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The Wandering Mind

by Jeremy McCarthy

Not all who wander are lost

I’ve always felt that the benefits of a visit to the spa are as much mental as they are physical. I don’t want to diminish the physical benefits, because I love the way my tightly wound and knotted muscles can soften and melt under the hands of a skillful therapist. But when I get up off the massage table, what I most notice is the impact on my mind.

I come out of the spa feeling like I am thinking more clearly, with fresh ideas on how to approach old problems, and a clearer vision of what I should be focusing on. I’ve always said that spas are not so much a fountain of youth, but a “fountain of innovation.” They give us a place to be still, so our creativity can bubble forth.

In the modern age, these moments of stillness are harder and harder to come by. Technology has been very successful at helping us to maximize our time, becoming more and more productive with each passing year. That is, as long as you don’t categorize “thinking” as productive.

We don’t have time to think anymore. Like sipping from a fire hose, we are overloaded with massive amounts of new information that is constantly beamed at us through our screens. Don’t get me wrong, having information is a good thing. This is what we love about technology. But if we never give ourselves time to process what is coming in, how can we convert information into wisdom?

Unfortunately, we are not evolutionarily programmed to slow down and process new information. For most of human history, information was hard to come by. If new information came along (through gossip, stories, etc.), our ancestors would drop whatever else they were doing to soak it all in. But they had plenty of downtime in their day while hunting, walking, farming or preparing meals, to think about what they had learned. Today, we have access to more information than our ancestors could ever have imagined, but we haven’t learned to break the old programs that prioritize information consumption over restful thought.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a researcher at the Institute for the Future, and he does a lot of writing about the need for “deliberate rest.” He was inspired by studying the life of Charles Darwin, one of the most profound thinkers of the 19th century. Darwin was an accomplished researcher, a prolific writer (he published 19 books) and a thought pioneer who completely changed our understanding of the world.

But according to Pang, Darwin only worked about four to five hours a day, spending his leisure time taking long walks or puttering around in the garden. Pang suggests that Darwin’s success and brilliance are due not only to his research and work, but to the time he took to allow his mind to process the things he was studying. What sets apart the greatest thinkers of our time, from Charles Darwin to Winston Churchill to Bill Gates, is their ability to rest.

The ability to rest is, in fact, a skill, and one that must be learned and developed through disciplined practice. Our natural inclination is to fill every lull in our schedule with some kind of productivity—something quite easily accomplished with our handy mobile devices.

The greatest successes in life may come to those who can resist that natural urge for productivity and carve out periods of time for deliberate rest. Taking a break from technology (perhaps in a spa), we can allow our minds to simply wander aimlessly. When we allow our minds to wander, we just might be surprised at what they find.

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