Can you sit and do nothing (no phone included) for 15 minutes?

Last week my phone died and I paid a visit to – deep breath – the Apple store to have an over-pierced kid sort out my life.

After diagnosing my issue, The Kid (Him: “In my former life I was a piercing technician.” Me: “But you’re 21, you don’t have a former life!”) had to disappear with my phone for 15 minutes (which turned into an hour). So I was left to sit in the store for some excruciatingly empty time.

Photography by Nick Aitken
Image by Nick Aitken

Normally in such empty moments I would pull out my phone and e-fiddle – check mail, scroll Instagram, return text messages etc. But I clearly couldn’t on this occasion. So I just sat and did nothing. It was great, if painful.

I realized anxiety came up straight away. I broke it down further.

I realised I was anxious because I felt I should be getting on with things and not wasting time just sitting. Letting my mind wander off feels so indulgent. I’ll come back to this in a moment…

But I broke it down further. I realised the bigger part of my anxiety was attributable to a fear of being still with my thoughts and not having a “blunting” agent to distract me away from my worries.

Then, because I had the time (The Kid was still not back), I broke it down again. Thoughts are like banked up bubbles. The big ones  – our problems, our worries, our sadness, our loneliness – burst forth first when we allow an opening, ahead of the more banal, medium-sized bubbles. And, so, we don’t like it when we do find ourselves still because we know the sadness and worries will come up first. Blunt. Distract.

A study published last month in the journal Science found we fear the big bubbles so much we’ll even go through pain to avoid it.

Drawing on 11 experiments with more than 700 people, the study found

the majority of us can’t cope with  being alone in a room with our thoughts for just 6-15 minutes.

In one experiment, 64 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think.

I totally recommend trying out this experiment – sitting with no phone – on a bus, at the bank, in a café while you’re waiting for someone. Enforced Apple store stillness. Witness what comes up. Is it frustration? Why? Is it sadness? How so?

For me, it’s sadness. But when I sat with it longer I realize it’s quite a nice melancholy sadness. It’s the sadness of knowing I’m alone in the world with very unique thoughts that need to bubble forth and be expressed.

Also, this: after the big bubbles, come the gentler, smaller bubbles. The ones that simmer away, unfurl and create. There’s only ever a few big bubbles to bust through, and then it’s onto daydreaming and self-discovery (in the non-rainbows-and-unicorns sense).

I’ve now committed to firmly telling myself to turn off my phone, or switching it to silent, or tossing it across the room whenever I find myself descending into the social media vortex. I’ve also decided to view those moments when I join a throng of people peering into their phones (at cafes, on trains) as highly undignified and unevolved, like standing outside a building to smoke on a fag. When you look up and think about it, you realize it is.


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