Why we're all slightly MADWe fill our lives with noise and distractions. We're terrified of sitting still. A provocative new book explains…
01:48 GMT, 16 July 2012
Suppose you were an alien sent to Earth to live with humans, to observe their behaviour and write a study about them — like an anthropologist studying a remote tribe. What would the alien anthropologist make of the human race What conclusions would it reach
It would probably be puzzled by the fact that most human beings are filled with a restlessness that makes us feel uneasy when we’re not occupied, and makes it impossible for us just to ‘be’.
It might be puzzled that we spend so much time oppressed by anxieties, worries and other negative emotions — and by our drive to accumulate more and more wealth, status and success, even though often these don’t bring any contentment.
Slightly mad: Do we compulsively wish our lives away
The alien would probably conclude that there is something wrong with human beings, even that we suffer from a kind of psychological disorder.
And as a psychology lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University and author of several books on spirituality and psychology, I would say the alien would be right.
In my book, I argue that we are all slightly mad — but that it is so intrinsic we’re not aware of it. This madness is the reason we focus our attention outside ourselves, and fill our lives with constant activity and distraction, like addicts who need a constant supply of a drug. It makes it impossible for us to find contentment. It causes discord in relationships. It impels us to search for wellbeing and fulfilment outside ourselves, in wealth, success and power.
The name of this psychological disorder I call it ‘Humania’ — which means human madness. The bad news is we all show the symptoms — the good news There’s a cure. . .
Being a telly addict
You come home from work and open your front door. After a stressful day, the quietness and emptiness of your home seems uncomfortable, so the first thing you do is switch on the radio.
But even then it feels like something is missing, you feel the urge to latch your attention on to something else. So you reach for a magazine, phone a friend, look on the internet — or watch television.
Studies show that the average person now watches 28 hours of television a week — almost 30 hours spent staring at images on picture boxes in the corner of our rooms. But why do we do it Well, television is the best method yet of keeping our attention focused outside ourselves.
Its primary function is to put us into a mental slumber, to blot out reality; to take us out of ourselves and out of the present — so we don’t have to face our own thoughts and our own lives. Along with drugs, alcohol and cramming every minute of the day with activity, it’s a way of running away. But the more we run away from our thoughts and our reality, the more unsettled and anxious we feel.
So what are the thoughts we are running away from As an experiment, stop reading this article and close your eyes.
After a few seconds you’ll probably become aware of the thoughts buzzing away inside your mind. Let them stream through your mind for about two minutes, then think back to the first thought that you were aware of, and retrace the steps from there to your final thought.
You’ll probably be amazed at the number of different thoughts you’ve had, and the strange twists and turns they’ve taken. This constant stream of thoughts can sometimes be pleasant — lying on the beach, for example, we might re-live nice events or look forward to future ones.
But it’s not long before your thoughts become negative. Worries, memories and fantasies about future scenarios whizz around our heads making us feel unsettled and uneasy.
We feel anxious even when there’s nothing tangible to feel anxious about. Sometimes this thought chatter is so habitual and firmly fixed it forms a script that goes constantly through our minds. Your script might keep repeating: ‘I don’t deserve this — I’m not meant to be happy;’ ‘I can’t do this — I know it’s going to go wrong;’ or ‘She’s much more attractive/successful/happy than me — why can’t I be like her’.
Chronic elsewhere-ness: Many of us struggle to keep our full attention on the present
These thoughts not only make us unhappy but they stop us from experiencing the world in an immediate way. They create a fog of abstraction in our minds, which dilutes and obscures all our experience, so that reality becomes a shadow.
Many of us spend our lives ‘elsewhere’, unable to give our full attention to the present. How many times have you seen tourists taking photos of a statue, without even looking at it
Or what about the bride who spends hours getting ready and several more hours being photographed on her big day — is she actually present or is she already in the future, looking at the photographs in years to come
We spend most of our lives in a state of absence, either because we are thinking about the past or the future, or because we seek out distractions. With gadgets like BlackBerrys, eBook readers, iPads, smart phones and iPods, there is instant, easy access to external ‘elsewhere-ness’ in every situation.
