I Can’t BEAR to be Alone: Our Wholesale Fear of Our Own Thoughts
In a remarkable study by the British Psychological Society which revealed a great deal about Western society (https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/10/12/what-are-we-like-10-psychology-findings-that-reveal-the-worst-of-human-nature)/, I read the following:
We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts
Maybe if we spent a little more time in contemplation we would not be so blinkered. Sadly, for many of us, it seems the prospect of spending time in our own thoughts is so anathema we’d actually rather electrocute ourselves. This was demonstrated dramatically in a 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation. Although others questioned the interpretation of the results, at least one other study has shown people’s preference for electrocuting themselves over monotony, and another found cross-cultural evidence for people’s greater enjoyment of doing some activity alone rather than merely thinking (also replicated here). The gist of these findings would seem to back up the verdict of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who stated that “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself”.
When I was the in the Army, somewhere around 1975 there was a huge popular movement- pushed in part by the Beatles- to learn Transcendental Meditation. The Beatles had gone to study under the tutelage of the Maharisihi Mahesh Yogi. What followed was a great wave of popularity. I was recovering from a series of rapes by a senior officer, was trapped in an ugly and abusive relationship (those things tend to follow one another) and the promise of some mental peace was hugely attractive.
I took the course. Got trained. Forty-three years later I can still drop myself off into very deep meditation in a matter of seconds. The result is that I feel as though I’ve had eight hours of sleep. It’s one hell of a life skill.
It wasn’t a fix-all. However learning how to meditate has been one of those intensely important skills that the great masters have taught as fundamental to our quality of life.
Yet this study points out that most of us in our Western world cannot bear to be alone, much less alone with our own thoughts.
While I understand how so many of us seek to drown out our sadness, our angst with noise, entertainment and compulsive shopping (hey, it’s December), I can’t help but wonder at the cost.
Growing up on a farm in Florida, one of the gifts was that we were surrounded by woods. A lake bordered the property. Back in the 1960s as I was just growing up, we had no air conditioning. When we had summer storms, the night was filled with tree frogs and every croaking, singing thing. It was a symphony. Those of us who grew up with the sounds of Nature also tend to appreciate her silence, but also the song that lies within it.
Nature’s silence is like a great curtain of calm.
Nowhere have I felt this so powerfully than in Iceland.
Driving around the Ring Road, there were times that I pulled off the side of the highway, surrounded by high rolling hills. Every so often a sheep would approach, then run. No other cars passed me for hours on end. I would simply stand in the cool, sometimes the mist, and breathe in the vastness of the landscape.
There is an intensity to such silence, a feeling of great portents and promise. That kind of quiet is woven with hope, with grace, and the possibility to reflect upon ourselves, our lives, and what there is to be experienced.
Silence speaks to us. Our brains actually grow more cells in the presence of silence (https://www.lifehack.org/377243/science-says-silence-much-more-important-our-brains-than-thought). We heal when we learn to listen to nothing, and release all our thoughts, worries, concerns and -let’s face it- largely meaningless human bullshit to the greater Forces that touch us.
Some years ago I was in South Africa, in the Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park. The oldest preserve on the continent, you can take your rental car (at your own risk, thank you) through the park, and view all the animals up close and personal.
There’s a good-sized hill in the park, the only place it’s safe to get out of your car. On two occasions over the course of the years, I’ve driven to that lookout point to stand and view the animals, feel the wind and drink the African spices deeply into my lungs.
I have spoken to what I experience as the Universe, as God, whatever She or He may be. I’ve given myself up to those silences and the beauty of my surroundings. That kind of silence heals. You can release your petty, meaningless bullshit to vastly larger Forces, and be renewed, reinforced and revalued when humbled in the face of All of Creation.
When you and I can come to the realization of our meaninglessness, our nothingness, at that moment we can begin to do great work. It’s only in the letting go of our attachments to the ego-based desires that drive our basest selves that we can find true freedom. When I can release my grasping, my neediness ( I wanna be a thought leader!!! I wanna be famous!!!! I wanna be rich!!!! Nobody gives a shit, thank you), then the world opens up like a spring blossom in front of me.
If you’re short on examples, witness Nelson Mandela. For years in the silence of his cell in South Africa, this profoundly great man learned to be in his own space. Fill it with forgiveness, wisdom, and the fullness of his being. His ability to be with his own thoughts gave the world one of its greatest leaders and statesmen. You don’t earn that through comfort. You earn that through intensely difficult personal effort.(https://www.today.com/popculture/prison-was-mandela-s-greatest-teacher-wbna36087300) Silence is one of our greatest teachers.
