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Story Last modified at 1:51 p.m. on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Don't just do something, sit there

by Frank Baker

I once had a philosophy professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who each day reserved a study room for about an hour so that he could sit and perform a simple task: think.

Some of the study rooms had windows, and you could see him in there without books, notepad or pen, just sitting, staring into space. One day I heard one of my classmates say, "What is he doing in there? Sure seems like a waste of time."


He was undoubtedly one of the most impressive professors in my college experience. If these thinking sessions were so important to him, I thought I'd give it a try myself. After a few sessions inside one of those small rooms, without even a book, I was disappointed. There were no profound insights or startling revelations. Instead, I became very bored.

One day after class I asked him if I was doing something wrong. Instead of focusing and remaining fixed on a few single thoughts, why was my mind wandering all over the place?

He told me there was no right or wrong method, and that everyone must find their own way of doing it. But he said that if I tried it often enough, I would become better at concentrating and focusing my thoughts.

"Do you ever fall asleep?" I asked.

"Sure," he answered. "Sometimes I feel like just letting my thoughts flow, as in meditation. Most of the time I try to stay with a thought and work out a problem. Every session is different."

"And it really helps you with your work?"

"Yes, with work and life in general. An hour or so of uninterrupted thought clears the brain. It helps me see things more clearly. I've been doing it for years. My dad did it too."

I took the professor's advice, tried more sessions, and it wasn't long before I could stay on a thought pathway and reach some conclusions that I didn't think possible when I started. I didn't always keep a formal "thinking" schedule, but from then on made an attempt to do it whenever I could.

Reactive mode

Forty years later as I powered up my laptop computer, I thought about how dramatically the world has changed since my college days. With personal computers, Internet, cellular telephones and the latest iPods and iTouches, we have become virtually connected on an international scale. Information moves at light speed and, obviously, allows us to multitask and work much more quickly.

Technology has quickened the pace for nearly everyone in the developed world and made us more efficient. But it is having an effect that is subtle and insidious.

It has made us reactive.

We react to e-mails at work and at home because we feel pressured by their immediacy. Every morning, highway commuters form opinions and quickly react to something they hear on talk radio programs. Members of U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. react to articles in the Washington Post. Many of them set their agendas in this fashion.

Metaphorically speaking, we run to put out fires without pausing to think about why and how the fires started.

Today there is less time for reflection, contemplation, for consciously doing what the unconscious mind does automatically while we sleep: rewinding, reassessing and reorganizing. Like computers, our brains have the unique ability to "defragment the disc" and help us reassemble information so that we can think more coherently. But we seldom give our brains a chance to perform this crucial task. We are too preoccupied with reacting to e-mail communications or social networks like Facebook or 24-hour CNN news. We no longer take time during the day or night to just sit and ruminate.

Philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau stressed the critical importance of "listening to the sound of our own drummer." I'm afraid many people are losing that ability, if they ever had it at all. The high-speed, deafening roar of civilization is drowning it out.

I've watched children playing outdoors and once in awhile witnessed one sitting immobile, staring at a tree or a cloud in the sky. I can't be sure, but I like to believe he or she was engaged in a form of what my professor did those many years ago: thinking.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, February 3, 2011.