So you know it’s important to practice some kind of stillness and solitude. You know it would be good for you—not only your spiritual life with God, but it would do some good for your physical health as well. The hectic pace you’re living is causing you stress and you know you should do something about it. Your relationship would benefit too. Creating a little space and carving out some margins might keep you from those knee-jerk reactions that mean you end up, well . . . mean sometimes. You know, yelling at the kids, snapping at your spouse, saying something hurtful to a friend, criticizing a coworker.
The problem is, much as you’d like to create some space for stillness, it just isn’t happening. You sit down to pray or meditate and a million things bounce into your head. It’s more battle than bliss, and so you give up—feeling guilty and frustrated. Maybe meditation and resting prayer is for other people, not for you.
Well . . . researchers at the University of Virginia have just reported that, honestly, it’s not just you. We all have trouble getting still, being quiet. We avoid open interior space like the plague. We’d all rather yap at God like the neighbor’s annoying little dog. Anything but be still . . . quiet . . . doing virtually nothing. We seem bent on seeking distraction—anything to avoid being with just ourselves, alone with only our thoughts, and with . . . God.
Leading researcher, Timothy Wilson, says, “We [researchers], like everyone else, noticed how wedded people seem to be to modern technology, and seem to shy away from just using their own thoughts to occupy themselves. That got us to wondering whether this said something fundamental about people’s ability to do this.”
So, they devised a series of experiments reported at a recent meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. It’s a story picked up in The Atlantic.
“Participants rated the task of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts as far less enjoyable and more conducive to mind-wandering than other mellow activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles.
“In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.) Commenting on the sudden appeal of electricity coursing through one’s body, Wilson said, ‘I’m still just puzzled by that.’”
So, being alone with just your thoughts is a problem for others—lots of others—not just you. We’ll do just about anything to avoid being alone with without distractions.
Maybe there’s some comfort in this.
Maybe it’ll help you to know you’re not alone in not wanting to be alone.
And maybe that’ll help you drop that handy little excuse, “Hey, meditation’s just not my thing.”
It’s not an easy thing for anybody.
But doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice it. Frankly, we all need it—like we need air to breathe. We need to cultivate the ability to create a little distance between the thoughts that bump around in our heads so that we won’t be driven crazy by them. We need to create the ability to drop our devices and look at nature, or a book, or into someone’s eyes . . . to taste the food we’re eating, to hear—really hear—the sounds around us.
And we need God. Just God. No posturing before God. No yapping at God. No running from God. Just being with God, in God. Growing that sense of belonging to the Beloved, drawn up out of the cramped little spaces of our lives and into the grandeur of the Divine.
This is real prayer, the purest prayer. But it’s not easy. And it’ll never become easy if we keep salving our need for distraction by avoiding the fact that we need to drop absolutely everything and be alone for a little while with nothing but ourselves . . . and God.
Yeah, you and a lot of us would rather, it seems, shock ourselves electrically than sit for fifteen minutes with nothing else to do. But if we take time and train ourselves to step away from distraction, we will find ourselves shocked by what we encounter in that open space—Something we can’t get anywhere else.
If you need a guide to this kind of prayer, see my guide to the Jesus Prayer here.
And here’s another short reflection on the need for contemplative space in our busy lives.