We are the first generation in history who have managed to completely eliminate boredom from our daily lives. We’re so connected by a device in our pocket (or more often in our hand!) to the most incredible online entertainment, news, knowledge, social interaction, information, education, games, and even careers, that we’re not compelled to spend a single minute from morning to night searching for something to keep our minds occupied. There is literally no reason to be bored ever again.
And while the technology that allows that to be possible is truly incredible, it comes at the expense of our need for self-reflection and introspection, our need for face-to-face contact, our need to switch off our dopamine-hungry brains, and maybe even the ability of our subconscious mind to function in the way it needs to. Our minds are constantly engaged by something outside ourselves. In other words, we are never alone, even when we’re physically alone. This, of course, has advantages. Who could possibly say that we would have been better off without video calls over the last year or so? But, pandemics and other isolated events aside, we have become so dependant on technology to fill our lives that we are in danger of suffering serious consequences. Our ancient brains are being hacked by the technological advancements of the last 15 years and we find ourselves in a constant state of reactivity. We’re always reacting to something outside ourselves. Our own internal monologue has been crowded out so much that it’s almost inaudible.
I’ve been listening to an author called Cal Newport recently and I want to share some of his thoughts with you.
Below is an excerpt of a blog post he wrote a few years ago. He’s reflecting on his interpretation of a book called Lead Yourself First by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin (why do authors always include a middle initial?). Here’s what he writes:
“There were two lessons in particular that struck me as relevant to the types of things we talk about here. So I thought I would share them:
- Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.
When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of what’s going on around you.
- Lesson #2: Regular doses of solitude are crucial for the effective and resilient functioning of your brain.
Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”
Makes sense right? As much as we need interaction, entertainment, and information, we need time alone to process our reactions to all of those things, otherwise, we just go from reaction, to reaction, to reaction, without any mental reflection.
It has become apparent to me that I am guilty of spending a paltry amount of time in solitude at least as much, if not more, than the next person. I watch Netflix in the evenings when my children go to bed, I play chess online against a friend of mine when I have a few spare minutes, I listen to podcasts when I’m running, driving cooking, or walking to pick up my daughters from school, I check the Irish Times website when I’m bored (I used to go on Facebook or Instagram but I’ve managed to free myself from most social media for now at least). There is almost no moment during the day when I’m not engaged with some input from ‘other minds’.
There are only two things I do on a daily basis that are not influenced by other minds.
Bringing the dog for a walk, and practising ashtanga yoga.
I never listen to music or podcasts or make phone calls when I’m walking with the doggie because I feel like he deserves my undivided attention when we’re out together. After all, he doesn’t get to choose what he does each day, most of that is controlled by us. The least I can do is pay attention to him when we’re out. Besides that, he’s an absolute divil so I have to watch him most of the time so he doesn’t jump all over other dogs that he meets!
With regard to yoga practice though, it has become so obvious to me that it’s the only time that I’m getting true headspace. In fact, I’d say the main reason I practise these days is for the headspace that I’m able to experience by paying attention to my body and my breath. Besides yoga practice, the rest of the day is crammed full of family commitments, work that needs to be done, some other form of exercise (usually while listening to something), mindless scrolling and clicking, and a little reading if I’m lucky.
So the only time I’m experiencing true solitude, as described above, is during yoga practice.
I suggest that we need to cling strongly to things that allow us to experience solitude and therefore a more expansive awareness of ourselves and the world around us. In an age when there is so much science, so many smart people, and so many billions of dollars utilised to make sure we stay addicted to our smartphones, we’re almost powerless to resist. Our ancient brains have been hijacked by these new technologies we need tools to help us to reclaim some of our own mental real-estate.
If you’re interested in reading more about Cal Newtown’s work you can check out his website here. You can listen to a short extract of a podcast he recorded with Rangan Chaterjee here (apple podcasts) or here (Spotify).
Let me know if any of it speaks to you. Also, let me know anything that you do which allows you to experience solitude.