In a 2010 study, the University of Maryland asked 200 students to refrain from using electronic media for a day. After the exercise, one student commented: “Texting and im-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.” Not being able to communicate via technology, he complained, “was almost unbearable” (emphasis added throughout).
What a sorry state of mind. This young man was tethered so tightly to gadgets—and the perpetually connected world they open up—he feared being alone. His existence was defined by his place in the crowd. Solitude was his enemy.
In his international bestseller The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet wrote that the art of thinking “is the art of being one’s self, and this art can only be learned if one is by one’s self.” Deep, strong, independent thinkers, he wrote, love being alone—they crave and create moments of solitude.
Great thinkers—or as Dimnet called them, “people possessed of a mastering purpose leaving no room for inferior occupations”—stand apart for the “directness of their intellectual vision.” The mind of the weak thinker, on the other hand, has a “fatal capacity for letting in extraneous thoughts or mental parasites.”
To engage in deep, single-focused thinking, we must create an environment devoid of distractions. We must love solitude.
This is not easy. These days, if we carry a cell phone or iPod, we are not alone. If we’re logged into Facebook or Googling, we are not alone. If we’re sitting in a silent room pecking away at the computer but have e-mail or instant messenger open, we are not alone.
Creating the solitude needed for thinking requires flicking the off switch on every screen in our lives! Here are some other tips for creating solitude in our lives.
Whether using a gadget or creating space for serious thought, budget your time. Put a limit on your recreational Internet use. When you’re on the computer, set the timer so you don’t lose track of time. Limit the number of texts you (and your teenager) send each day. Force yourself to only check your e-mail once an hour, or once a night. Turn the television off after the specified maximum time each day or week. Carve out blocks during the evening when all cell phones, or all gadgets, are off.
By exerting more self-discipline—both with our time as well as our use of gadgets—most us could quite easily create the nooks of solitude required for quality thinking.
In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers explains the value of what he terms the “Internet sabbath.” A few years ago, he and his wife began turning off the modem on Friday night and not switching it on until Monday morning. For the entire weekend, the family was disconnected from the Internet and the digital crowd. It wasn’t easy at first. But as time passed, the impact was noticeable and welcomed.
On the weekends, Powers writes, the house became a “kind of island away from the madness.” Instead of each family member retiring to a room with a gadget, they gathered for board games and conversation. Naturally, the family grew closer. During the day they spent more time outdoors and grew to love nature. They got to know their neighbors.
Why not consider following Powers’s example and instituting a rest day from the Internet, or even all gadgets in your household? If switching off gadgets for an entire day isn’t practical, then carve out time—perhaps during dinner and for an hour afterward—when all screens must be off.
Here’s another idea: Create within your home nooks of solitude—areas where family members can go to be free of noise, distractions and screens. Teach the family to respect these as places where the stressed can unwind and read a book or poem, or simply reflect and contemplate.
Realize, though, we can be isolated in a silent environment and still be plagued by thought-destroying noise and bustle within. The mind that is overloaded, filled with commotion and unorganized, unfiled information, is incapable of in-depth, concentrated thought.
To think and reflect, we must also strive to create interior solitude. This means switching off any extraneous programs running in our minds. It means removing mental distractions, obstacles to focused concentration. If you’re distracted because you haven’t paid a bill, pay it. Forget about the tv show you might be missing. When you sit down to read a book, switch the computer off so its alluring glow won’t entice you. Switch off your cell phone too. Do whatever it takes to purge the distractions from your mind.
“[T]o lead happy, productive lives in a connected world,” writes Powers, “we need to master the art of disconnecting.” This will certainly go a long way to creating an environment conducive to deep, independent thought. But, alone, it won’t result in our leading “happy, productive lives.” If we want our lives to be happy and positive, productive and forward-moving, we need more than just peaceful solitude. And we need more than just the ability to think deeply.
To attain the heights of happiness, our minds, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12, need to be “transformed” by the truth and Spirit of God. Fact is, the way to possessing the ultimately satisfied mind is to immerse oneself in truth, law and obedience. To learn more about this ultimate mental and spiritual transformation, read The Incredible Human Potential.