“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.” – Nikola Tesla
This is one of many quotes referenced at the end of this essay from the blog Zen Habits—a nice place to wander around for some minimalist inspiration (not so much of the musical type) or perhaps a little dose of, well, sanity.
I grew up attending a Quaker school, where weekly meetings of 30 to 60 minutes held in silence were part of the routine. While these were definitely a bit painful to endure as a second grader, by the time I reached high school I looked forward to them. In retrospect, all those meetings helped teach me early on how to focus internally, a skill for which I am infinitely grateful. Although it may not be true that the trend towards condensation is a signpost pointing to the demise of culture, sometimes I wonder about the number of people who seem unable to deal with solitude. The very notion of being alone for longer than a couple of hours, or even the ability to sit quietly with one’s thoughts for a few minutes (without internet surfing or phone fiddling) appears to be a true challenge for an increasing number of people. The simple acts of walking alone on the street or driving a car are muddled by phone call after phone call. Sure, for a traveling businessperson this makes total sense, but the reality is that a lot of people fill up this time with external chatter because they don’t want to be left alone with their own internal chatter.
Chunks of time spent alone are crucial for creative people—that is when you can listen to what is going on in your own head. The best ideas tend not to arrive in a blaze of obvious glory, but rather they whisper in your ear, and if you are not paying attention, they are gone faster than you pull out your smartphone and fire up your Evernote.
Of course, brilliant ideas and insights arise all the time while running around busy as can be or in the midst of group brainstorming sessions. Contemplation comes in afterwards to flesh out the ideas and help them grow up into mature, fully formed designs, proposals, objectives, and works of art. The overscheduled complain bitterly about not pursuing their art to the extent that they would like, if at all, but at the same time they refuse to make changes that will provide a little more breathing room in a day. As a result, they don’t follow through with their creative plans or, possibly worse, half-ass things.
It’s honestly hard to be alone with one’s thoughts, and inevitably (especially when one is not accustomed to solitude) there are layers and layers of really stupid, awful things that have to be passed through in order to arrive at a quiet headspace. This is why meditation is so difficult—the amount of junk to be overcome is huge! It’s kind of like peeling away layers of an onion. There is a layer of daily randomness—the to-do lists and such—and then perhaps a layer of self-doubt (when you wonder when the Fraud Police are going to arrive and lock you up). If you can get through all that mess, you have to restrain the urge to reward yourself by checking email (which sends you right back to square one), and so on, until finally there is just…quiet. The ego threw up its hands and went to take a nap, the right brain has kicked into full gear, and the time is right for stillness and for figuring out what those whispers have to say.
Not wanting to be alone with one’s thoughts is based on those messy, bothersome layers of junk, but it’s important to remember that they are not real! They are only flimsy machinations of our scattered brains. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, but acknowledging them (I have taken to “looking them in the eye” and saying, “Thanks for sharing! See ya!”) and moving past them can open doors to a more productive place. Obviously the ideas themselves are not real either, but spending some time with them certainly plays a crucial role in bringing them to life. Sometimes doing nothing is the best way to get stuff accomplished.