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The Hounds of Silence

What happens if you sit still for awhile and rest?  Does it get a bit unpleasant, or is it a comfortable place?  When you sit do you need to immediately find something to do?  Or can you just be there comfortably?

For so many it is an uncomfortable thing to be still and silent, as they are hounded by their thoughts.  A recent study (by Marchetti, Koster, and De Raedt, in October’s Clinical Psychological Science) examined reactions to rest.  Undergraduates were asked to sit for 25 minutes, close their eyes, and avoid structured thinking like counting or singing.  Periodically they were asked to hit a number on a computer keypad to indicate how intense their external experiences (like smelling, hearing…) and internal experiences (like remembering, thinking) were.  Beforehand they were asked about their mood and about the degree to which they were ruminating, that is, dwelling on negative aspects of their life.  Afterwards they were again asked about their mood and rumination, along with their tendency to be mindful during their lives.

Those who reported more internal experiences (thinking about their pasts, for instance) generally ended up with more negative mood afterwards, controlling for their initial mood.  And this negative mood seemed to be due to their rumination, getting caught up in the struggle with their thoughts.  What is silence like?  Running into thoughts that you don’t want to think and struggling to change those thoughts or run away?  Then getting disconcerted with those thoughts and your inability to control them?  If so, it’s easy to see why resting would put people in a worse mood!

But there were exceptions.  The mood of those who were high in mindfulness, that is, those who tend to bring their attention to their experience without judgment) was not affected by their internal experience during rest.   Being mindful allowed students to be silent, run into their internal thoughts, and not have that put them in a bad mood, likely because they didn’t get caught up in a struggle with those thoughts.

What are the benefits of peaceful rest?  How much peaceful rest do we experience?  Might mindfulness help us rest more peacefully? 

In this study mindfulness was measured after the rest rather than before, and that’s less than ideal methodologically.  Perhaps answers to the mindfulness measure were affected by the experiences during rest, with those who were affected by their internal experiences reporting less mindfulness in general.  It’s also a single correlational study.  It’s far too early to jump to any conclusions about the relationship of mindfulness to rest.  But it’s still a promising result, and I’d love to see followup studies. In my own life I love being able to be comfortably silent, an ability I believe I have developed through mindfulness practice (though I probably owe a bunch to sitting on a lake with my father when I was young, watching the fish not bite our bait!).  In that light I look forward to more studies of rest.


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