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Joy of losing your mind. By Martin Stephen

Blog | Jan 16, 2024

Don’t do something – just sit there! Parisian children at leisure

I was introduced to the joys of mindfulness long before most people of my generation.

My knowledge wasn’t driven by a belief that holistic meditation would end the war in Ukraine, but by my Australian daughter-in-law, a psycho-therapist. She discovered mindfulness long before most of the world knew how to spell it.

My normal state of mind is, to stop myself living in the past, one of living instead in a future that will never happen.

Mindfulness’s mantra, ‘Live in the moment’, seemed attractive. I’ve been declared dead once, and on two occasions have been told I had illnesses that would probably kill me.

So the present – 50 years of happy marriage, three great children and five even greater grandchildren, enough money to live on, a nice house etc – seemed a good place to be.

All well and good. But the more I tried to anchor myself in the present, the more I realised that where we all are now hasn’t appeared from nowhere.

It’s been built by the past, and in particular by our childhood. Our present moment is the result of our past. So I’d like to propose a new philosophy.

Mindlessness. Where did the idea come from? My 13-year-old grandson was complaining about making a journey he didn’t want to go on.

‘What else would you be doing?’ I asked, in typical adult manner, and assuming every minute had to be used usefully.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Stuff.’

Stuff.

Stuff is doing nothing in particular. When I was a headmaster in Manchester, I became used to the flocks of teenagers in the Arndale Centre on Saturday mornings, roving in and out like a tide ebbing and flowing from a meaningless beach.

Yet was it meaningless? As a young child, I was lucky enough to be able to spend holidays on my cousin’s farm in Scotland. Below their house was a small burn. I spent hours by that burn, throwing stones at a rock that stuck out from the dark water. It was mindless. And it was marvellous.

I don’t know – or I can’t quantify –what was happening in my mind during those hours, But somehow I know that what was happening then made the moment I live in now.

I think we’ve forgotten the importance, particularly for children and adolescents, of doing nothing very much. Our culture states that if you’re not doing something, you’re doing nothing worthwhile.

Yet our brains are like batteries. For every hour they spend powering us up, they need downtime, to recharge.

Here’s another example of the usefulness of mindlessness. I graduated and did my PhD in English literature. The result is that I can’t read a book or see a film without analysing it. Once born inside your head, the critic never leaves it – except in the case of things that are so vapid and empty that there’s nothing to criticise, or even think about.

Hence my addiction to rubbish science fiction. I love it because it doesn’t make me think.

I’ve published 23 books, many of them on English literature. Those books were the result of my mind working to its maximum capacity. Yet they were also the result of my sporadically giving my mind a timeout.

Sometimes I give my brain the rest it needs by doing nothing. Other times I give it what it needs by devouring rubbish sci-fi, or even playing Halo on my Xbox, sad though that sounds.

The trouble with mindlessness is that it’s a double-edged sword. There’s the mindlessness of doing nothing in particular, yet also the mindlessness of the soccer hooligan, when people have stopped thinking when they should have been thinking a lot harder.

So maybe mindlessness is the wrong word for what we need to bring back to our concept of what’s good for our young people. Instead of blasting Mozart into one ear and private maths tuition into the other, and filling our children’s lives with activities, we need another approach.

Let’s just leave our children every now and again to do nothing. Let’s even recognise being bored as a key part of growing up.

Martin Stephen was High Master of St Paul’s School, London