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What if…? It’s one of the most adventurous and romantic phrases in the English language. It speaks of open-ended curiosity, of possibility and of willingness.

What if… what if I put this yellow colour with that blue colour? What if I put the ice-cream inside the cake? What if I put the meat on the fire? What if I kayak to Hawaii?

‘What if’ leads to human invention. It’s curiosity leading to action.

I suspect that what-if thinking often begins with boredom or unease. Not always, but often.

In a much-cited study from the University of Virginia a decade or so ago, researchers asked participants to sit quietly with their own thoughts. Most participants reported discomfort with that simple act (we’ll pick up on that next week!), but then the researchers took the study a step further. Firstly, they asked participants how they might feel about receiving a small to moderate electric shock. Unsurprisingly, every single person said, Umm, thank you, but I would never want to be shocked with electricity.

So far, so unsurprising. But then, participants were left alone in an unfurnished lab room for fifteen minutes. They had two choices: to sit quietly with your own thoughts, or to press a red button which will give you an electric shock.

More than two-thirds of the men, and a quarter of the women, elected to press the button and receive the shock.

The researchers concluded: “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

Now, when I first saw this report in the New Scientist I was mystified. Fifteen minutes! That’s all they had to sit for. Why would you give yourself a shock? Oh my god, can’t people even sit with their own thoughts? What on earth is wrong with people? Etcetera etcetera.

When I get started, I do a very nice line in Being Affronted About the Failings of All Humanity.

Clearly for many people in that study, the very idea of being alone with one’s thoughts was terrifying.

But I’m not sure that’s the whole story. What if it’s also about curiosity?

What if people pushed that button because their curiosity was stronger than their fear? Who among us could ignore a pulsing red button in front of us, practically luminous with the question what might this feel like? Then imagine if the label on the button read: do not press.

Henry Thoreau famously spent two years at Walden Pond reflecting on his life, reporting that, “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sun- rise till noon, rapt in a revery”.

He recommended the practice to others: “Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought[.]”

In his practice of reflecting inwardly, Thoreau was simply directing his natural curiosity. Our curiosity is built into us. Learning to direct that curiosity inwardly can do more than illuminate our lives.

Dr. Edith Bone, imprisoned in solitary confinement for seven years by the communist Hungarian regime, passed the time by retreating into her “well-stocked, disciplined mind[”].

Ronald Ridgeway spent 5 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He survived by creating an imaginary world in which he had a wife and children, owned a pick-up truck, and went fishing in his spare time. He reported that spending 3 days in his fantasy world occupied him for an entire day in his stark real world of imprisonment and deprivation.

The ability to imagine is simply the ability to wonder. And wondering is built on curiosity.

So today, I invite you to follow Thoreau’s path and encounter new continents within you. Sometime today, sit quietly “in a revery”.

I suggest setting a timer for ten minutes or so. This is not quite the same as last week’s exercise of simply writing all your random thoughts. This is a little more focused.

Begin with the thought “I wonder…” And then, simply sit with your own thoughts. Welcome your own curiosity, and let it lead you where it wishes to go.

I wonder why I’m so uncomfortable? I wonder if everyone is uncomfortable in this sort of silence? I wonder if that man up the road has ever been silent…..

If you like, make some notes after the timer goes off. This is not a meditation exercise, but a reminder that the things you wonder about are your particular imaginative gold.

So. Sit. Wonder. Ten minutes. No shocks required.

And then, today’s prompt:

The sun rose slowly….