Painful solitude?

When was the last time you spent 15 minutes doing nothing? No TV, music, nothing to read, no smart phone.  If you can’t remember, you’re not alone.  It seems most people really struggle with solitude, and some would rather administer a small electric shock to themselves than tolerate it.  Mark Sainsbury and I talked about how hard it is to just be still and quiet with our own thoughts, and whether this is a modern problem, on the Radio Live Sunday morning show this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

Mindfulness is often touted as a psychological panacea, a cure for all our ills.  And there is little doubt it can be very helpful.  However it’s also true that for many it can be very, very difficult and indeed painful.  Researchers at the University of Virginia have come up with a number of studies that appear to show just how hard some people find it…

“They report on 11 experiments. In most, they asked participants to put away any distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. Over the first six studies, 58 percent of participants rated the difficulty at or above the midpoint on a scale (“somewhat”), and 42 percent rated their enjoyment below the midpoint. In the seventh study, participants completed the task at home, and 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there.” (Click here for the whole article)

So about half find it difficult and unpleasant.  But what is really, <ahem> shocking, is that in a further study participants were given the added option of voluntarily giving themselves a mild electric shock during the 15 minute period.  And surprisingly  two thirds of men and one quarter of women did so.  This is an electric shock that prior to being in solitude they would’ve paid money to avoid.  It seems some people find sitting in solitude so unpleasant that even causing themselves pain is preferable!

So what’s going on here?

Smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, instant gratification etc, etc…  That’s what I thought too, but no, wrong.  The experiment was carried out across a wide age range and they found essentially no difference between participants of different ages, with subjects ranging from 18 to 77.  The researchers conclude these modern devices are merely a symptom of our desire to continually distract ourselves.

The leading theory at this point is that we are all biologically inclined, for survival reasons, to scan our external environment.  To put it another way, we all tend to be externally biased.  Because of this it is unnatural to spend any extended period of time not focussing externally.

This makes sense to me, and moreover it is only as our external worlds have become relatively safer that the costs of this external bias becomes apparent in the form of anxiety, boredom, malaise and the modern desire for stimulation.

I think Mindfulness is an ancient solution, to an age old problem, that we’re only just noticing we have.  It’s not so much a fad as a modern necessity: a counter-balance to the high stimulation but existentially safe life most of us now live.


*If you are looking for an easy way to start meditating you can’t do much better than Andy Puddicombe’s (the TED talk presenter from my last blog) website, iOS and Android app “Headspace.”  The first ten days of meditation are free, and he does a good job of guiding you through the basics of how to practice bringing our attention to the present moment.



Leave a Comment

  • Ingrid Rose Nagl November 23, 2014, 7:20 pm

    This is truly shocking. I do believe though, that technology has got something to do with an increasing loss of authentic connectedness to ourselves, our bodies, and other people, as well as nature. The general sense of disconnection becomes too painful to feel when we are not busy, pre-occupied or entertained. Also, being busy is highly rated in society, it means you are valuable, while doing nothing or being still, tends to be associated with laziness or un-productivity. I find that connecting with my body either through meditation or mindful movement, and connecting with nature on a daily base are invaluable practices to stay connected to myself, and get a sense of pleasure and enjoyment from being in solitude, rather then feeling terrified of what may come up if I do nothing. This also supports an experience of feeling held in a larger sense, which gives us a sense of belonging, and leads to a natural commitment to taking care of ourselves, others and the planet we live on.

  • Judy Lightstone February 6, 2015, 12:42 pm

    Hi Kyle and Ingrid,

    Fascinating stuff. I am inclined to look deeper at the level of pain involved. If the pain caused by solo mindfulness meditation is so high that administering electric shocks is experienced as even less painful, then something is coming up that hurts even more. Scanning for danger is not painful when there is no danger. What might more likely be painful is disturbing unassimilated memories emerging in implicit/episodic form – in other words, reliving of bad experiences that haven’t been integrated into narrative memory and so bring with them the attendant emotional and physical pain encoded during the initial incident. I think many would prefer electric shocks to this – indeed, with more extreme memories many prefer self medication or even self-mutilation to sitting still and mindfully to see what emerges.

    Studies have shown that survivors of trauma and adverse childhood experiences tend to be most likely to experience flashbacks (reliving of the implicit episodic memory) while at rest – or especially when trying to sleep. Hence insomnia or nightmares often result when they try to “let go.”

    That is one reason why Pat Ogden (Trauma and the Body) emphasises the need for “embedded” (I prefer the word “embodied”) relational mindfulness rather than the solo mountaintop variety. That way if and when episodic memories emerge, the person is in a safe environment and being witnessed in such a way that they can move the memories out of the implicit system.

TO BUY MY NEW BOOK "Shit Happens: Lessons for Dealing with Life's Ups and Downs"... CLICK HERE