“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
~ Blaise Pascal
I recently read a short piece in the Guardian titled, “This column will change your life: just sit down and think.” It began with the above quote and noted a recent scientific study that showed how people detest spending even a few minutes alone in a room just thinking—almost half prefer giving themselves electric shocks during that time! The study also revealed that even with sufficient leisure time, almost no one spends it just thinking.
A possible explanation comes from the psychologist Steve Taylor’s recent book, Back To Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Minds. Taylor argues that the “urge to immerse our attention in external things is so instinctive that we’re scarcely aware of it.” The cause of this phenomenon is the state of psychological discord that Taylor calls “humania,”(human madness) which is a product of our ego-separateness. (It also is the cause of the major problems facing humanity like warfare, oppression, and environmental destruction.) We mistakenly believe that we are isolated individuals encased inside our heads. Thus we fear that if we dwell on what’s inside, we will experience loneliness and anxiety. In response, we distract ourselves with constant activity.
Taylor argues that this psychic discord manifests itself primarily as continuous “thought chatter” which makes us feel incomplete. We experience not serenity but the “madness of constant wanting,” of material possessions, happiness, power, fame, money, sex or whatever else we think will make us complete. While some are more affected by humania than others, Taylor believes that most modern Westerners suffer from this psychic discord caused by ego-separateness while, surprisingly, indigenous people generally do not.
Taylor’s prescription is to break through the “surface of our being,” the part “filled with disturbance and negativity,” to find that “deep reservoir of stillness and well-being” which is at our core. This does not entail returning to the lifestyle of indigenous people and foregoing modern conveniences, but rather learning how to be more integrated human beings. Yet we cannot find inner peace just by reading a book. We must work at our psychological development, toward attaining “a state of permanent harmony of being.”
Reflections – Inner peace is the best psychic state. If we do not experience it, we have almost nothing; if we experience it, we have almost everything. And we can find it by sitting quietly in a room alone. But reading about this is not enough. We must work at it. For as Spinoza said, “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”
Still too much thinking can be bad too—there is a well-known connection between rumination and depression. Of course ruminating is obsessive-compulsive, which is unlike a calm, meditative state. If one negatively ruminates when alone with their thoughts, then they are probably better off distracted by activity. This is controversial advice, and I would be happy to hear from readers with other insights.