Consider this: over the course of the last one hundred years, we have moved from being a largely rural population that was incredibly active, day in and day out, to being mostly urban and sedentary. It is generally understood that this has been better for our wealth than for our health, so most people accept that they should be getting some regular physical exercise to compensate. Whether they actually do any actual exercise or not is another question, but pretty much everybody understands that it would be a good idea.
Conversely, over the last one hundred years, both the speed and volume of our mental stimulation has shifted dramatically upwards. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when even the rare knowledge worker didn’t have more than a few inputs – worst case, a few dozen – in a day. Today, just to tread water, we are asked to process more information than ever before in human history. The average news website contains more information than most medieval Europeans took in in a lifetime. And that is what you absorb before you start work (or, for some of you, before you get out of bed…). Before the conversations, flood of emails, meeting notes and calls that you are required to process each day in your job. But however much comes at you in a day as an external input, it is a small fraction of what you create for yourself. Research shows that we have about 50,000 – 60,000 thoughts per day.
So, if becoming more sedentary calls for an organised programme of moving our bodies, there is a case to be made for the opposite: taking time each day to slow down and quieten our minds. A time out from the frantic rush of inputs, thoughts and ideas that we have each day. While your mind is incredibly powerful and resilient, there is a lot of data to support the suggestion that its functioning is only enhanced if we take regular breaks to allow it to rest, regenerate and process everything we’ve thrown at it. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is to stop and do nothing for a while.
This rhythm of activity and rest is seemingly woven into the fabric of our world. The seasons come and go – some are for growing, some for slowing down and regenerating. On a more human scale, after thousands of years of trial and error, pretty much every spiritual tradition suggests a rest day each week. Music without rests is just a cacophony.
To be clear, I’m a fan of breaks. Big ones, small ones, indoor or outdoor, mental or physical. I think we need more of them. Not ones where we simply switch apps to check celebrity news; but breaks that restore, refresh and remotivate us to re-engage and move the things forward that matter to us.
If you have a consistent practice of slowing down or stopping each day, then we’re probably done here. Keep doing it.
If you don’t have a practice, then I won’t add to your list of things to do by suggesting that you get one. Instead, I’ll simply have a bash at unpicking two of the biggest blockers I see to getting started.
Here they are:
- I want to do it the ‘right’ way
- I want to know how I’m doing, both compared to others and against some target
There is no ‘right’ way. Thomas Merton, one of the great teachers of his generation, said of meditation: “The only wrong way is to not do it at all.” His sense was that as long as you were practicing, there was some possibility of improvement. The only impediment to improvement is not doing anything about doing nothing, if you get my drift.
As regards having a scorecard on how you are doing – it seems that is not on offer. The challenge is that the benefits are subtle, and accrue over time. If you are looking for a BIG EXPERIENCE, you are likely to be disappointed. It’s why first-person shooter video games are much more popular than sitting quietly with yourself.
Again, there is no ‘right’ way: counting breaths, good; mantra, good; walking, good; classical music, good.
Having no practice at all, not so good.
So get started. Erm, get stopped?