Quiet time nourishes the inner self

I found myself arriving 30 minutes early for an appointment, twiddling my thumbs in a waiting area and annoyed at myself for poor planning.

What would I do for 30 minutes? I did not have my phone with me. I had not brought a book.

The thought came over me that I really hate to waste time. From the moment I get up until the time I go to bed, I engage in purposeful and productive activity. Both consciously and unconsciously, I have sub-divided my day into smaller and smaller slivers of productive time use.

Rarely do I "waste time". Of course, I am not alone in the frenzied, goal-oriented life I lead.

I suspect that part of our guilt about wasting time lies deep in the Puritanical roots of our culture. Idleness was considered a sin. I believe that sentiment still lurks beneath the surface of our collective psychology.

The pace of life has always been driven by the speed of communication, and human civilisation has never seen such an increase in that speed as in the past 30 years, with the advent of the Internet and the smartphone.

Then there is the time-equals-money equation, imprinted on us since the Industrial Revolution.

Mr Harry Triandis, an emeritus professor of social psychology at the University of Illinois, says this equation, when combined with the higher productivity afforded by high-speed communication, creates an urgency to make every moment count.

So, what exactly have we lost when we cannot slow down our lives and find periods of the day when we let our minds wander without purpose or goal?

For one thing, I have endangered my creative activity. Creativity requires unstructured time and solitude, away from the bustle of the world.

Composer Gustav Mahler routinely took three-or four-hour walks after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook.

Carl Jung did his most creative thinking and writing when he took time off from his frenzied psychiatry practice in Zurich to go to his country house in Bollingen.

In the middle of a writing project, Gertrude Stein wandered about the countryside looking at cows.

The mind needs periods of rest to replenish itself. Some researchers believe that one benefit of sleep is to give the mind an opportunity to make sense of the input of the day.

I would argue that constant external simulation during waking hours, without any time for quiet contemplation, is equivalent to sleep deprivation. The need to rest the mind has been known for thousands of years.

Our hyperconnected lifestyle threatens our "inner selves". My inner self is that part of me that imagines, that dreams, that explores, that is constantly questioning who I am and what is important to me.

My inner self is my true freedom. The sunlight and soil that nourish my inner self are solitude and personal reflection.

I suggest that the psychological destruction caused by our frenzied lifestyles may be as catastrophic as the destruction of our physical environment by our heedless pollution and consumption.

Just as we developed a new habit of mind about smoking in the 1980s and 1990s, we need to develop a new habit of mind about our pace of life.

I have a friend, a former high school teacher in Massachusetts, who started something new with her students. At the beginning of each class, she rang a bell and asked them to remain silent for four minutes. This worked wonders. The students were calmer, more centred and more creative.

All of us can find ways to introduce moments of stillness in our day. Take a 20-minute walk every day and leave your smartphone behind. Try sitting quietly for 20 minutes before bed, with a book or nothing, and let your mind think about what it wants to think about.

Insist that your workplace has a "quiet room", where employees are allowed and encouraged to spend 30 minutes a day without external stimulation.

These suggestions may seem inconsequential, but they are part of changing our habit of mind.

We must honour our inner lives. Otherwise, we are prisoners in the modern world we have created.


• The writer is a physicist, author and professor in the practice of the humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 16, 2018, with the headline 'Quiet time nourishes the inner self'. Print Edition | Subscribe