Peace of Mind: Modern Problems With Ancient Solutions

I took my kids deer hunting with me this weekend. The weather was wonderful. Not too hot; not too cold. The mosquitoes weren’t out. But neither were the deer.

We weren’t in the stand for 30 minutes before my son whispered, “this is boring.” This is the same kid who had hounded me repeatedly to take him hunting because he wanted to wear the camouflage outfit he used at Halloween to portray an “Army” man.

My daughter couldn’t sit still and went up and down the ladder several times and loudly cocked her B.B. gun before sending the tiny pellets at some unwitting bird.

I remember being their age and sitting in the stand with my papa or dad and having to wait patiently, scanning the woods for movement. Deer are surprisingly silent and manifest from nowhere if you aren’t watching closely. During these moments of intense focus, I had learned to put other things out of my mind and only attend to the task at hand: putting meat in the freezer.   

I have noticed a trend in youth today and even some adults. We can’t sit with nothing to do anymore. Our minds have become trained, mostly by screens, to always have some form of mental stimulation. We are losing our ability to be bored.

We need boredom for creativity, where our minds can wander into uncharted territory instead of constantly being fed the next thing. We need a mental break to let ideas and knowledge sink in, a process called “consolidation” in psychological terms.

One of my favorite education and media ecology scholars, Neil Postman, wrote about the concept of boredom in the technological age in his book, “The End of Education.” He described a scenario where a young person, similar to my kids, said he was “bored with the real world.”

The modern response is to give the kid a phone or tablet and let him occupy his time so you can get back to whatever task it was that you were doing. But Postman encourages us to think more critically.

He asks, “What does it mean to say someone is bored with the real world, especially one so young? Can a journey into virtual reality cure such a problem? And if it can, will our troubled youngster want to return to the real world?” (p. 41).

Much of the research on the topic indicates that even if the child comes back to the real world, he is not the same child who left it. Though this problem is modern in its application, ancient philosophers knew how to combat its effects.

A recent post by philosophical guru, Jason Youngman, reminded me of some of the Stoic’s Core Life Skills. One of those is to maintain a tranquil, peaceful mind. How do we do that?

Seneca wrote in his letters that, “The first sign of a settled mind is that it can stay in one place and spend time with itself.”

Modern technology and media have conditioned us to need “what’s next.” From YouTube and Netflix automatically starting the next video to Spotify and Pandora playing the next song to the infinite scroll of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All of this doesn’t make us more tranquil. It does the opposite.

The constant need for what’s next induces panic when we don’t get it. The infinite scroll conditions us much like a slot machine does. We are always looking for the right dots to line up and the right pieces of information to manifest to win that session and make us happy. We get a little hit of dopamine in our brains and return for more.

I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s classic, “Brave New World,” where the people were accustomed to taking a pill, a hit of “soma” to check out from the world or give them a reprieve from reality. They didn’t want to or couldn’t handle the pain, suffering, or responsibility that comes with living a free, clear-headed life.

What would the Stoics say to this? If you want peace of mind, train yourself to unplug, sit still, and ponder the day’s events. What do they mean to you? What are their consequences, whether we perceive them as good or bad? What might you have done differently, and to what effect?

In our attempt to be hyper-connected, we are losing our ability to find peace within ourselves. If you want that, disconnect for a bit and focus on your own thoughts, not what is fed to you by a screen.

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11 thoughts on “Peace of Mind: Modern Problems With Ancient Solutions

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