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Dharma Connect: A Shocker -- We Don't Like to Be Alone with Our Thoughts

Researchers at the University of Virginia found that two-thirds of men and one-quarter of women were so averse to sitting with only their thoughts for 15 minutes that they chose to administer an electric shock to themselves that they'd previously said they would pay to avoid after first experiencing it.

In a series of 11 studies, U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at U.Va. and Harvard University found that study participants from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to think.

“Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time,” Wilson said.

Wilson notes in his paper that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world, and, when they do, they do not particularly enjoy it. These surveys indicate Americans spent their time watching television, socializing, or reading, and spend little or no time “relaxing or thinking.”

Is watching television engaging with the world? Or is that a way to avoid knowing what's going in in your inner world?

Wilson observes that without training in meditation techniques -- "which still are difficult," he adds -- people have a hard time being alone with their thoughts.

Why don't people want to spend time alone with their thoughts? Maybe it's like that Rodney Dangerfield line: I wouldn't want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member. We'll sit with fictional characters, with games, with 140-character conversations.

Imagine being able to be at ease with yourself, to listen to your thoughts with open-heartedness and assurance you'd give a friend. Imagine finding ease at being with yourself rather than running away from yourself at every opportunity. That's what meditation offers.

"Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we already are." Pema Chodron

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