‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’
How many of us lie on the couch in a ‘vacant or in pensive mood’, let alone ‘oft’? William Wordsworth, one of England’s most esteemed poets, knew the importance of mental downtime for creativity and productivity. Recent research has confirmed what highly creative people seem to know instinctively – that the best ideas can often come during breaks from work, such as while going for a walk or having a bath. As well as being good for creativity, regular mental breaks can improve attention, increase our productivity, strengthen our memories and embed newly learnt material.
The difficulty lies in finding opportunities for mental downtime when we are surrounded by people all day. If we’re lying on the couch staring vacantly into space with a pensive expression on our face, our nearest and dearest might ask us, ‘what’s wrong’, or, more likely, ‘you haven’t seen my blue jumper around anywhere, have you?’ The only people still getting downtime at work are the smokers huddling on some windswept footpath far away from the main entrance.
Yet there are ways of activating our ‘default mode network’ (DMN), the modern name for Wordsworth ‘pensive mood’, which we can quite easily fit into our lives. Mindfully doing the dishes, eating lunch without distraction, going for a walk in nature – all these can help slow down the mental chatter and allow us to be more present in the here and now.
The pressure to rush from one activity to the next, constantly filling our minds with yet more information, can be very strong. My grandmother, if she were still alive, probably wouldn’t have been very interested if I’d started talking to her about meditation and mindfulness. In fact, chances are she’d have been most alarmed if she’d seen me traipsing off to meditation retreats and read endless books on mindfulness. Yet when I remember her in her small flat in Munich, on the second floor next to a busy road, it is as someone who was always very present with whatever household task she was currently engaged in. She never rushed, never tried to do three things at once, never came across as wanting to get her work over and done with so she could get on to ‘more important’ matters. I didn’t get to spend much time with her as an adult, but her sense of presence was very strong.
Meditation is an excellent way of allowing ourselves some mental downtime, but simplifying how we go about our tasks can also help to make our lives much more restful and rejuvenating.
Weekly practice idea:
Choose a routine task, such as doing the dishes or folding the washing, and allow yourself to experience the mental downtime you get when you carry out this task mindfully and without rushing.