September 19, 2013

The Online Middle Path

Six years ago I read Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. That summer I practiced his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. And I forged a new relationship with media. We got rid of cable (or any TV reception). I stopped reading the newspaper. I minimized my time surfing the Internet. Mark--and other informed friends--became my news filters. And I felt less anxiety.

Some questions posed by Kabat-Zinn: "How much do you read newspapers and magazines? [Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, online material?] How do you feel afterward? Do you act on the information you receive? In what ways? How is your behavior affected by your need to be stimulated and bombarded? What are the effects of taking in bad news and violent images on your body? Your psyche?"

Two ahas for me: 1) how do I feel afterward? (well, usually overstimulated, sometimes violated, and generally crappy), and 2) how do I act on the information? (um, besides feeling overwhelmed, bad about myself, and distraught about the state of the world? nothing.)

Interacting with the online world is a fine balance. I've spent weeks unplugged where I live life in brighter color.  I've also spent weeks lost in distraction--spending time on the attention-grabbing rather than what's most important to me. And there's a middle-path on which I'm currently traveling.

I'm old school--no Facebook or texting--but I use email regularly. I'm both grateful for and beguiled by email. A full inbox feels overwhelming and sends me down rabbit holes. Yet it's also a venue in which I make meaningful connections. One practice has saved my creative soul: no email in the early morning. My mind is most alert in the morning. That's my rich space for writing, creating, and bringing together ideas. Email doesn't deserve my best work hours, nor should it dictate my daily intention. At the same time, email does deserve my attention. That is, the people who send email deserve my attention. If I--out of sheer distraction habit--open email mindlessly, then I'm not making space for what could be a  new and very important conversation. 

My creative tribe includes photography friends I've met online. Flickr is a safe space to experiment and share, and it's helped me grow as a photographer.  I also enjoy the connection--making thoughtful comments on the work of others. It's a community of artists. Yet I fall into two traps: 1) feeling responsible to comment on every photo posted by a Flickr friend, and 2) mindlessly checking to see if my photos have new comments. The latter is not necessary (a digest of comments appears in my inbox) nor is it helpful--it's my reaction to a feeling of lack. If I do have new comments, they don't fill that lack--they don't make me feel worthy, as is. And if I don't have new comments, then I feel edgy. The more skillful path: check in with myself--what's going on? What do I need right now? 

With regard to the first trap, I read something helpful in the August issue of Mindful magazine: "In the information blizzard, it's not possible to keep up. Accept that." It's not possible to keep up with all the photographs (or blog posts or cool things that others are doing). There's such relief in accepting this simple fact. Now I only enter Flickr to post a photograph. Then I thoughtfully view the recent uploads of friends (not the entire backlog) and write comments on photographs that move me. That's it. And that feels good. With intentional online activity I feel full (in a good way). With mindless online activity I feel scattered and not myself. I'm trying to pay more attention.

While at Lawrence, I had multiple news sites as browser homepages. (I looked for real-world data to bring into the classroom, but was also drawn to news headlines.) This summer my friend Miriam said something simple, yet profound: we can choose our homepage. Yes! Now my only homepage is Tara Brach--specifically her streaming-audio, guided-meditations page. When I open a browser, I often choose to meditate for 10 minutes before interacting online.

With any activities, I try to ask: Why am I doing this? What's my intention? How do I feel afterward? Do have more energy or less? There are many required tasks, where perhaps we have little wiggle-room. But our lives are also filled with our own choices. And curiosity about these choices is a helpful practice. 

1 comment:

  1. Oh my.... i so wish we could talk in person. This spoke to my heart, to my struggle right now with all social media. I am working hard to find my middle road. thank you for these words.