Our lives are so inundated with communication it’s overwhelming – text messages, emails, phone calls, the internet. And we’ve read a million articles reminding us how addicted we are to these things, yet it’s difficult to free ourselves from the clutches of these distractions. Maybe, it’s time to consider the benefits of solitude and carve out time to isolate ourselves from the interminable notifications of our interconnected world.
Sitting with One’s Thoughts: A Shocking Statistic
In 2014, a study published in the journal Science found that most people would rather shock themselves than sit undisturbed with their thoughts. Even after experiencing the shock before the trial and saying they would pay money not to be shocked again, 25 percent of women and 67 percent of men chose to shock themselves while sitting alone for 15 minutes. One of the participants even decided to shock himself 190 times in that period, but that person’s masochism is beside the point.
Unsurprisingly, results showed the majority of subjects did not enjoy their time sitting alone and being asked to simply think. Half of these participants rated their experience at, or below, a level of “somewhat enjoyable,” while most ranked it highly on a boredom scale.
Why is it so difficult for us to go inward and block out external stimuli? One theory claims it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism. Known as the Scanner Hypothesis, some researchers believe that as mammals we’ve evolved to monitor our environments for both danger and opportunity. Therefore, our brains consider doing nothing waste of time.
But we evolved to be more than mere mammals behaving on natural instinct, or at least we have the ability to transcend those instincts if we consciously choose to do so. That’s what separates man from beast, right?
Unfortunately, our lives aren’t always conducive to the ascetic lifestyle, and taking a sabbatical to go live like a certain civilly disobedient poet at Walden Pond isn’t always in the cards. So, what can the average person do to escape the torpor of our stimulus saturated society?
Unplugging from Technology
How many times have you been waiting in line at the store, or sitting in a waiting room scrolling through social media before realizing you’ve retained almost nothing you just consumed? Think about it next time you’re casually scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, try to remember what you saw five posts ago – our mindless consumption is scary sometimes.
Alas, we must stay connected — we’re expected to. But if we devote an entire hour every day to rid ourselves of those connections, the psychological benefits may be pleasantly surprising.
The next step is to sit alone with your monkey mind, as the Buddhists refer to it, and go inward. Not so shockingly, the minority of subjects in the aforementioned study who enjoyed spending 15 minutes doing nothing, often had experience with meditation. Learning to accept the endless flow of thoughts and opinions crowding our minds is the first hurdle of meditation and mindfulness, and it’s not easy. But there’s no learning or achievement in anything easy. The work is in the pain and struggle; that’s the only way to grow and accomplish anything in life.
Sensory Deprivation Tanks a.k.a. Isolation Tanks
John C. Lilly invented the sensory deprivation tank in 1954 in an attempt to isolate the mind from all external stimuli. Lilly was interested in studying the depths of our psyche, and throughout his life frequently transcended numerous realms of consciousness. He even devised a scale for it based on the Buddhist enlightenment concept of Satori.
Today, sensory deprivation tanks have seen an explosion in popularity, especially over the past decade. Filled with hundreds of pounds of salt, these tanks allow for maximum buoyancy and are typically pitch black. Users experience disorienting weightlessness, where physical sensation disappears, leaving only the mind.
Most find float tanks pleasant and therapeutic; an environment for introspection, meditation, and tranquility. This abandonment of all sensory perception can lead to psychedelic experiences and profound personal insight. And floating around in a dark tub of water prohibits technological distraction, forcing the confrontation of the monkey mind.
Retreats and Isolation from Society
Those in need of a life-changing event or paradigm shift may need to devote a little more effort to finding solitude. Silent retreats are one way to disconnect from the world and they’ve become increasingly popular with the rise of eastern spiritual practices in the western world. Participants in these retreats take a vow of silence for days or weeks in order to go inward, while also cultivating self-discipline.
Jesse Itzler took the isolation retreat to the next level by temporarily living in a monastery in upstate New York. Itzler’s goal was to radically disconnect himself from the chaos of modern society and his fast-paced life as a successful entrepreneur. So, he spent two weeks living among a group of Russian Orthodox monks who spent much of their day in silent contemplation.
On his first night at 6:00 p.m., Itzler was brought to a modest room called a cell, with nothing but a desk and a bed. He was told to be ready the following day for prayer, meditation, and reflection at 7:15 a.m. Asking what he was supposed to do in the 13 hours until then, he was simply told to think.
Itzler had some experience with meditation, so to assuage his initial anxiety and boredom, he did so. After closing his eyes and attempting to silence his mind, Itzler believed he had meditated for hours until he looked at his watch and realized only three-and-a-half minutes had elapsed. Thus, began the longest two weeks of his life. In the end, he said the disconnection from society changed him for the better and improved personal relationships with his wife, family, and friends. But it wasn’t easy.
No matter which method is best for you, the scientific benefits of solitude and disconnection from the world are countless. Solitude is proven to boost productivity, build mental acuity, increase empathy, and harbor creativity. So, whether you decide to commit an hour, day, week, or even months to finding your solitude and reconnecting with your inner self… do it, especially if it’s difficult.
Watch Hide Away, a movie telling the story of a successful, but emotionally drained businessman who finds solitude on a journey into the refuge of nature: