I have spent a lot of time just waiting around, this past couple of days, engaged as I was in long haul flights or waiting for them. Waiting offers a unique and interesting opportunity for quiet contemplation, but in my quiet contemplation I’ve noticed something rather disquieting. Quiet contemplation appears to be a lost art, or at least a fast disappearing one.
People have developed a nervous, involuntary tick that involves the prodding of a little screen on a handheld device. You see them making little stabbing and swiping motions, while their gaze fixates on the screen just beneath their fingertips. It’s an odd, jerky, disturbing movement, accompanied by a zombie-like stare and a complete disengagement from the real world around them, as they disappear into a mental bubble of their own making. This is like a trance, except that it seems to agitate and frustrate the sufferers, rather than soothing and calming them, judging by their facial grimaces and responses. These little screens have taken extreme self-involvement to new levels of incredibility.
Screen obsessives cry that they are bored, the instant they are not distracted by a continuous stream of utter vacuity. If they have to sit still, they begin to twitch and fidget and reach for their mobile devices. The reason they are so irritated is that they have literally lost the ability to be alone with their thoughts and to enjoy the benefits of a little enforced solitude. They’ve lost their appreciation of the cessation of incoming marketing messages and interpersonal communications. A life without interruptions seems to have become an intolerable void, in which the afflicted has no way of self-stimulating their own brain and thought processes. It is as if any moment without the incessant pabulum makes people feel like they’ve ceased to exist.
I’ve written about the benefits of quiet contemplation before, but I think people are genuinely unaware of how much they lose, when they lose the ability to contemplate in quiet solitude. If they knew what they were giving up, in order to participate in the narcissistic screen-obsession that has overtaken most of the civilised world, they might think again. At least one hopes they would. I think it’s a very sad affliction. Here’s a little of what has been lost:
- Daydreaming – Regular readers of this blog know that I strongly advocate daydreaming and its ability to transport you to other places, times and situations, if only in your mind. Touring the extended, imaginative reaches of your mind is a fun thing to do, which is made possible by a little quiet contemplation time. I think if we lose the ability to daydream, or lose the habit of it, we’re in danger of losing something that makes us fundamentally human. When I see people wasting their quiet contemplation time, stabbing on touch screens, I despair a little. If you cannot daydream then, when there really is little else to do, then when can you do it?
- Observing – There is something existentially satisfying in simply noticing the things around you, especially small things that would otherwise be overlooked as insignificant. When you are sitting in quiet contemplation, virtually anywhere you happen to be, there are infinite opportunities to simply observe the things around you. Being acutely aware of your surroundings is a human trait that was necessary for survival, in the ancestral wilds of the Savannah. In modern times, our sense of place and awareness of what’s happening around us has been muted and attenuated, as we tune out the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Being overloaded with things to notice has dulled the senses. In quiet contemplation, however, when you are sitting still and waiting, you get the chance to study your environment in detail, taking note of everything there is to notice. I believe this puts us back in touch with our ancient nature, a once familiar sense of being, where we had a heightened awareness of threats and treats. Trying to discover the subtle visual delights of your immediate surroundings is a very nice way to spend some quiet time.
- People watching – People are endlessly fascinating creatures and quietly, discreetly observing their faces, body language and interactions can be very entertaining. It’s also very life-affirming to realise that others are much the same as you are. Foibles and grace are both on display for the avid people-watcher to observe. You can connect empathically with people that you simply watch and admire. There is amusement and wonderment available in equal measure. Small children, learning and expressing their curiosity are as interesting to watch as are older people becoming frail and infirm with the passing years. The egotistical preening, attitudes and postures of younger poseurs is also a thing to behold. When you have some time to lose yourself in quiet contemplation, remarking to yourself at how the people around you unconsciously speak and behave is a very interesting and stimulating thing to do, provided you avoid being a creep about it. Always respect other people’s right to privacy and space.
- Just listening – Sometimes, if you close your eyes and just listen, you can surprise yourself at the sounds you have mentally tuned out and ignored. Being aware of those sounds anew, tuning in on them and focusing on really hearing them is a nice exercise in awareness and a great way to intensify your aural senses. We are bombarded by audible clutter, day in and day out, yet taking the time to really listen to one’s environment can give you a sense of heightened belonging to the world you inhabit. There are both unpleasant and beautiful noises to hear, if you care to listen. Seeing if you can zero in on a sound of interest strains your binaural sonic location abilities. It’s a good thing to do. In ancient times, human beings relied on being able to sense predators early enough to take evasive action and to hear where water was, at a distance. Hearing is an important sense and using some quiet contemplation time to exercise it is good for you, I believe.
