Summer: Time to Let Your Minds Wander | May 20, 2016

A Summer: Time to Let Your Minds Wander

As we head into summer, I imagine many of you are looking forward to having time to relax and do nothing.

I would like to promote the idea of "doing nothing" if by "doing nothing" we mean: reflecting, reading, and walking in whatever wilderness you can find.

Let's start with reflecting.

How many of you believe you are capable of sitting by yourself in a room without your cell phone, without any reading material, with no music, no technology, nothing but your own mind? How long could you last?

In a recent experiment described in Science magazine, participants were asked to sit alone in a room for up to 15 minutes---with nothing to entertain them except their own rambling thoughts. Afterward, most subjects reported that they found it difficult to concentrate and that they did not enjoy the experience of being alone without distraction.

To assess just how much subjects disliked doing nothing, the researchers repeated the experiment. Only this time they gave volunteers the added option of occasionally giving themselves a mild electric jolt. Two thirds of the men in the study—and one quarter of the women—chose to take advantage of the shock option at least once during their time of seclusion.

You see, most subjects in this experiment could not stand being alone with just their minds for even 15 minutes, preferring electric shocks as a form of stimulation to what they perceived to be boredom. In actuality, I would submit that those who opt for shocking themselves with electricity have not learned how to be comfortable and entertained by their own brains. They don't know how to engage in their own thoughts and feelings.

So my first summer challenge for you is to let your minds wander without distraction from technology or other people. Learn to engage in your own thoughts and feelings. Often it is in these moments where you will have your most creative ideas.

Connected with reflecting is reading.

Here is what three parting seniors have to say about reading:

Senior 1: "Reading has not shaped my values, and I don't know if reading books helped me on the SATs or helped me get into college, but I am sure it has made me be a wiser person. Even more than traveling, reading books about people who have different lives from mine has made me wiser and helped me know about the world beyond Summit, New Jersey."

Senior 2: "I know that my most cherished books are within me one way or another. Reading is like a friend of mine: it will always be there for me, and it will make me question myself in ways I didn't think I could."

Senior 3: "If you put freshman Gracie next to senior Gracie, you would never connect that they are the same person. Of course, you could recognize me by my physical features, although my height would be a little different, but it would be hard to ignore the change in confidence and self-awareness. While I should thank the people who helped me transform, this mainly was a self discovery which started from reading and reflecting upon myself."

End of quote.

Finally, I challenge you to spend some time walking outdoors in places where there are no cars, such as the arboretum.

If you have spent time with Mr. Lovelock, you will know that he likes a good walk. The other day, I saw him with his advisees, walking the campus and identifying favorite spots. If you were on the service trip to Peru with him, you will know that the group had a 45-minute hike to the work site each morning. On one of the morning hikes to the work site the leaders staggered students by about 5 minutes so that they could experience the Andes individually. These students, most of whom had never been alone for two minutes in their entire lives, said they loved it.

It is possible, of course, to engage in all three of these on the same afternoon. If you have a good walking companion and a good book, I encourage you to engage in what Henry David Thoreau would call the art of Walking, which he describes so beautifully in his essay appropriately called "Walking." Here is an excerpt:
"I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is of taking walks,--who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering...No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital of this profession. I hope you find some time this summer for unstructured activity with no external direction. Find moments of solitude. Put away your phone, put away your iPad. Strengthen yourself against living by some abstract norm or living someone else's life. Think about the life that you want and return to school with energy to find it.

Timothy D. Wilson et al, "Just think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind"

Scientific American
"Guys Prefer Electric Shocks to Boredom"
August 13, 2014


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