The Solitude Challenge

This week I had an assignment for one of my classes to contemplate the role of technology in my personal life, and how the tools of technology both legitimize and dismantle our ideas of solitude and isolation. To start the assignment, I sat alone in a room in my house without any technology, other people, or reading material.

I need solitude, which is to say, recovery, return to my self, the breath of a free, light, playful air — Friedrich Nietzsche

Being away from technology doesn’t intimidate me. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a home without a lot of technology. We didn’t have a television or gaming system, and when we wanted entertainment, we had only ourselves as resources. Of course, with acres of land and four siblings, I wasn’t exactly challenged for ways to spend my time, but I did have to rely on my own imagination for entertainment and had to learn to be comfortable with empty spaces and long silences. I feel that I’ve brought a great deal of that into my adult life. In my home, I try to encourage my family and friends to set their phones aside, for example.

So, in many ways, I thought this assignment would be fairly uneventful.

But then I realized how accustomed I’ve become to “doing” something. About ten minutes in, my brain was leap-frogging from topic to topic, making mental lists of things to do at work tomorrow, reminding myself to price out snow tires on the Internet, wondering which of our friends had replied to an email thread inviting them to a birthday celebration.

This blogger calls them “thought goblins.” Maybe I wasn’t meditating, or longing for nirvana, but I still felt that nagging question of “Am I doing this right?” and “I can’t seem to relax.” I realized that, for me, relaxation often comes when I’m reading a book, listening to a beautiful piece of music, watching a movie, or talking with my partner. In this moment of solitude, when asked to empty my life of all the “things” that I do, you might imagine that I would find relaxation and peace, but instead I felt tense.

Maybe that comes from my parents, who never stopped working or looking for a project. In spare moments, my mother would throw up the piano lid and play a song or two. My father would find something to fix and, if there was nothing to fix, he might start “fixing” things which weren’t really broken.

A man and his thoughts...
from Giampaolo Macorig “A Man and His Thoughts”

But as the minutes ticked by, and tick they did, I found myself settling into a more comfortable place. Yes, my mind was still working, but now in larger and larger concentric circles. I thought about a piece of music I’d heard on the way home, the way, at that crucial moment in the song, the melancholy guitar solo was joined by joyous human voices. I thought about how I might want to redecorate the room I was sitting in. And then, for awhile, nothing at all that I can remember.

That reminded me of this awesome TED talk about the science of mind wandering, which found (yes, there’s an app for that) a strong connection between moments of human happiness and day-dreaming or mind-wandering.

I like the idea that there is something restorative in letting ourselves be “not busy” and “not surrounded.” That our brains, freed from restraint, might meander in ways that actually make us healthier or happier.

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