My mind is the equivalent of a hoarder’s purse, brimming with ATM receipts, cinema ticket stubs, calling cards from taxi drivers in countries I rarely visit and even the odd crumpled tissue. At any one time there’s myriad information spiralling around. Thoughts dart between the mundane and ever-present wanderings of a typical mind like memorising grocery lists and pondering whether 6pm is too late to drink coffee, then there’s the more pensive notions – the habitual suppliers of mental load like: ‘Is that pain in my head normal?’ Or ‘How’s the situation in Syria?’ While these pressing thought patterns tend to manifest as anxiety, stress, and depression, both ways of thinking consume considerable mental capacity, stunting our creativity and limiting our ability to experience pleasure. It sounds cheesy but while we spend our minutes bemused by brain fog, we are too occupied to absorb what’s in front of us and become a bystander in our own life.
To further understand this mess in our minds our brains operate in a state of tension between exploration and exploitation. In exploratory mode, we consider things with a wide lens; we’re inquisitive and thirsty for knowledge. But when we’re in an exploitative state we look to what we already know, falling back on old information to provide the comfort of an unsurprising result or setting. We tend to be more exploratory when on holiday, finding our feet in a new country, whereas times of exploitation often come when under physical or emotional duress, like returning home and tackling dinner and chores after the long-haul flight. Both pathways are fundamental to progression. Without exploration, the world would have remained flat; but without exploitation, we would have taken too many risks and the human race would be extinct. There needs to be a balance between the two, but a study by Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist and director of the Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University suggests that our internal exploration, which can yield innovation, creativity and fulfilling new experiences, is diminished by an overly occupied (or messy) mind.
Long stints alone with our thoughts can be torture – just ask anyone who has trouble sleeping. Insomniacs toss and turn desperately trying to quiet restless thoughts. Indeed we often credit our ugliest emotions with lack of sleep – stress, anxiety, guilt and fear – and at night there’s nowhere to hide from negative notions. Daylight offers temporary respite – its monotonous tasks, continuous flow of interactions and social feeds fill the hours – but destructive thoughts can re-emerge when the external simulation goes away. “If we’re constantly filling our awareness with social media and information, we can lose touch with how we’re actually feeling in the moment,” says Dr Tara Well, Barnard College of Columbia University, who is currently conducting laboratory studies on how mirror meditation – the practice of looking at oneself in the mirror for 10 minutes a day, with no goal other than to be present with yourself – reduces stress and increases self-compassion. “Our attention gets hijacked by our devices and that can often be a welcome escape from feeling lonely in the moment – but it perpetuates the problem because it becomes even more difficult to be with ourselves without seeking distraction,” she continues.
From immersion in mundane tasks to more extreme actions, some are prepared to go to great lengths to escape alone time with their mind. In a 2014 study carried out by psychologists at Harvard and the University of Virginia, 42 college students were left to sit alone in a bare, undecorated room, thinking freely for up to 15 minutes. The feedback afterwards was that most found it difficult to concentrate and around half confirmed that they didn’t enjoy the experience. Taking the experiment a step further, a new study found that being left alone in an empty room was so unpleasant that many elected to give themselves electric shocks. The participants were first asked to rank the unpleasantness of a shock and say whether they would pay a small fee to avoid having to experience it again. They were then left alone again for 15 minutes and given the opportunity to shock themselves at will. Summarising their findings in a report for Science journal, researchers wrote: “What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.” After all, when we seek to break a prisoner’s deviant spirit, we send them to solitary confinement – our harshest level of human discipline.
For years, medical professionals and wellness practitioners alike have considered a positive mindset to be the absence of a negative one, but stating that humans are unable to enjoy our own thoughts suggests that our mental flora should be eternally blooming. “Mindfulness is about observing thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism,” writes Headspace founder, Andy Puddicombe on his blog. “Instead, simply acknowledge the feeling, recognise it is part of being human and understand that all human beings experience something similar – even if it sometimes feels we are the only one.” Indeed, our negative thoughts serve a purpose just as physical pain warns us of an injury that needs to be addressed; it’s more about cultivating healthy thought flow and channelling mental clutter. “We tend to view loneliness as an enemy or some sort of punishment,” says Wells. “Time alone can help you feel more comfortable in your own skin and you can make your own choices without outside influences. It can help you develop more insight into who you are as a person,” she continues. “Research finds that the ability to tolerate being alone is linked to increased happiness, better life satisfaction, and improved stress management. And people who say they enjoy their alone time are less likely to experience depression.”
While anger and negative thoughts are natural without due attention, our ever-wandering mind can become a tax on our quality of life. It’s important to realise when the proverbial purse is brimming with excess receipts and have the resources to address it. Meditation is one avenue that facilitates this state, providing the means to be able to quiet the mind at will. “Yoga and meditation help us slow down and land in the present moment,” says Well. “Making time on a regular basis to do your practice can build emotional resilience and help manage stress because it makes it easier to come back to yourself and be aware of how you’re feeling in the moment.” And while the studies say we prefer to do rather than think, even if what we are doing is so unpleasant we’d normally pay to avoid it, by simply being alone and looking at yourself, you gain greater self-awareness, grow to feel more comfortable in your own skin and eventually, quiet the restless mind.
THE APP. HEADSPACE
Headspace founder, Andy Puddicombe cut his degree short to immerse himself in meditation. He spent over 10 years in training travelling across the world and was eventually ordained in the Indian Himalayas. An excellent entry into daily practice, the techniques used within the Headspace app have been refined and developed over many centuries. Their aim is to cultivate awareness and compassion through short daily mental exercises so we can better understand both the mind and the world around us.
THE RETREAT. BALI SILENT RETREAT, MOUNT BATUKARU
The aim at Bali Silent Retreat is to maintain eco-green-off- grid standards while supporting a personal, spiritual journey. The lush Bali space includes hot springs and is Wi-Fi-free, and chat-free supporting internal contemplation. Stays range from three days to one-week and there’s no set daily schedule meaning visitors can spend their time in silent meditation while roaming the rice fields, practicing yoga, or partaking in New Earth Cooking classes that involve preparing healthy dishes with ingredients from the retreat’s medicine garden – it’s about silencing the mind but on your own terms.
THE BOOK. A PATH WITH HEART BY JACK KORNFIELD
Credited with introducing the practices of mindfulness and meditation to the West, Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart, is regarded by many as the most important book yet written on meditation. Having developed his practice in Thailand, India, and Myanmar, Kornfield has been teaching meditation internationally since 1974 and his book is rife with the wisdom and methods he accumulated on the way. Ideal for those seeking detailed direction, Kornfield systematically walks the reader through some of the notable challenges that arise during meditation.