Monday, September 8, 2014

Self-Imposed Restlessness for the Weary: Fear of Stillness in Elul

I walked into my regular Thursday morning yoga class recently, and saw something funny.  If you’ve never been to a yoga class before, the general idea is, since it is a contemplative practice, you arrive a little before the class, set up your mat, and begin to center yourself so that once the teacher officially begins, you are ready.  Well, I arrived at class about 5 minutes early, and as I walked into the door of the studio, I noticed that many of my classmates had arrived in advance, were sitting or laying on their mats already, but instead of assuming one of many yoga postures and focusing on their breathing, they were all staring intently at screens on their cell phones – some even in child’s pose with the cell phone under the gaze of their eyes.   Have you noticed that people don’t seem to know how to do just be anymore? 

This summer, the results of a new study on human behavior and introspection came out detailing just how much so. In explaining the reasoning for the study, its lead author Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia remarked, “We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy.  No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”[i] In 11 experiments covering more than 700 people across an expansive age-range, the majority of participants reported that they found it “unpleasant” to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6-15 minutes.   Nearly a third of people admitted they cheated during the experiment by checking their phones or listening to music.
Which caused Wilson along with Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert to ask a different question: “If people found it so unpleasant to be alone with their thoughts, what lengths might they go to in order to escape themselves?”[ii]

To answer this question, they started by exposing volunteers to positive and negative stimuli, including mildly painful electric shocks. They asked the people how much they would pay to avoid the shock experience if they had $5 to spend. Forty-two people responded they would pay.   Then, the researchers told the participants to sit in a room and think to themselves for 15 minutes. If they wanted, they also had the option to shock themselves by pressing a button, feeling a jolt resembling a severe static shock on their ankle.
“I have to tell you, with my other co-authors, there was a lot of debate: ‘Why are we going to do this? No one is going to shock themselves,’” Wilson said.[iii] To their surprise, of the 42 people who said they would in fact pay to avoid the shock, two-thirds of those men chose to shock themselves, and a quarter of the women did. One person pressed the button 190 times.[iv]

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this idea that we humans would rather administer electric shocks on ourselves than be alone with our thoughts, for even just a few minutes.  It’s as if we’ve become addicted to the condition of busy-ness: so desperate to find something to fill up all the moments in our day with noise, distraction, buzz just to carry us to the next moment, fearing what condition might set in if we actually did nothing for a moment or two.  Many posit that ultimately, this is about the fact that when left alone, we humans tend to focus on the negative.  From The New York Times’ coverage of the study: “We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers.  What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out – difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money troubles, health concerns and so on.  And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads.  Hello rumination.” Put simply, it just doesn’t feel good to have to introspect. 

But interestingly enough, I don’t think this is a new phenomenon.  Sure, today distraction is literally at our finger tips, but I’d contend that the preference of mindlessness over mindfulness has been going on for a lot longer than the invent of the cell phone or even the industrial revolution, and certainly, many of the most foundational Jewish teachings and tenets make this clear.   But to understand this, it is important to understand that, more often than not, when a practice or rule is introduced into a culture, it is because the opposite behavior or reality has set in.  So take Shabbat. A day set aside every week, where consumption and “business” are forbidden, where quietness and gratitude are stressed.  Why mandate these behaviors?  Because otherwise they wouldn’t be practiced.  It was true for our ancestors and remains true for us today.  Without setting a limitation, the world of keeping busy, of producing, of consuming rolls right along, sweeping our ancestors and us up in its wake.

More directly, let’s think about the time in which we find ourselves in right now.  Tonight marks the second Shabbat in the month Elul, the 30 day period set aside for us to search our lives, our thoughts and our actions, to acknowledge both the enlightened parts of ourselves, but also the darker parts of our souls, all with the hope that such introspection might positively impact our own process of teshuvah – the call for repentance and returning that is the essential demand of the High Holy Days – now less than three weeks away.  And let me tell you, to do this process the right way, it takes a lot longer than 6-15 minutes alone with ourselves.   

The process of self-evaluation is designed to be an internal one, and it has never been easy.  But the trick is, when it’s actually practiced, we find we can actually change our thoughts, our actions, ourselves.  And it even goes beyond each individual in impact.  Other studies show that not giving ourselves time to reflect impairs our ability to empathize with others.  According to one expert: “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind.  Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”[v] So taking time to cultivate a true sense of self-awareness actually has the potential to transform our relationships with and how we understand the other humans with which we share this world.  

Here’s the challenge for each of us: let’s take some time to be alone with ourselves.  Optimally, each day between now and the High Holy Days would be great, but if that seems like too much, what about just on Shabbat?  And if you need a little facilitation, I’d recommend the practice of cheshbon hanefesh – literally an inventory taking of our souls – in which we reflect on our successes and failures over the past year in light of our relationships and experiences.  Here is a sample that you can use:  

Is it possible that we will find the process challenging? Yes. Uncomfortable? Yes.  I don’t think it will be less desirable than self-administered electric shocks, but you never know.  What I do know is that if we take up the challenge, we may just discover something about ourselves we never realized or knew before, and that may just assure that our life as well as the other lives our life touches will be better as a result. 

[i] Murphy, Kate. “No Time to Think,” The New York Times.  July 27, 2014
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Johnson, Carolyn. “People Prefer Electric Shocks to time alone With Thoughts.” Boston Globe. July 3, 2014
[iv] Wilson, Timothy.  “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind.” Science. Vol 345. July 2014.
[v] Dimaggio, Dr.  Giancarlo.  As referenced in “No Time to Think” – see above