- Organising your thoughts – If you’re like most people, there are some matters upon which your mind is a clutter of disordered, disorganised thoughts and ideas. That leads to a sense of confusion and indecision, because you simply cannot tell what you think, given the conflicting ideas inside your own mind. A very good use of quiet contemplation time is to sift those thoughts, methodically, or else in a gestalt fashion, to think about what you think. Going through the pros and cons, or exercising the arguments in favour and against, can help you reach clarity and a deeper understanding. There is nothing quite as satisfying as starting with a jumbled mass of poorly organised ideas and ending up with a lucid mental schema that organises everything comprehensively. The “a-ha” or “eureka” moment is worth the time spent in quiet contemplation, organising your thoughts. Often, the very attempt at doing so reveals underlying, hidden thoughts that were the obstacle all along and which you had suppressed or overlooked. Clarifying what you think is a thing that few people seem to know how to do, anymore and it reveals itself in their confused, contradictory viewpoints and opinions. I think intelligence relies greatly on spending at least some time organising your thoughts. Time spent in quiet contemplation is the perfect opportunity to do so.
- Imaginative rehearsal – Also known as pre-visualisation, the ability to go through the steps and motions, in your imagination, before the actual attempt, can have as much effect on subsequently properly performing a task in real life, as rehearsing it physically. The chance to rehearse, in your imagination, is valuable. It lets you foresee and overcome potential obstacles and allows you to feel and savour your success, providing a tangible goal, in your emotions, for successfully carrying out the task in question for real. Being able to feel like a winner, before the attempt, increases your odds of actually being a winner, when you try. Being stuck somewhere, with nothing to do, is a perfect opportunity to engage in some imaginative rehearsal of some important future challenge or other, so that you can prepare yourself for it, ahead of time. Squandering that opportunity, by stabbing on a little touch screen distractedly instead, seems like an egregious waste of a perfect chance.
- Theoretical design – Just as you can rehearse tasks, in your imagination, you can design things, too. Most people think of designers as designing their designs on pieces of paper attached to a drawing board, but that’s only one way to do it. Much design work can be accomplished in your mind’s eye. You can manipulate shapes and concepts as easily as one another and think about aesthetic and practical options in your imagination. Some of the very best designs have been designed in a person’s imagination, exclusively. You don’t need to commit a design to paper (or a composition to manuscript) until it is wholly constructed in your mind. Thereafter, transcribing it to tangible form is akin to taking dictation. There is little to edit and correct, if you can see the completed design, in detail, in your own head. There are few better times to do intellectual, imaginative design work than when you are engaged in quiet contemplation. Waiting for something to happen is a good time to do this.
- Seeking inspiration – Sometimes, sitting quietly and alone, lost in your own thoughts, is the best way to seek inspiration. It’s amazing the things that draw your attention, which stimulate subsequent inspirational and imaginative thoughts and ideas. Occasionally, when stuck for inspiration, the act of quiet contemplation can bring inspiration forth. Of course, another way is to get on with doing whatever it is that you need inspiration to start, anyway. In the latter case, the same process is at work. By starting to do what you think you lack inspiration to do, your mind quietly contemplates things, while you are lost in the flow of actually doing the work, and so inspiration comes, because your mind has been stilled and calmed by performing the work itself. Being in the flow is very similar to being in a state of quiet contemplation and knowing this duality gives you the opportunity to conjure up inspiration, seemingly from thin air, simply by quietly thinking about it.
- Getting new ideas – Inspiration and new ideas, or innovations, are very closely related. Just as you can conjure up the inspiration to move forward with your imaginative or intellectual work, you can also allow your quiet mind to connect the seemingly unrelated and find patterns in observations, thereby spawning or giving rise to the thought processes that lead to new ideas. Simply having a quiet think about a problem or challenge can be enough of a stimulus for your brain to work away at the issue, subconsciously, producing a breakthrough concept, seemingly out of nowhere. The quiet contemplation that you have been engaged in has given your mind, especially your subconscious, the spare capacity it needed to be brilliant. Indeed, brilliance is often a manifestation of finding a way to devote your available brain power to a specific problem, rather than dissipating it with distractions. The act of engaging in quiet contemplation is actually the same as releasing some of your thinking power to use for coming up with bright, new ideas. Stabbing your touch screen with your index finger is a way of disrupting that brain power releasing state.
