I recently read an essay by Michael Taft in the latest Wise Brain Bulletin, "Down Time for the Stone Age Brain". Before the advent of complex city-states, he posits that life was pretty simple/boring for humans, and that mental downtime (doing nothing) naturally comprised a large chunk of daily life. He notes the subsequent development of meditation as a coping strategy for the deluge of stimulation that accompanied the rise of technologically advanced, highly interconnected human societies. He also highlights the fascinating finding that we are neurologically primed to seek novelty, and what’s more, that seeking behavior is actually more rewarding than finding (anyone who has scrolled mindlessly through a Facebook feed can attest that this is true). Unfortunately, constant seeking also leads to brain burnout. When surrounded by an all-you-can-eat buffet highly stimulating information, it’s healthy to let the brain “fast” for awhile. I’ve also become more selective about my mental intake, thinking of it as an extension of what I eat. What goes in should be carefully selected, curated even. I avoid empty mental calories (within reason), but moderation is key - not too much or too little of anything. It’s pretty simple.
To combat the irresistible urge to seek and find, Taft suggests downtime for the brain. Downtime is letting your brain rest in neutral – “deeply quiet, really simple, totally open time in which you are not working, accomplishing anything, or taking in new information.” I personally find that downtime is best experienced while immersed in nature. Nature affords us the opportunity to stop thinking about people, about things, and to simply feel small, a part of something much bigger.
My favorite downtime is to take walks outside, alone or with S. During that time, I don't bring my phone. I don't listen to music. I just smell, hear, and see...and somehow, I always feel better for it. We’re currently in Alaska, a trove of unspoiled beauty. It’s so very easy to feel small here, to retreat from the harried pace of life, but you can give yourself some mental downtime anywhere - whether it’s from a park bench, your window, or just down your street.
I’m fond of the saying “handle your mind like a skillful rider, with neither too tight nor too loose a rein”. It’s important to remember, though, that horses need time each day – without a rider on their backs - to just graze contentedly and freely in a green pasture, to just be a horse. So this week, try letting your mind out to pasture at least once a day and observing how it feels.
I would love to know: What do you do to let your mind unwind completely? What does mental downtime do for you? Leave a comment below.
As always, thanks for reading.