In the face of silence, Nature’s great healer, we come to know our sacredness.
While vastly too many of us fear what we think, the truth is that in the heart of silence we can come to know that spark of Creation that exists in all of us. That animates us, gives us movement. Gives us wings, should we choose.
Rather than experience silence as terrifying, which our Western society uses to sell us stupid shit like all manner of devices which distract, damage, ruin our hearing and invade everyone else’s quiet space, the soft cushions of our inner world, the quality of our own thinking (or lack thereof) provide a training ground.
In his magnificent book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the great Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes that our emotions are like a great river. We can sit quietly on the bank and watch them flow by. Recognize each as they arise. “Ah,” we can say. “I am feeling anger.” “I am feeling sadness.” We can hold these mercurial feelings in our hands, and let them touch us deeply. We validate, feel, and honor our emotions, as valid aspects of our humanness. Then they can flow on. What we resist, persists. What we fear, we store inside us like a cancer. By allowing, those feelings, which we fear so deeply, can simply be, then pass, like so much morning fog.
For most of us, emotions are terrifying. Our sadness, our despair, our anger overwhelm us. It is far more common to want to medicate, deny or avoid our feelings completely, when to honor them allows us to recognize their sources. When we do that we can see if there is a place of suffering. Often in the study of the feeling we see the seeds of our release, whether it’s an attachment to a thing, a person, a way of being, or simply a feeling that flits through us the way a swallowtail butterfly delicately flutters through a garden.
The ability to allow the flow from our hearts is one of the secrets of peace. Everything we feel is valid. When we honor, experience and move through those feelings we learn to touch the outer boundaries of the self. This allows us to know ourselves, then push that boundary outward. Each time we allow our feelings, we build the strength to trust that they won’t overwhelm us. Our tendency is to want to control our feelings. That forces them to go underground and explode later in a spectacular display worthy of Yellowstone. And wholly unnecessary.
We fear being overwhelmed by our feelings. This is one of the drivers of the opioid epidemic, most certainly behind much of alcoholism and all the other addictions that serve as perfect distractions to the richness of our human experience. As long as we are in the throes of some kind of addiction, we don’t have to face the Self. And yet, sitting with the Self in the quiet of our hearts, we find little to fear. Little to be threatened by. Puff the Magic Dragon indeed.
Peace- what so many say that they want- is available right here, right now, always and forever. It is borne of being able to be deeply inside the Self, leaning thoughtfully against the bedrock of the soul, that immutable and forever part of us that is expressed as the Kingdom Within. There is much to trust there, but when we don’t explore the quiet reaches of our hearts and souls, it’s easy to believe that darkness is full of monsters.
The quiet of our inner space is as vast as the Universe itself.
On a quiet, lonely beach in Eastern Madagascar, three hours by horse east of Brickaville (which is eight hours by car from the capital), I spent a week in silence. The early mornings were spent horse backriding from 5:30 to 9:30. Then, giving the horses over to the staff for a dip in the channel, I took up a spot against the brick building which was our baseops.
No electricity. No running water. Most everyone spoke French or Malagasy. Perfect.
From 10 am until I went to bed at sundown, I had the beach to myself. The only sounds were the breakers on the beach just over a grassy hill, the songs of birds as they constructed nests in the nearby palm trees. The quiet, gentle breathing of the two strays which I had adopted for the week. The onshore winds which made the heat bearable.
In an increasingly loud world where even the whales can’t communicate due to the noise (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/02/ships-noise-is-serious-problem-for-killer-whales-and-dolphins-report-finds), it’s hard for any of us- human, animal, insect, the like- to find our place in the industrialized world. There is no peace in man-made noise (and I don’t include music in this, although some types, let’s be clear, are bad enough to make anyone want to sail to the Hebrides forever). There is peace in Nature, in her sacred silences, and in the perfect music she creates. We are tearing more and more of that down, burning it and destroying it even as we increasingly, desperately need it.
If silence scares you, that’s an invitation. In the perfect quiet of a deep forest — quiet for lack of someone’s playlist, their incessant chatter, the noise of cars and planes and ATVs — we have the opportunity to find peace. The truth of why we are here. What makes us human, and what makes us part of the larger movement of life on this planet. The more we isolate ourselves from Nature, the more we fear Her. And yet, in her embrace, lie more answers than questions.
No matter where you go, where you move, no matter where you travel, peace will always and forever elude you if you don’t go within. While finding a spot of nature is hugely helpful, the blessed peace and solace that so many of us so desperately want is forever abiding inside us. There is quiet. There is peace. The cathedral of the soul always has a seat for us, if we’re willing to sit down in the perfect quiet of the heart.