Tag Archives: distraction

Digital Doping

Our minds have important things to tell us. But they need time alone with the person they are attached to.

Try a simple exercise for a few days. Make a point of noticing what others are doing when they have some moments alone.  Perhaps a person is waiting for an elevator, standing on a street corner looking for their ride, sitting in a classroom waiting for a session to begin, or standing on a magnificent beach at the “golden hour” just before sunset.  The question can always be the same:  are these folks in a temporary lull looking for a way out of the moment?  Do they need the distraction of a digital fix?

The answer is often yes. We exist to be busy, or at least to do something that passes for it. Showing that we have something to do seems to validate our sense of importance.  But there is truth in the idea that we would be better off if we were doing less and thinking more.

We almost always seek an exit from any opportunity to be in our own heads.

There may be a little bit of confirmation bias working here, but I’m struck with how even a moment of solitude needs to be broken by attention to unknown and usually unimportant messages on a phone. The sunset and our own internal thoughts will have to wait.  We usually seek any exit from any opportunity to be in our own heads. We’d rather be “checking:” the label now attached to a state of near constant digital distraction.

That’s unfortunate, because our inner selves probably have some useful things to tell us.  The linear thinking that makes creativity possible requires sustained attention. The ordering of pressing priorities needs concerted mental effort. Seemingly “doing nothing” as we gaze into the distance without the sedative of digital doping can actually be productive.  We certainly understand this with regard to children.  Being on a task for a long period is not what they need.  In fact, like the rest of us, they must have generous amounts of time to be in the moment: time to daydream and, as they grow up, time to make decisions about what matters and what comes next. These are the rudiments of consciousness.  And because much of our interior thinking is language based, it takes time to “listen” to ideas and emerging formulations that we should want to know better.

In addition, there is always an outside world worth a closer look.  A typical moment may not quite live up to a sunset over the ocean.  More prosaically, it may be the wind making tall trees dance, the beauty of a sudden stillness, or it may be the sight of a child utterly alive in a moment of play.

Face it: most of us are stuck with the same unproductive behavior repeated with a frequency that would make an obsessive blush. Phone checking is now a recognized addictive behavior.  Some folks can’t go more than a few minutes before checking it for messages. Some sleep with their devices.  Most use phones as alternate sources of stimulation in meetings and classes, and even during meals with friends and family.  It’s become a kind of faux-consciousness that is, frankly, intellectually impoverished.  We use our devices to avoid listening to what can be useful chatter from inside. The only ways some of us get back in touch with ourselves is sometimes to make a show of it, such as sitting on a yoga mat where studio rules require that digital devices stay outside.

You might be surprised at the novel and productive ideas your inner self is ready to share.

Socrates gave us the overused by valuable reminder that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  He meant something quite cosmic by it.  But we can scale it down to be a simple prescription for the few precious minutes we can capture here and there to maintain a sense of centeredness. We might be surprised at the ideas our inner selves are ready to share.

De-Stressing in the Woods

                       Yellow Poplar

Thoreau acted on what many of us also know: rediscovering the ground of silence by retreating into a forest offers a chance to rebalance, to reawaken selves diminished by the clutter of  messages that ceaselessly intrude.

In his recent best-selling book, The Hidden Life of Trees (2016), Peter Wohlleben explains why he is so passionate about the verdant world of the forest.  Mostly he wants to marvel at a kind of biological intentionality that has trees “talking” to each other, aggregating in communities, nurturing the weakest and the wounded, and finding ways to protect themselves from invaders. In Wohlleben’s world “mother” trees keep their nearby offspring small by denying the light they need to grow quickly.  The slow growth mandated by the sun-blocking canopy of the parent has the effect of hardening the wood structure in the offspring.  That will add years to its life when the older tree falls and allows a direct path to the sun.  Like so much in the biological world, trees are “smart” in the ways they need to be smart.  And while I would quarrel a bit with a language of intention that works better for sentient beings than plants, we can’t help but share his admiration for these living structures.  Trees are the heroes of the planet for their longevity, their towering height and beauty, their life-giving  oxygen, and their capacity to regenerate even when abused by animals and humans. Thankfully, not all humans.

For decades some Japanese have engaged in a practice of “forest bathing.”  This is less a form of exercise than a simpler act of pausing to absorb the wonder of a wooded hillside.  This involves, as they say, “being in the moment,” lingering in a setting that offers psychological breathing space.  In addition, the transpiration-infused air of a forest is said to have its own restorative attributes.

For some time my family has lived on several acres within an expansive wooded valley.  But only recently have I fully appreciated the 100-foot tall poplars that stand as sentinels along the pathway to our house. Their tall trunks are ramrod straight, with branches and leaf canopies too high to fully appreciate from the ground. I marvel at how they’ve managed to endure all that human encroachment has thrown at them.  We rarely take the time, but more often we should stand at their bases in a conscious tribute to their magnificence.

Treks deep into the woods obviously function for the simple pleasure of spending time in the cool shade of these giants.

trees Pixabay

Perhaps pausing at the foot of a tree is a start in the direction of forest bathing.  Americans have other names for it as well. Fishing, hunting and camping come to mind. The ruddy gamesmen loaded to the teeth with various armaments would probably reject the label of “tree hugger.”  But hug them they do as they make their way along angled forest floors. Treks deep into the woods obviously function for the simple pleasure of spending time in the company of these giants.

The relevant communication lesson here lies in the perspective we regain when we withdraw into the natural world.  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau famously observed. For him the company of others was too much of a distraction, as were the new products of the information age delivered by the rapidly expanding telegraph. He acted on a premise that many of us also know: silence offered by a retreat into a forest offers a chance to rebalance, to reawaken selves diminished by the clutter of  messages that ceaselessly intrude.

And, of course, a forest’s presence is its own reward. It’s lushness, smell and density give us an existential lift. In the natural world we are again of a place and not just in it.  We are home with the elements of life-support we already know.  I sense this accutely after what is usually brief rain shower in the Rockies, where lodgepole pines add an indescribably clean scent to the thin air. Fortunately for nearly all of us, communities of trees are close by. Standing among them is to acknowledge that we are but one biological form paying homage to another, each extraordinary in their own ways.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu