Science journal recently published a sobering study that has not surprisingly created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. Get this:
“In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.”
6 to 15 minutes?! Apparently they reached for their Smartphones after only a couple of those minutes and, when these were denied them, they even administered themselves electric shocks — anything to stop themselves from being left alone with their own minds.
It’s true that people hate waiting in line, at airports, for friends, in traffic, in doctor’s offices, etc. What did we do in the old days, before we had our gadgets?
The study said people found it “unpleasant” because a lot of their thoughts were unpleasant or negative. There’s a lot of unprocessed sadness, loss, sorrow about. Louis CK does a very good riff on this in this video, worth a watch:
Extract: “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive.”
He describes sitting through his sadness one day, and coming out the other side actually happier, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen song. Ironically, the day before seeing this video I was listening to “Philadelphia” and had a similar experience of a loss coming up and then subsiding, good old Bruce. You know how people say, “It’s okay to be sad”? There is truth in that. (As long as we are not identifying with the sadness, though – see below). If we let ourselves experience our thoughts, we see that they are not as scary as they seemed while they were still lurking in the shadows. The more we understand what our mind actually is — a clear formless awareness that is naturally peaceful — the more we realize that the passing shadows of clouds can in no way affect its spaciousness and natural freedom.
Give yourself a real break
In a readable commentary to the Science study called No Time to Think in the New York Times, Kate Murphy says:
“But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.”
“Anyone who lives a long life has a sad story to tell.”
But the way to deal with sorrow is not just to pretend that these things aren’t happening, try to change channels, try to keep ourselves insanely busy. If we don’t allow ourselves to observe these sad thoughts, we are not going to take responsibility for them, nor discover that they are not in fact as frightening or harmful as we dread. We are not going to process them. We are not going to accept them, see them as just waves arising from the natural clarity and peace of our formless awareness. We are not going to be able to let them go, or transform them, or become happy. They are going to be recurrent thoughts. This distraction doesn’t work anyway – as one psychologist says:
“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.”
So in Buddhism, we do the exact opposite – we spend a lot of time with our thoughts, coming to know our own minds well through empirical observation so that we can transform them. We develop mindfulness, or presence of mind, to actually loosen our grip on the distractions and sorrowful thoughts as opposed to pushing them down like a jack in the box.
Actual problems or suffering are the unpleasant thoughts or feelings in our own minds, nothing outside. When we think compassionate or wise thoughts, for example, about the things we perceive, we inhabit a different world – there is no world outside of our perception of it. To transcend suffering, to think differently, however, we first need to be able to accept these problems wholeheartedly without wishing that they were otherwise. Pushing them aside out of fear or denial, repressing or suppressing them, just makes us more deeply tormented and unhealthy, and can perpetuate a vicious downward spiral due to their inevitable, insistent recurrence.
In How to Solve our Human Problems, there is a really helpful section on this so-called “patience of voluntarily enduring suffering” (pages 42 onwards in my edition), and I really hope you get a chance to read all of it. Here is an extract:
“Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from… In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously…. Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.”
“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally” said Dr. Kross of Michigan.”
As Geshe Kelsang succinctly puts it in a sentence that has helped thousands of people, including me:
“There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind.” ~ How to Solve our Human Problems
As soon as we stop identifying with our problems, “Oh woe is me!”, we can step back and look at them curiously, objectively even. We can practice transforming difficulties into interesting challenges, and experience the sweet taste of victory as the fear and sadness subside. Sometimes all in the time frame of one Bruce Springsteen song🙂
And that’s not all …
The article also talks about empathy, or the growing lack of it in an over-stimulated society, when we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and feelings — for how then are we supposed to understand the experiences of others? In Buddhism, we use our own suffering to remind us of the suffering of others so we can wish them to be free – this is compassion, vital for spiritual growth and happiness.
Also, there is no sorrow if we have not actually lost anything. If we go further and use our wisdom to understand how everything is simply the nature of our mind, all appearances and their minds arising and ceasing simultaneously from the same karmic seeds in the clarity of our root mind, like waves arising and falling in an ocean, we can relax deeply. There is nothing really out there to grasp at or to lose. Check out Joyful Path for more on this (p. 319-320).
So, next time we find ourselves alone, perhaps all of us could put down our Smartphones and look inside our own minds for entertainment instead. We and society might be a lot better off for it.
Over to you. I would love to hear your insights into this subject and any solutions!