Imagine sitting and waiting. Perhaps you’re at the DMV waiting to be called to pick up your new driver’s license. As you’re sitting there waiting, what are you doing?  Thinking to yourself? Observing and thinking? Reading the news? On Facebook? Answering emails? Calling your office or your significant other?

Let’s say that in 20 minutes your name is called to pick up your license. You grab it and head out the door. My question is, after your 20 minute wait, do you now feel calmer than you did earlier in the day? Or more tense? More focused? Or more frazzled?

If you feel better than you did before (or better than normal), what did you do over that 20 minutes that made you feel better?

If you feel worse than you did before (or worse than normal), what did you do over that 20 minutes that made you feel worse?

Modern life for most of us is so hectic that we don’t have a lot of time when not engaged in something. And the little downtime we have is often spent doing things that do not contribute to our well-being and, maybe, even detract from it.

Consider that when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers they likely spent about four hours a day hunting and gathering. This estimate is based on hunter-gatherer groups that survived to modern times and were studied by anthropologists. So, how did hunter-gatherers spend the rest of their time? Undoubtedly, they spent it talking and interacting with other members of the group. They devoted time to making objects, carving tools, skinning hides, and making art. And just enjoying their copious leisure time. In fact there is an entire theory built on these findings, one called “The Original Affluent Society,” first articulated in 1966 by Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist here in my home town of Chicago.

And undoubtedly, hunter-gatherers spent more time simply “returning to rest.” That doesn’t only mean refraining from external behaviors, but also from internal behaviors, like thinking. There are reasons to believe that our ancestors, even into recent times, spent less time thinking. Their heads were less filled with words!

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Maybe what we now call meditation and mindfulness is just a common state of mind that human beings naturally reverted to throughout the majority of their history when they were not focused on a achieving their more limited goals. Maybe our constant frenetic mental activity is a very modern phenomenon, not at all reflective of the natural state of our species. Our current inability (perhaps I can call it a disability) to achieve a quiet mind leads to a chronically elevated stress response, contributing to depression and anxiety disorders, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and many other maladies.

Consider this: Stephen Ilardi, a psychologist, reviewed studies of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, modern hunter-gathers. He estimates that their prevalence of depression is one hundredth that found in our society.

The lessons for me? First, I will never deign to look down on hunter-gatherers. In the big scheme of things, which type of society is better? What standard do we use? I’m not sure, but I don’t at all believe that what we have now is necessarily right and preordained. One can imagine many different societies. These findings are just food for my thought.

But more practically, the lesson for me is to find ways of “returning to rest.” It’s challenging: it’s hard for me to NOT read the news even though I know it makes me feel worse. I don’t want to become ignorant of world developments, but I can keep abreast spending 10% of the time I do now. All that time spent on current events, just to feel bad. Crazy, huh? But bad habits are hard to break, but I keep trying.

How about you? What changes can you make to “return to rest”?

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“The world’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.”
– Marshall Sahlins, author of Stone Age Economics

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
– Isaiah 30:15 King James Bible

“I believe many of us now live as if we value things more than people. In America, we spend more time than ever at work, and we earn more money than any generation in history, but we spend less and less time with our loved ones as a result. Likewise, many of us barely think twice about severing close ties with friends and family to move halfway across the country in pursuit of career advancement. We buy exorbitant houses—the square footage of the average American home has more than doubled in the past generation—but increasingly we use them only to retreat from the world.”
– Stephen Ilardi, author of The Depression Cure