Once upon a time, people sat quietly on a train or at the bus stop; now reality is just an occasional presence, an incidental background to the endless parade of entertainment passing before our eyes.
A lot of the time we aren’t even present to the people we meet throughout the day. We don’t give our full attention to our partners, friends and family — we might look at them and nod but at the same time we’re thinking about the emails we’re going to write.
This causes problems in our relationships, since it makes our partners, work colleagues and friends feel devalued. We’re effectively saying to them: ‘You’re not worthy of my attention.’
WISHING YOUR LIFE AWAY
Another way of not being present is to spend our lives ‘looking forward’ to things. It doesn’t help us to enjoy them more — it’s just a strategy for escaping from the present.
Many people’s whole lives are based on pushing forward into the future, rushing around, trying to achieve ambitions and goals.
They wish away their lives by switching their attention from one future event to the next. Almost as soon as they are back from one holiday, they book another and start telling friends they can’t wait . . . or they spend their weekdays looking forward to the weekend.
However, one problem with the future is that at some point it becomes the present and it usually doesn’t live up to expectations.
Why Because when your holiday, weekend away or night out finally comes, you’re carrying exactly the same background anxiety in your mind that you always do.
WANT WANT WANT
Many of us spend our lives seeking increased status and wealth and believe we can buy our way into happiness. We are prepared to go to great lengths to obtain material goods we don’t need and that bring no real benefits to us.
In the same way, many people have a strong craving for status and success; they dream of being famous pop or TV stars, and try to gain respect from others by wearing particular clothes, possessing status symbols, going to certain places or behaving in a certain way. Why do we do this Because when we feel uneasy and dissatisfied inside, we instinctively look to external things to try to alleviate our discontent. Materialism or success gives us a kind of happiness; the temporary thrill of buying something new or the ego-inflating feeling of having a powerful job.
But it never works for long. No matter how much we get it’s never enough. You thought a four-bedroom house would satisfy you but now you’d like an even bigger one.
You thought that promotion would make you feel important, but actually you feel just as empty as you always have…
GETTING BACK TO SANITY
The good news is that despite its devastating effects, this kind of ego madness is neither deep-rooted nor permanent. We can all take steps to restore a sense of ease, wellbeing and harmony — moments when we are totally happy within ourselves and in the present moment.
But how can we do it
Turn off the tv
We need to make a conscious effort to spend time with ourselves, in our own mental space, even if at first it feels uncomfortable.
This means weaning ourselves off distractions, trying to reduce the time we spend watching TV, surfing the internet or shopping.
It may mean not having the radio on in the kitchen, or not sending texts on the train. Do it gradually.
One of the most important things we need to do is to quieten our minds a little, slow down the thought-chatter. There are a lot of activities we can use for this: sports like swimming and running have a mind-quietening effect, as does walking in nature.
Listening to music, dancing, doing yoga or having sex can also bring about a feeling of harmony.
In these moments, everything just feels right.
TAKE A SHOWER
Mindfulness exercises help too — when we give full attention to our experiences and our surroundings, rather than being immersed in our own thoughts.
A simple exercise: when you’re in the shower try to think only of the feeling of the water on your body.
Or instead of reading a paper or chatting to someone when you eat, give all your attention to the smell and taste of the food.
Best of all is meditation, which really slows down our thoughts and stops us being overwhelmed with negative feelings — aim to meditate for 20 to 30 minutes a day.
The other main cause of ego madness is our sense of separateness — the way we feel we’re ‘in here’, inside our own mental space, with the rest of the world — including all other people — ‘out there’, on the other side. This sense of separateness creates a sense of incompleteness.
One way to overcome this is through connection — both with others and with nature.
Try doing something to help others. Research has shown that as well as making us happier, altruism makes us feel connected to something bigger.
n BACK To Sanity — Healing The Madness Of Our Minds, by Steve Taylor is published by Hay House, 10.99.