Monday, August 8, 2011

90 Minutes off the Grid

I read a great article from the Wall Street Journal this weekend about "The Heady Thrill of Having Nothing to Do."  It was written by Scott Adams - the creator of Dilbert - and I'm very sorry that I can't link you to the full text, because apparently WSJ articles become "subscriber content" after a couple of days.  But here's how the article began:

We've won the war on boredom! If you have a smartphone in your pocket, a game console in the living room, a Kindle in your backpack and an iPad in the kitchen, you never need to suffer a minute without stimulation. Yay!
But wait—we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they're right. I've noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.

There's been plenty of other text - whole books! - written on the perils of modern overstimulation.  It seems that our brains are being significantly rewired, if not completely turned into mush, by our relentless addictions to Facebook, text messaging, Twitter, and the like.

But Scott Adams puts a slightly different twist on the idea.  He basically says - You know, it's too bad we never have to get bored anymore, because our brains do their best inventing when they are temporarily under-stimulated.  Then he says - In a world where no one every gets bored and creativity dies, all the movies are going to be lifeless, derivative sequels, all the television is going to be unscripted nonsense, all the politics is going to consist of tedious, partisan bickering.... oh, wait.  That sounds suspiciously familiar.  Oh damn.

We've been raised to multi-task, and I am not sure this is so great after all.  I find that I have to deliberately force myself to single-task.  If I want to read a book, I first have to power down the laptop completely and go sit on the porch.  If I'm even in the same room as my little MacBook, the actual book will end up on the losing side of the battle.  And I love books!  (I have been reading a lot this summer.)  I always feel great after focusing all of my attention on one thing - and I like doing it! - but single-tasking takes a conscious act of will.

Now here's where yoga comes to the rescue!  For at least 90 minutes of your day - assuming a 90 minute yoga class, of course - you are forced to turn off your fucking iPhone and pay attention to just one thing. Off the grid.  No email, no updates, no texting, no nothing - just you, your body, and the teacher's voice.

You're still being stimulated, of course, but in a totally different way, because your attention has to stay in the room.  As Bikram says, we are trying to "bring the mind back into the body," which is the hardest thing in the world to do, for even one second.

Maybe you don't achieve that perfect meditation.  (Who does?)  That's okay.  You'll still get the benefits that you need, because at least you've removed yourself from all that outside chatter.  It's a 90 minute mental vacation, in more ways than one.  Maybe sometime during the second set of pranayama, after repeating the same inhale-exhale exercise fifteen times, your brain gets a little bit bored.  Well, Mr. Adams is saying that this is also good.  This is what your brain needs in order to be creative.

This surely helps to explain why so many great thinkers are famous for retreating from civilization.  For Henry David Thoreau (the obvious example, sorry), even working at a pencil factory in Concord, MA in the 1840's was too much of a distraction.  God knows what he would make of the internet!  Thoreau brought the Bhagavad Gita with him out to Walden Pond, but you know, those long epics can get boring after a while.  Maybe he got bored with Arjun and Krishna's eloquent but repetitive back-and-forth after a while (many yoga teacher trainees can relate to this feeling) and just sat around staring at the trees, and that's what gave him all his beautiful new ideas.

Of course, now it's 2011, and it's tough enough for us to switch off a laptop for more than a day, nevermind building a log cabin on a freaking pond in Massachusetts.  But at least we can go to yoga and do the same exact sequence again, listening to the same exact words as last time, freed from the outside world for 90 minutes.

Haven't you ever had a really great idea in the middle of yoga class?  One of those fantastic ideas that drops into your brain from out of the blue?  Afterwards, you can't say what made you think of it.  You didn't even have to go looking for it.  It just came to you.  That's because your brain was in a different state.

So please, let's just get all the policy makers, authors, CEOs, musicians, senators, script writers, television producers, teachers - and hell, even the comic book artists - and shove them in a hot room for 90 minutes!  Then we'll see if we can't get some creative new ideas around here.

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