I listened to an interesting Buddhist Geeks podcast late last week as I was packing for my trip to see my family for the holidays. Here’s a snippet from a discussion with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang about technological determinism:
There’s a great technology writer in Seattle named Monica Guzman who makes the point that taking digital sabbaths is like having an ocean recede. It’s like having low tide.
What happens with our high tech lives is that the waters slowly come up so that you don’t even really notice them. They bring all kinds of things with them. Sort of unspoken assumptions, sort of habits that you get into without realizing. It’s only when you let those waters recede that you’re able to see down to the bottom and to see all of the other things that have come with this technological tide.
The two-part podcast deals with “how the daily rigors of [Pang's] work with technology damaged his mental focus, and how he turned to meditation to regain that focus. By viewing his work through the lens of his meditation practice he was led to new questions and ideas about how to change mankind’s relationship with technology, how to go from being distracted to more focused and mindful, and the real dangers of taking a passive role in our daily relationship with technology.”
Negotiating the tensions
A day rarely goes by when I’m not on some level negotiating the digital-information tensions: Managing clients’ social media accounts and managing my email inbox are a big part of my job (at work, I have a two-computer-screen set-up and sometimes resort to using my iPhone or iPad as a third screen, and the end of the work day doesn’t mean I get to stop monitoring accounts). Engaging in social media is the primary way I keep up-to-date on the goings-on of those who mean most to me, and it’s also the most reliable way I’ve found to be exposed to the most helpful and provoking thoughts about life on the mat and cushion.
Keeping up with everything can be draining, though — it sometimes feels like playing tetris with an infinite scroll of data. When I feel that information-overload onslaught, what gets zapped isn’t just my energy. My concentration feels scattered, which makes me feel like I’ve lost capacity for clarity about matters. I feel less efficient, less productive, less patient and less present. What happens when too many apps are running on a smartphone or tablet? The battery charge drops so quickly.
I did my first social media unplug in 2008, and even though that was before I had a six-day-a-week asana rhythm and a regular meditation practice, I knew how vital it was to experiment with this type of recharge.
When Baratunde Thurston walked way from the Internet earlier this year and wrote about it for Fast Company, he discovered four things: He had become obsessed with “The Information,” he shared too much, he was addicted to himself, and he “forsook the benefits of the Industrial Age”:
The first season of Downton Abbey features a remarkable scene in which the Dowager Countess, who is always quick to offer a sharp retort in defense of tradition, responds to another character’s announcement of weekend plans with a truly confused inquiry: ‘What is a weekend?’ One major feature of industrialization was the adoption of leisure time for those of us not among the leisure class. Yet one major feature of the Networked Age is our de-created ability to disengage. Will the concept of downtime have been a temporary blip in the history of civilization?
Thurston, whom I was lucky enough to meet once years ago on a yoga retreat in Michigan, found that by unplugging:
The greatest gift I gave myself was a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence, and emptiness. I don’t need to fill every time slot with an appointment, and I don’t need to fill every mental opening with stimulus. Unoccupied moments are beautiful, so I have taken to scheduling them. Once a quarter, my chief of staff and I institute a zero-appointments “Blank Week,” and almost every week I tune out of the Matrix for hours at a time (yes, while I am awake and conscious). Perhaps the most life-affirming change is that I rarely walk down a street while looking at or tapping on a device. My reading or writing can wait, especially if it means I will be alive later to deal with it.
The degree to which I’ve guarded my social media — or any media — down time has steadily intensified as the rhythm of my morning ashtanga practice has steadied and deepened. And the need to disengage crescendoed this summer during the short time I was pregnant, and following my miscarriage, it felt almost like a doctor’s order: Ingestion of media is contraindicated!
The feeling that kept coming up for me during that time had to do squarely with spaciousness. I needed spaciouness of body, mind and spirit in order to process emotions in real-time; not doing this, I felt, ran the risk of my avoiding the necessary processing, which would have meant suppressing experiences and feelings, and dealing with them down the road. It didn’t seem to me that I could achieve a state of spaciousness if I was hyper-connected.
Social media indigestion?
Since then, I’ve engaged even more frequently in micro-unplugs. But something interesting happened in October after the seasonal Ayurveda cleanse: I came out of it feeling like I had more digestive fire for a lot of things, including social media. To be sure, the fire is stronger and weaker on certain days. I’m on vacation right now, for instance. Sometimes being on vacation means I embrace the digital sabbath. I’ve been all over Facebook this week, however — and it’s felt fine, if not outright lovely. (Facebook is the social network that I find myself guarding against the most when I feel I need mental quiet and spiritual spaciousness.) This is the flip side of the unplugs: When I feel like I can digest it, I try to be on, to be part of the community.
This will only last so long, though, and eventually, I’ll start to close the sense gates again, only being on Facebook to do what I need to do.
Adding perhaps an interesting additional dimension to this topic is the fact that I recently took a personality test after avoiding it all these years. The results, for whatever they’re worth, said I’m an INFJ. Traits of the INFJ include: “…the sensitivity of INFJs allows them to connect to others quite easily. Their easy and pleasant communication can often mislead bystanders, who might think that the INFJ is actually an extrovert….As introverts, INFJs need to have some ‘alone time’ every once in a while or otherwise their internal energy reserves will get depleted really quickly. If this happens, the INFJ may surprise everybody around them by withdrawing from all their activities for a while – and since other people usually see INFJs as extroverts, this can leave them both surprised and concerned.”
In the second part of the Buddhist Geeks podcast — this one focused on contemplative computing — Pang talks about how he started asking digitally connected monks and nuns how they manage to spend hours online without it becoming a distraction. He says:
Universally, they turned the question around: ‘Why is it that you think the distraction comes from the technology?’ And their argument was actually the monkey mind is a far greater engine of distraction than any external technology, and that once you understand that spending hours playing video poker or watching cats on YouTube is not just a kind of inevitable consequence of human evolution…but rather probably reflects other kinds of disatisfactions in our lives rather than reflects a love of shiny, blinking Internet things, once you see that, then the problem resolves itself. It may not be a kind of position that everyone can take ,but I think it is a really powerful one. Ultimately, what the argument is that that distraction does not come from technology, distractions comes from within. You deal with it the way you deal with distractions for the last 2,500 years…
Later in the podcast, Pang talks about potential ways of fighting back against the distractions. It’s an interesting listen, if you have the time.
What’s your take on technology and distraction, information and emptiness? I would love to hear how you negotiate the digital world in relation to your various practices.
(Graphic credit: “Rip Tide” via rkag’s Flickr photostream)