Our daily lives make it difficult to melt into true relaxation. With a dose of intentional solitude, you can quiet the mind, find clarity, and tap into your creativity.
As I write this article, my mind can still visit that moment from 3 weeks ago. It just takes a second for my mind to quiet down and become still like the dawn, witnessing all the activity that is going on around me. What arises in me is the gratitude for being awake, present, and feeling able to take on the challenges of my life. For me, this is the gift of intentional solitude.
A vision quest experience like this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Yet, it is important to take time to be still and cultivate presence in your own way. It is the only way, I can continue to run a clinic, treat patients with challenging health problems, manage a supplement store, and have a full personal life. It is these moments of solitude that have a regenerative effect on mind and spirit, they provide the stillness, and encourage me to keep going.
Perils of a Wandering Mind
A recent Harvard study found that the vast majority of people prefer doing things over thinking.1 When left in a room for a range of 6-15 minutes and instructed to just think, 89% found that they couldn’t follow a train of thought. This is, of course, common for our very busy and highly distracted modern lives. Even for a short period of 6-15mins, it is no doubt, very difficult for us to control the mind. For this reason, the minds of the vast majority of us have difficulty relaxing and thinking clearly.
The distractedness we experience is called mind-wandering. Studies find that such mind-wandering is associated with unhappiness.2 Specifically, we experience more mind-wandering usually following sad or negative mood. Therefore, mind-wandering is, in fact, a response of “distracting ourselves from displeasure and unhappiness”. When our mind wanders, it is attributed to the activation of a “default-mode processing” system in our brain. This default-mode system, because it is a passive system, propagates the feeling that activated mind-wandering by causing the mind to continue ruminating.
Individuals who are concerned about a future event, experience more mind wandering during the preparation of that event.3 This may result in a sense of being unprepared, feeling in-effective, and anxious or depressed about the event. This keeps them from being focused and productive. It may result in procrastinating and diminish the quality of work. Similarly, those who have unpleasant and stressful experiences tend to ruminate on those or distract themselves. This is a perilous territory in the modern fast-paced world.
Medicine of Mindfulness
I practice Ayurveda, an ancient medical science, which has equal footing in practicality and spirituality. Spirituality is defined as the full expression of our truth and nature. Mental and emotional maturity and even mastery are important aspects of achieving spiritual wellbeing. Therefore, the mind is an important focus of healthcare in Ayurveda. The mind filters every aspect of the human experience. Perception, explains Ayurveda, is a changeable phenomenon based on the dimension of consciousness we can experience.
What does this mean? Here is a simple example: an unpleasant or undesirable incident may cause one person to become worried or anxious; second person to become frustrated, irritable, and angry; a third person to experience despair and depressed mood; while a fourth person will work to move past these natural emotional experiences as soon as possible, with intent on resolution and growth from the unpleasant and undesirable experiences.
Ayurveda recognizes the first Noble Truth of Buddhism: Life is Suffering. We are constantly faced with challenges and stresses. In Ayurveda, all stresses can be regarded as stimuli for growth. However, our responses to them may become excessive and imbalanced based on our upbringing, our outlook, life’s experiences, and circumstances. For this reason, Ayurveda prescribes the development of mindfulness to deal with each instance as it is.
To do this, we must move past an emotional relationship with life and its circumstance to higher levels of consciousness that are more akin cultivation and practice of self-realized knowledge and wisdom. The experiences of intentional solitude are used to cultivate this form of “unplugging” from the rollercoaster of an emotionally driven life. Instead, we move into an emotionally-informed practice of living.
Mindfulness and Mastery
The mind is a powerful instrument. Its powers are observation, perception, learning, memory, decision making and more. While our brain is a fixed structure, the mind’s “structure” changes based on the situation. In the presence of an old friend, it may take shape and express itself as a younger part, more “child-like and playful”. In the presence of a parent in might become more “reactive and childish”. In the presence of an old lover or intimidating boss or project deadline, it might change.
This change is the result of changes in the structure of the active circuitry of the brain. Mindfulness, as a practice, helps to develop awareness of these default-mode activities. This default-mode can be learned behavior which is patterned by our default circuitry. The next step is accepting these patterns as they are. Followed by conscious and mindful effort respond to circumstances in new and more desirable ways. The changing patterns of activity in the brain circuitry is called “Neuroplasticity.” Figure 1 gives a summary of this process of “self-regulation” through mindfulness.4 “Attention control” is the process of becoming aware of the default-mode function. “Emotional regulation” using this aware to understand emotional triggers and patterns underlying the default-mode function. This “self-awareness” then allows us to consciously choose our responses and live more consciously and masterfully.
The Role of Intentional Solitude
When we are caught up in our day-to-day life, it is very difficult to break out of the habitual patterns of thinking and doing things. Taking time for personal reflection (during vacations, camping trips, etc.), retreats for the cultivation of a mindfulness practice, participating in spiritual and emotional retreats are few ways to start taking intentional time for self-examination. It give us time gather the information on self, and develop some tools for application in our day-to-day life to counteract the default-mode thinking patterns. When we return from these retreats, we must work with our new-found realizations and tools to better our lives. It is this process of retreating and reengaging with our lives in a progressively mindful manner that creates lasting change.
Intentional solitude is not about self-isolation. It is about being able to remove one-self from the daily grind. Allowing enough quiet time and reflection to promote self-discovery and develop strategies for self-improvement.
The Benefits of Mind-Wandering
Spiritual growth and empowered perspective on life is a source for a more positive relationship with life. This can even turn an adverse occurrence in to an opportunity for growth and thriving. Mind-wandering from this positive internal state, in fact, leads to greater creativity and productivity.5 Mind-wandering from a curious and self-confident state allows us to think outside the box and push boundaries of what we think is possible.
So, you are encouraged to give yourself a break and take a moment or a month for intentional solitude. See what happens…
- Wilson T (2014): Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345(6192), 75–77.
- Killingsworth MA and Gilbert DT. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, Vol. 330, Nov. 2010.
- Poerio GL, et al. Mind-wandering and negative mood: Does one thing really lead to another? Consciouness and Cognition, Vol. 22 (4), Dec. 2013, Pg. 1412-1421.
- Tang Y., et al. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience | AOP, published online 18 March 2015
- Baird B, et al. Inspired by Distraction : Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science 2012 23: 1117 originally published online 31 August 2012
Dr. Anup Mulakaluri is a Naturopathic Doctor, specializing in Ayurvedic Medicine. His practice focuses on treating the whole person; body, mind, and spirit. He uses clinically-proven natural remedies in treatment. This includes food and herbs, lifestyle and health-promoting daily routines; as well as Ayurvedic detoxification and body therapies, including Panchakarma.
Dr. Anup’s passion is empowering individuals to transform their life and health. For individuals with chronic diseases focus is placed on restoring healthy physiology and minimizing pharmaceutical dependence. He is the founder and president of Natural Rhythms Integrative Medicine, a community-centered, multi-care natural health clinic in the Wallingford/Fremont area of Seattle.
Twenty years later it’s not so hard to take a couple of days in a retreat center. I can tell when I’m overdue, not unlike a runner knows when she hasn’t had exercise. I know there is no substitute for this silence-and-solitude thing. But then, if I read the Bible with honest eyes I conclude there was no substitute for Jesus either.