- Meditation (of a kind) – They say that meditation is good for you and they are probably right about that, but the only meditation I really know how to do is just being alone and still, with my own thoughts. If that counts as meditation, then good. It certainly produces a feeling of well-being and of releasing cares and worries. I think proper meditation does roughly the same thing. Given the similarity of quiet contemplation and what the mystics and gurus call meditation, I contend that sitting quietly, waiting somewhere, thinking about nothing in particular, produces the same effects and benefits as meditation and therefore, is a form of meditation. Whatever the semantics, the feelings it produces are undoubtedly good for you and far healthier for you than dealing with constant incoming messages, minutiae and gossip. For one thing, there is no requirement to respond emotionally. You don’t have to get wound up and there is very little risk of confronting a troll, or having to deal with one of the inevitable misunderstandings that arise because of the brevity of our interpersonal communications, these days.
- Being present in the moment – An important aspect of quiet contemplation is the ability to temporarily uncouple from and ignore the past and the future. You don’t have to think about them at all (though you can, if you want). The benefit of imagining that there is no past or future, for a moment, is that you can focus all of your attention on the present moment, which all the psychologists and therapists claim is very good for your mental health. You also have the chance to respond to other people, listening intently to them and engaging them in meaningful discussion and debate. The ability to quietly contemplate gives you the opportunity to respond to other people’s attempts to connect with you, on a human level, with immediacy and sincerity, undiluted by needing to think about responding to incoming messages on your mobile phone. You can be there, with them and experience the moment to the full, without having half your mind somewhere else, thinking about something else. The best benefit of learning to engage in quiet contemplation is that it hones your ability to focus on just one person or one thing, right here, right now.
- Practicing and practising gratitude – One of the best things about quietly contemplating things is that you can choose to count your blessings. The more you put this gratitude into action, the better you get at it. In other words, you both practise and practice gratitude. They say that being grateful for all the good things you have in your life is a great way to prevent yourself from focusing too much on the things that trouble or dissatisfy you. It allows you to restore a healthy perspective, by reminding yourself that, for all your woes and challenges, so much has gone exactly the way you would have wished. Quiet contemplation, used for this purpose, is time well spent and a positive benefit to your mental health. Playing with your iPhone apps probably isn’t as valuable, by comparison.
- Feeling calm and relaxed – This is my favourite reason to indulge in quiet contemplation. There is a great deal of calm and relaxation that comes from sitting still, quietly, making little sound or movement, listening, watching, imagining and being lost and alone with your thoughts. You will notice your heart rate will fall, so your blood pressure will probably tend toward stability. You will experience a sense of tranquillity and a dream-like, almost trance-like state in which your senses are heightened, rather than dulled. With heightened senses comes an aesthetic satisfaction, as you are able to see, hear and feel the things around you in greater emotional definition. It is the same sensation as living a high-fidelity life, where every sound, colour, shape and sense is pleasing and saturated with meaning. The ability to relax yourself is very important, in the high stress world we inhabit. Being able to resolve perceived threats by calmly putting them to one side and sitting still, quietly contemplating happier, more pleasing things is a talent we should all cherish and retain. It can be an antidote to frenzy, whereas interacting with your mobile phone simply adds to it.
We glorify looking important, in demand and busy, when the greater value is to be found, ironically, in finding the ability to disconnect from the immediate demands of the world and to inhabit our own mind purposefully, with the desire of contemplating things that we wish to think about. Therein lays the route to accomplishment, betterment, intelligence and a satisfying intellectual life. The fruits of the thinking that takes place, during periods of quiet contemplation, can materially impact our lives, for the better. Through quiet contemplation, we learn to challenge, evaluate, analyse and visualise. Our senses and our thinking are both sharpened and refined. We become more intelligent, because of the time we spend engaged in purposeful mental exercise. In contrast, the time we spend merely entertaining and distracting ourselves is our most valuable intellectual thinking time wantonly frittered away, for little return.
The time you spend in quiet contemplation can be extremely valuable, enjoyable, useful and rewarding. Rather than looking for ways to avoid it, finding all the opportunities you can to engage in it is probably the more fruitful way of living. It’s worth putting away the touch screens, losing the fear of being bored and plunge immersively, with enthusiasm, into being alone and lost in your own thoughts.
People that don’t want you to think for yourself, so that you become and remain endlessly docile, manipulable and pliable, have done their level best to get you to forget the art of quiet contemplation. To stick to it, vehemently, is an act of defiance, an assertion of freedom and an expression of disobedience toward and contempt for those that hold the rest of us all in contempt. Quiet contemplation is essential for the maintenance of human dignity. I urge you to continue to practice quiet contemplation, for the sake of humanity.