By Celia Coates
A recent blog in SATI Mindfulness began this way:
“For most of us, most of the time, we’re running on fumes.
Or, if not fumes, then on half a tank of gas.
In a car that needs an oil change.
And some new tires.
We don’t give ourselves the rest we need.”
Just reading those lines made me aware of just how long it’s been since I’ve taken the time to rest, or to repair and refuel.
Craig and Devon are mindfulness meditation teachers and Craig writes their blog. They learned about the need to rest while leading retreats. They recommend a way to refuel that’s a wonderful challenge: find half a day when you can be alone and then choose to be completely idle, “And just do nothing. The whole time. Don’t go for a 30 mile bike ride. Don’t read the news. Don’t read a book. Don’t take in any information at all.”
They add, “When you feel tired, sleep. When you feel restless, jump up and down and make funny noises. Sure, you can meditate if you feel like it. A slow walk might be just the thing.”
I like the idea of jumping up and down and making funny noises. It’s been decades since I outgrew that. But I know how very, very hard it is to let go of the pleasant distraction of taking in information. Devon and Craig instruct us to unplug all our devices and entertainment sources – no phone or T.V. – so we can allow the brain to become quiet. We need to let go of the constant tug at our attention coming from the digital world. Since we can’t consume externally-produced information, both the mind and the body take a break from the usual routines, activities, and distractions. We’re left only with our own awareness and a lot of empty time.
It can feel so different, so unfamiliar, that it’s very uncomfortable. But when we let go of our usual round of tasks we can learn something new about how the mind works. It’s a rigorous discipline, an unusual experience of open time and non-focused effort that can refresh us. Having said something about how to rest, Devon and Craig say why: that it is to help ourselves, but even more it allows us to, “… have the energy, the space, and the emotional resources to actually be of benefit to others.”
There’s a different kind of useful advice about helping ourselves in a NEW SCIENTIST article, “Cultivate Your Unconscious” by Emma Young. She presents some recent research about how we can hack our own brains. While Devon and Craig tell us something about unplugging from the constant flow of external information, the NEW SCIENTIST article tells us how to connect with and use functions of our brains that we might not know about:
“It is early days, but already our growing understanding of the human mind means we can begin to hack our unconscious powers of inspiration, pain relief, emotional control, memory and more.”
Please read the whole article in the July 28th issue of NEW SCIENTIST – it contains more than I’ll mention here. And, it makes two points I disagree with – first, the magazine routinely follows the standard view that the brain creates the mind. I hold the view often expressed as, “the brain does not create the mind any more than a T.V. set creates the programs it shows.” Second, the words “conscious” and “consciousness” are used in many ways and mean different things in different disciplines. For example, when neurologists use the words conscious and unconscious they may not mean what psychologists mean. And those who know about subtle energies understand them in yet another way. In this article “creativity” is listed as an unconscious function of the brain. I disagree strongly.
But the article also reports some research that is very useful.
For example: if doing nothing for half a day generates anxiety, follow the advice about lowering the stress level by slowing the rate of breathing,
“For the best results, breathe in for a count of four and out for eight, and within 5 minutes your should notice a significant reduction in anxiety.”
Slowing your breathing, “… sends a powerful signal that you are not feeling anxious to part of your brain involved in processing emotion, which then helps regulate your heart rate.”
Research by neuroscientist Michael Shadlen from Columbia University has shown that, “… aha moments occur when enough relevant information has accumulated in the unconscious to trigger conscious awareness of a decision. The point at which this critical threshold is reached will vary depending on the task.”
Jonathan Schooler from the University of California at Santa Barbara, was interested in the findings, “…that creative insight is driven by one of two very different states of mind: concentrated focus and daydreaming. … He found that focused thinking actually undermines inspiration unless you are using an overtly analytical approach to solve a problem. By contrast, letting your mind wander, after taking in information, cultivates creative insight.”
He recommends finding time for non-focused thinking – such as we might have during that half day of doing nothing.
Studies have also shown that modifying your emotional state can boost having new ideas. Cristina Fong from Carnegie Mellon University has found that, “…simultaneously experiencing two emotions that aren’t typically felt together – such as frustration and excitement – encourages creative insights too. That might be, she says, because it signals that you are in an unusual environment, making you alert to the possibility of other unusual relationships.”
Experiencing competing emotions is certainly part of that half day of “nothing.”
These discoveries support the need to rest and refuel and to gain the benefits that result from making the effort to take time out. Modern science is supporting what ancient cultures have known for centuries and have taught us through the many traditions of meditation.
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You can read Craig’s blog at www.satimindfulness.com
The article by Emma Young, “Cultivate Your Unconscious,” appeared in the weekly NEW SCIENTIST for 28 July 2018.