by Megan McDonough

After a series of experiments to determine how well people sit alone with their thoughts, researcher Timothy Wilson concluded the following: “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.”

Meditation is the tool that tutors the mind.

We make choices in life based on the fact that we do not like to be alone with our thoughts—witness the way we whip out our technological toys whenever there’s dead space. According to the Time Use Survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95% of people reported engaging in at least one leisure activity during the previous 24 hours (reading for pleasure, TV, socializing). But 83% reported that they had spent absolutely no time relaxing or thinking.

Doing nothing is just not that easy, as it turns out. In that series of experiments by Wilson, participants were asked to sit in an unadorned room alone, with nothing to do. They could choose to just sit or to give themselves an electric shock. (I know, who thinks of these experiments?!) Well, 67% of the men and 25% of the women gave themselves at least one electric shock. They found that distraction, uncomfortable as it was, preferable to sitting alone with their thoughts.

Relaxing the mind into a quiet internal focus, as in meditation, can be a challenge. The mind tends to fight staying in one place, and it craves distraction. Yet stillness is a skill just like any other, one that can be developed and can offer us the rewards of reduced stress, increased well-being, and better emotional self-regulation.

The practice of opening one’s attention to the inner landscape reveals the organic, natural movement of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That, I find, is never boring—and it feels way better than an electric shock.


Megan McDonough is CEO of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest.

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