Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There
For all the wonders the Information Age has afforded us, it has also provided us with infinite possibilities for constant activity and distraction. Whatever gaps of inactivity that might have existed in days before pre-internet (and particularly pre mobile tech)–waiting in line, riding the train, even taking a poop–are, for many of us, now filled with web-surfing, Facebook/Twitter checking, game playing, etc. We will do anything but do nothing and be alone with ourselves. This condition of constant activity–as well as a possible remedy–is the theme of this TED talk by Nick Seaver.
Seaver explains how we’ve become a culture obsessed with distraction and doing, doing, doing–a culture so focused on changing the outside world that we’ve lost track on how to change ourselves. In the interest of the latter pursuit, Seaver and his wife spent 18 months of near-total silent retreat as part of the Samatha Project. As guinea pigs for studying the long term effects of meditation, they would spend 10-12 hours daily in silent meditation, letting, as Seaver said, the snow in the snow-globe in their minds settle down. The physiological effects of the silence were then monitored by scientists in order to get real data about how meditation affects the body and mind.
Seaver has many positive things to say about his experience in particular and meditation in general. I’d recommend watching the talk. But some of it can be summed up by a quote he gives by psychologist Victor Frankl, who said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” If we are to believe Frankl’s contention and yet continue to fill all of those spaces with flurries of distraction, forever reacting automatically rather than responding intentionally, our growth will be stunted, our freedom limited. On the other hand, if we give time to and permit those spaces, if we start to cultivate the art of doing nothing, we might be less likely of being enslaved by whatever random stimulus enters our mental newsfeed, we might start choosing how we want to live our lives. Seaver recommends ten minutes a day of silent meditation (1% of our waking hours) to regain those spaces, to start changing the world by changing ourselves.