Small Respite

Final in a series

Author Rebecca Solnit writes about how we have changed in the last 20 years, mainly due to online connectivity. We have shorter attention spans. Our time is chopped into bits. We indulge our need for constant updates and check-ins.

She wrote that all this makes deep thinking and reading very difficult to sustain.

And often the habit of seeking external input subverts our inner knowing.

With that in mind, I conducted an experiment in the last weeks of 2013. I took a break from Facebook. I found it instructive—not always comfortable, but interesting.

I find that a quality of inner silence arises when I’m not hooked into an external source of connection. I’m not distracting myself through the random bits of pathos, trivia, deep thoughts, outrage, and silliness that constitute my Facebook feed—so I can face more easily the stuff that needs to be addressed, whether a stuck emotion or a dreaded task.

Back to my conversation with my friend Kate Boyd: She told me she had seen the film Inside Llewyn Davis and was struck by the pace of life pre-Internet. The breathing space of that age.

I had the same experience, and a sadness at what is lost, when I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which takes place post-World War II. The story unfolds in letters. I mourn the loss of letters.

Photo by Cas, via Flickr Commons

Photo by Cas, via Flickr Commons

Much of the story happens on an island, and the main character has long spacious hours in nature. I mourn the loss of time unfettered, disconnected from constant inputs.

There’s no going back, of course. But it helps me to put rules around my Facebooking, even bendable ones: No checking after 9pm. No checking before I get some work done. One day a week cold turkey.

Each Sunday I strive for an Internet-free day, but one day really isn’t enough to touch that sense of quiet. During my self-imposed “FaceBreak” and also during last October’s writing residency at Mesa Refuge, I came closer.

The hours at Mesa Refuge were largely Internet-free. There was no expectation to track anything other than my own thoughts and the work of my cohorts. The main questions were: “Did you break through that block you had last night, did you write your scene, did you get to the place you need to be?”

My writing shed at Mesa Refuge

My writing shed at Mesa Refuge

My time there was about ideas and creativity—and connection to something slower and sweeter than the latest argument or article posted online. Something, dare I say, eternal.

I’m looking forward to two writing retreats this summer that I hope will offer the same sense of spaciousness. And in the meantime, I manage as best I can—carving out Screen-free Sunday as a small respite, bringing some awareness into the mix when I remember to.

I hope this keeps me from having to file “social bankruptcy,” as in this very funny Portlandia clip (that a friend shared on Facebook).

What about you: Do you have techniques that help you deal with information overload? Have you ever taken a break from social media, by choice or necessity? Tell us about it in the comments!

Of Facebook and Firehoses

Part 2 in a series

My friend Kate Boyd and I were recently discussing smartphones and other addictions. Her weakness is checking email on her smartphone. And the little blinking light on my phone does hook me, but my real weakness is distracting myself with Facebook during my workday.

Say I log on to share something cool, like how I just saw some sandhill cranes flying low over my neighborhood.

Photo of sandhill cranes in flight by Jessica Lamirand, via Flickr Commons

Photo of sandhill cranes in flight by Jessica Lamirand, via Flickr Commons

If I’m not vigilant, I’ll spend a half hour reading other people’s posts before I even remember what I came there to say. Once I do post, I have to keep checking back every 10 minutes.

Did anyone comment? Did anyone even “like”? Shall I post an interesting article or quote I’ve come across, or repost someone else’s content, or “like” someone else’s, perhaps post a comment? Then: did anyone else comment on my comments?

Was I witty, was I urbane, did someone love what I said, does anyone out there love me? Am I loveable?

Yes, it pretty much comes down to that, as embarrassing as that is.

Kate reminded me that it’s brain chemistry, not a personal failing, that’s behind the constant reaching for external input. That hit of dopamine. It’s a recipe for addiction.

By John Karakatsanis, via Wikimedia Commons

By John Karakatsanis, via Wikimedia Commons

So, are we just wired to get hooked on Facebook, or whatever our personal weakness might be? Are we strong enough to override the habit, even once in a while?

Kate and I met years ago in a mindfulness class, so we share a common foundation. That training is useful in bringing awareness to habitual (mindless) behavior.

