adequate compensation for their efforts. Others would call that attitude simply another form of grasping, and would instead explain that when we glimpse the clarity of our mind, we will realize that our true nature is the supreme source of richness, inexhaustible, with diamond-like indestructibility. At least that’s what Tibetan Buddhist Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in Turning Confusion into Clarity.
What about the research design in the study reported in Science News? Although they claim to have “controlled” variables within the groups, did they consider all the relevant ones? There was no mention of controlling for differences between people who used relaxation/stress reduction techniques and those with no exposure to those techniques. It is quite possible that some of the participants had experience with meditative contemplation, while those who found solitude distressing had no previous experience with this type of practice.
Can meditation be beneficial, or is it simply another form of distraction? Some forms of meditation have techniques for dealing with what is referred to as “monkey mind,” the incessant chattering of self-talk. We might not notice this somewhat caffeinated and high-stung mental activity until we attempt to pay attention to our thoughts. Wondering about the benefit of meditation is more than a rhetorical question. Our thoughts have power to delight or horrify, create peace or chaos, even murder. Great art and technology are demonstrations of how learning to work with and focus our minds can create inspiration and evoke powerful results.
Does meditation play any role in this? What is meditation anyway? There are so many ways to work with one’s mind, from various forms of prayer and mental focusing, working with the breath, to the practice of developing an awareness of our inner state through reflection. Some might even say meditation includes re-directing one’s thoughts through cognitive therapy or training. Working with the mind can be applied in many ways; when taken to an extreme, it can become indoctrination. It is about attending to our consciousness, our experience of being human. “Consciousness…is the phenomenon whereby the universe’s very existence is made known,” writes Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind. Throughout time teachers and traditions have offered ways to work with and enlighten our consciousness.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explains that when we know the nature of mind, we will not be carried away by thoughts, emotions and circumstances. He advocates a form of meditation similar to good shepherds who watch over their flock, alert and aware. “If an animal strays, they scramble down to provide guidance. They do not race around pushing their flock this way and that way, so that the poor animals cannot get enough to eat and become exhausted…They are not working with their minds in a direct way…they are relaxed and undistracted. They look outward to their flock while maintaining an inner steadiness. They are not chasing after the sheep” he explains. “When we meditate, we do not chase after thoughts…we just rest naturally, like the good shepherd, watchful and attentive.”
Daniel Goleman advocates a more active way of working with the mind in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. He explains that people who excel rely on “smart practice…mindfulness meditation, focused preparation and recovery from setbacks, continued attention to the learning curve, and positive emotions and connection.” He claims these things help improve habits, add new skills, and sustain excellence.
Although Goleman and many others extol the benefits of practicing mindfulness, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. As reported in Science News, “Some people are not interested in being with their thoughts and will do all they can to escape from them or distract themselves.” The editors of Massachusetts General Hospital’s “Mind, Mood & Memory” also wrote about Wilson’s study, speculating that “The mind is designed to engage with the world and tends to take any opportunity to do so, even when the experience is unpleasant.”
There is a difference though, between being actively interested, even inspired, and being tormented. Meditation teachers and psychologists discuss the challenges arising from unbridled, undisciplined thoughts and teach that unless we work with our mind, it can chatter incessantly, jumping from fantasy to the depths of fear, to the need for approval or the experience of aversion. Reflection can help us see that some of our difficulties are caused by our interpretations, rather than the actual events. When we describe something, it is challenging to limit ourselves to its description. Every event, each factoid, as soon as it is noticed, becomes clothed in judgments about whether it is good or bad, a problem or a blessing. It is difficult to describe anything without making judgments, which are interpretations. It’s somewhat like the anecdote where an old man tells of a series of sad events, which, by the end of the story, actually turn out to be a series of fortunate events because they caused other more disastrous events to be averted. The punch line reveals that it’s not what happens so much as how it is interpreted as time passes.
The ‘shocking’ study described the difficulty research participants had sitting with their thoughts and the extremes they’d take to avoid them. This is a common situation. The point of working with our mind, as suggested by many teachers, is not to get rid of our thoughts, or even to avoid them, but rather to make friends with our mind and choose thoughts that are helpful to our well-being.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that around twenty-five percent of adults experience a mental health issue in a given year, and fifty percent of Americans will experience some mental health issues over their lifetimes. Many sad events, such as the much-loved actor Robin William’s recent depression-induced suicide, are examples of how thoughts influence behavior.
Let’s face it. Working with one’s mind is not only possible, it’s often the way change can occur. Some argue that we can’t change things just because we change the way we think about them, yet others insist that’s the only way we can cause change. Some insist you can’t change what you believe, yet there are many examples throughout history where beliefs are changed drastically based on new information. When a greater possibility is demonstrated, it transforms what is believed to be true about our lives, our world, and our abilities. This is seen in many actions taken by people motivated by extreme need or competition. Once the four minute mile was run, others realized it was possible and achieved it as well.
Gregg Braden, in Spontaneous Healing of Belief; Shattering the Paradigm of False Limits, describes “the 1513 astronomical discovery by Nicolaus Copernicus, a lawyer studying astronomy in his spare time, proved that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of our solar system…a single fact that forever changed our view of the universe and, ultimately, ourselves.” Braden cites this example of how various beliefs can be changed seemingly overnight by learning another possibility. This is not to say that it is easy to change our beliefs, but simply that there are pivotal times throughout history where this has occurred.
Yes, our thoughts have impact, although some remind us it is the silence between the thoughts that guides us. An ancient aphorism says “It’s the silence between the notes that makes music.”Many spiritual traditions teach that it is out of silence that everything emerges, because silence allows us to make conscious contact with the Source. By taking time to quiet the mind and listen, letting go of the incessant chatter of inner dialogue, we can feel our direction. Lao-tzu observes in the Tao Te Ching, “Silence is a source of great strength.”
Serena Dyer and her father, Wayne Dyer, in their book entitled, Don’t Die With the Music Still in You, offer examples of the power of silence and their use of meditation as a guidepost. How is this different than listening to passing thoughts? They claim that by allowing ourselves time to ask and then listen and get very quiet, in a place of pure peace and serenity, we know. In that space we can tell the difference between mental chatter and a deeper insight. They give the example of Nelson Mandela who during his many years in prison would “go within and listen attentively in profound silence. When he emerged from that incarceration, rather than being filled with anger, rage, and revenge, he instead had forgiveness and reconciliation as his uppermost priorities, and was able to avoid what many thought would become a rampage of killing and war.” Wayne Dyer shares a quote from the Czech writer and poet Franz Kafka: “You need not do anything. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, just wait. You need not even wait, just learn to be quiet, still, and solitary. And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked. It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Thoughts have power. At the same time, they can dis-empower. We decide how to respond to our thoughts. One option is to intentionally choose to make friends with our “monkey mind,” developing compassion and a sense of humor about where it takes us, and then move beyond it, in silence. We can combine this with conscious breathing, good dietary choices and physical activity to keep ourselves focused on the life we want, rather than succumbing to anxiety and self-criticism. It might not be easy, however we are fortunate to have the ability and circumstance to understand that we can make these choices. Consciously choosing our thoughts and actions starts us on a path that leads to recognition of our essential nature. It can also help us recognize what a gift it is to be able to experience anything at all.
[This article by By Loi Eberle, M.A., C.P.C., C.P.F.C. was published in Northern Journeys,
A Magazine of the Arts, Humanities & Sciences, Volume 17, No. 2 Fall/Winter 2014-2015]