A woman I know is afraid to go to bed at night. She’s not afraid of the dark or of having a nightmare. She’s not afraid of someone breaking into her apartment or of dying in her sleep. What she’s afraid of is open time with herself, the unfocused down time that bedtime brings, time when she is not doing anything specific, not focused on any external something.
Someone else I know described the experience of lying in bed one morning, not having anything particular to get up for, and not being able to "find" anything to really think about. He said he felt like he had nowhere to “put his mind" and as a result, felt like he was going insane. The lack of a focus for his attention sent him into a full-fledged panic attack.
These scenarios may sound strange, but they are more common than you might imagine. With the advent of the digital age, our attention is almost always focused on something. We are playing a game, texting, researching, watching, or talking, but always doing something, with our mind turned toward and engaged with something outside of ourselves. We treat our own undirected attention like a parent might treat a toddler on a long plane ride, frantically shoving activities and videos in front of his face until he either passes out or the ride comes to an end.
Today we share this same fear of our own unentertained adult mind.
The gap, that space between activities, or what we used to call "down time" is disappearing from our lives. Our attention is now almost always narrowed onto a task or activity and we are losing the spaces in which our attention is open, without a specific focus. People say that we are becoming unfocused as a society but in fact we are becoming hyper-focused, always looking at something and never just looking—without a specific object or goal of our gaze.
Open awareness, down time, the gap—whatever you call it—serves an important purpose in our lives. When I have a problem I can’t solve, I will often go for a walk and drop the problem altogether. Later that day, after not thinking about it for some time, the solution generally appears in my mind. I am not unique in having this experience. Something is actually happening in that down time. The mind is putting things together, making associations, doing a different kind of work, that happens outside our awareness. For many people, it is in these gaps that they have their best flashes of insight, as if we need to take our mind off of something in order to gain access to our intuition and really, to our everything.
So too, the mind needs recess periods in its day—like a child does—when it can just run and play, jump from thing to thing and not have to direct its energy toward any particular object or event. The mind needs to be able to flow freely from thought to thought, or simply rest in no thought. Down time between tasks allows our mind to rest. Gaps in our day give us time to just float about, space out or take a much-needed break from mental activity. This float time then allows us to re-boot our system and come back with renewed juice to bring to the next object of our attention. With our attention flipped on and at something all the time, we become mentally exhausted and while more time is spent focusing on tasks, we in fact become, qualitatively, less productive.
Furthermore, unfocused attention in our day allows us to spend time with ourselves, to make ourselves the focus of our attention. While not playing a game or engaging in a Google search, we can contemplate our own experience, check in, and discover how we are doing in the middle of all this noise, this life. Now, because our attention is always focused on something else, we have ceased to be a destination for our own attention.
And yet the media says that we are becoming pathological narcissists. Aren’t we focusing more on ourselves than ever? Yes, we are spending far more time reporting on ourselves, focusing on our identity, describing where we’ve been, what we are doing and so on, but at the same time, we are spending far less time actually being with ourselves, inside our own attention, asking and answering to our self. As a result of always having an external focus, we have, sadly, come to view being with ourselves, without something else to focus on, as a void, a panic-inducing non-place.
From a spiritual perspective, the spaces between—between tasks, between thoughts, between breaths, between all the objects of our attention—are profoundly important. It's the space we inhabit during meditation. It's in the spaces between thoughts that we connect with the awareness within which thought happens. It's in this open awareness that we gain a sense of detachment and freedom from the mind. When we lose the ability or opportunity to live in the gaps, we become slaves to the mind, and subsequently terrified of any moment when the mind is not occupied. Gaps then become a kind of death—when we cannot feel our mind’s presence or experience our own presence, as if we cease to exist. On the other hand, a deep and lasting confidence arises when we can tolerate and even enjoy open, undirected space, when being with just our self is not something to be feared.
Breaks from focused attention are beneficial in myriad ways. They bring insight, allow us to solve problems without trying, give our mind a chance to rest, and to play without an agenda. Gaps give us time to spend time with ourselves, to experience our own being, and to know ourselves as more than just what we are doing and thinking. Gaps give us the confidence to stop trying to out-run open space, escape down time, and ultimately, dodge ourselves.
In the digital age, we value action, information, and entertainment, and we are encouraged to keep the mind busy at all times. If we want to create down time, to make space, we have to actively do it. Ironically, creating space in which we can be unfocused now takes focused attention.
On a practical level, you can create down time in very small ways, by taking five minutes every day and consciously resisting the urge to give your mind something to chew on. When your mind tells you it’s time to play a game, email a friend, research a vacation, figure out a work problem, or write a to-do list, just say, "No. Not now." The mind will always search for something to attend to. You however, can practice being present without having an object of that presence, being aware without having to direct your awareness at something. Try it in short stretches, and notice what unfolds, and if you feel differently. Or, similarly, take a walk without your phone (or any device) and let your mind just wander, or slip away. Set aside times for an approved space out. Give yourself the gift of the gap, the privilege of the space that used to be built into life but is no longer.
As a result, you may not only feel less brain-weary and mentally fatigued. You may also discover a sense of internal spaciousness, a wider and more panoramic view of life which is not frantic and not dependent on external material to escape an internal void. With enough practice, your own presence may become a place unto itself, and you may discover that it is in the spaces between your objects of attention that you feel most spacious, whole, calm, and ultimately, well.