Lately I strive to notice when the itch arises. What am I thinking; what am I feeling? What precipitates the need to find a friendly word online? Often there’s some sense of lack, some uncomfortable feeling, or a wish to delay a task.

My hope is to bring more mindfulness into my relationship with online connectivity. To choose it, deliberately. I read a suggestion somewhere: Take three breaths before engaging in social media. (And I actually thought, Three breaths? I don’t have time for that!)

Wisdom 2.0 author Soren Gordhamer says the key to mindful engagement online is to first take a moment to remember that we are already connected. To really feel this truest connection, one that is not dependent on a touchscreen or a mouse click. Then log on.

Photo by Matthew Montgomery, via Flickr Commons

Photo by Matthew Montgomery, via Flickr Commons

Fair enough. If I remembered to breathe and/or connect to All That Is, it might shift the vibe significantly. (Perhaps the lovability question would be solved once and for all?)

I would still be confronted with major Information Overload once I’m there, however. Not to mention the complaints, tirades, and reports of all that’s wrong with the world.

Then again, the feed could show nothing but sweetness and light, and it would still pose a problem: The sheer volume of input is draining in itself. I find myself skimming everything, flitting from one shiny thing to the next.

We all drink from the firehose now. Facebook or no Facebook, modern life is a firehose. But for me, social media is the breaking point.

I’ve found that there’s no respite unless I carve one out.

Next up: Finding a respite

The Other Face of Facebook

Part 1 in a series

A few months ago I blogged about how fantastic social media can be during an extreme weather event. The Facebook group for my neighborhood was a much-needed source of information, entertainment, and connection during a snowbound week.

It’s true that Facebook enriches my life. My Facebook feed has brought me wisdom, creative expression, long lost friends, writing jobs, amusement, and fascinating news stories, local and global.

But then there’s the other face of Facebook. Take the aforementioned neighbors’ page, which can be quite helpful, not just in a crisis. We’ve returned lost dogs to their owners, rallied to raise money to protect our public art, and urged each other to support small businesses during a grueling winter.

All good. And why is it that seemingly every other day, there’s arguing and accusation and drama all over that page? Why do so many discussions devolve into a pissing contest?

The nutty thing is how compelling it can be, like some kind of reality TV show that’s simultaneously grotesque and addictive. Even though I rarely engage, it’s hard to look away. With Herculean strength I resist the urge to read every argumentative comment thread.

The joke’s on us. I can’t remember where I saw it (probably on Facebook), but someone wondered what a person from the past would think if the smartphone had been foreseen: “Someday, we’ll have a device in our pocket that gives us access to the sum total of human knowledge. We’ll be able to connect instantaneously with anyone, anywhere. And we’ll use it to watch kitty videos and pick fights with strangers.”


Obligatory Cute Kitty

(I have friends on the neighbors’ page, but many of the participants are relative strangers, except through their repeated appearance in that forum. Come to think of it, what’s crazier than arguing with strangers? Lurking among the arguing strangers.)

I blame the physiological response that accompanies a “hit” online. There’s a corresponding hit of dopamine. That spells addiction.

Photo by Michael Schlinge, via Flickr Commons

Photo by Michael Schlinge, via Flickr Commons

Still, my energy healer friend Merry Henn has found the Internet to be a partner in healing. “Through Facebook I have found that what I am feeling on a particular day is often being experienced by many others. The Internet is our energetic connection made manifest. It has a collective consciousness, and often the exact resources we need will appear before we even ask for them. Just be aware that prolonged computer exposure scrambles your energies.”

Perhaps it’s all about the intention we set, or the mindfulness with which we seek. Clicking around mindlessly, I sometimes seem more likely to encounter collective fear/unconsciousness than than collective wisdom. Before I know it my energy is in a downward spiral.

But then I’ll see something redemptive, some kindness or insight. Example: musician friend Sean Flora recently pointed out that whenever someone “spouts some godawful crap…there is some kind of hurt behind it.” He noted that in online interaction, it’s harder to remember that a hurt little child is driving the diatribes. He spoke of finding a path to connection and compassion—while recognizing how our own hurts might affect others.

A good thing to remember in both online and face-to-face conversations.

What about you: How do you experience social media forums like Facebook?

Next up: More on social media addiction, and strategies.