The Shocking Fear of Being Alone with Our Thoughts

Here is something frightening. Do you know what one of the most difficult tasks is for people? To do nothing but think! We do not like to be alone with our thoughts. In more than 11 separate studies,?psychologists at Virginia?and Harvard Universities showed that people so hated being left alone to simply think – regardless of their age, education, income or the amount they used smartphones or social media – that they chose to give themselves mild electric shocks in an attempt to break the tedium of solitude. Two-thirds of men and a quarter of women pressed a button to deliver a painful (though not dangerous) jolt to themselves during a 15-minute spell left alone in a room with nothing to do but think.

I know for me, with the number of inexpensive and readily accessible stimuli providing neurochemical hits of constant connection, the next something or someone new always coming at me, I never have to be alone with my own thoughts. But I/we pay a price losing touch with the kind of solitude that teaches us the difference between being alone and being lonely, that refreshes and restores. Moreover, so many of the challenges we face these days – political, cultural, economic, and environmental challenges, not to mention racism and terrorism – take new, deeper and more sustained thinking.

As all wisdom traditions teach, it is the untutored mind that does not like to be alone with itself. Intentionally taking time and steering our thoughts with meditation, or other techniques, has clear benefits. Without such training, we apparently prefer doing to thinking, even if what we are actually doing is as unpleasant and unproductive as giving ourselves electric shocks.

Do yourself a favor. Try developing your capacity for solitude. I am starting with five minutes and working up.



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