An Experiment in Mindfulness

How Will an “Unplugged Day” Affect Our Practice?

Those of us who make our living as writers almost entirely on the web are even more prone than most to become “addicted” to online life. After all, our careers depend to a large extent on being constantly connected. To remain relevant, we need to alert people by way of Twitter and Facebook of our latest contributions to blogs and websites. In the process, we tend to become absorbed in our colleagues’ posts and the lively back-and-forth they produce. If we want people to follow our own blogs, we must keep them current. As we write articles, bid on new projects, and submit query letters (all via electronic media), we inevitably become distracted by the hundreds of online news sources available. As a result, it becomes quite easy and natural to be online more or less constantly during our waking hours.

There’s both an upside and a downside to this perpetual connectedness. On the positive side, we have all of the world’s information at our fingertips at any given time; we can research the pieces we write in a fraction of the time it took in our pre-Internet days. We also have the marvelous ability to connect with people all over the globe and benefit from their take on everything from current events to cultural norms to philosophy and religion. However, having multiple sources of information constantly competing for our attention inevitably leads to a shorter attention span. We soon find ourselves needing to have a secondary screen open even while watching television. If we’re watching something substantive and informative, we naturally miss a great deal of content as our eyes move back and forth from one screen to another. (Although the practice of muting the TV and reading online during loud, obnoxious commercials has much to recommend it.) There have been times when there was something I wanted to watch on TV while a deadline simultaneously loomed. At those times, I’ve occasionally had the TV screen, my laptop, and my phone all competing for my attention at the same time!

The forthcoming DSM-V (the manual of mental health disorders that serves as a guide to every mental health professional) is about to provisionally list “Internet-Use Disorder” as a new health concern. In a fascinating series of studies, neurologists have discovered that serious consumers of electronic media—the sort that always have at least one screen open and often more—have brain wave patterns that scan almost exactly like those of cocaine addicts. They need more or less constant stimulation from media in the same way a serious addict always needs the next hit of his drug of choice. I’m ambivalent about naming new disorders all the time; I think it tends to erode the public’s confidence in psychiatry as the serious field of inquiry that it is. Nonetheless, my own experience with the addictive quality of electronic media leads me to believe it can be an enemy of mindfulness. I’m at least as serious about maintaining ongoing mindful awareness as I am about remaining connected to sources of information.

I therefore intend to try to observe a weekly “unplugged day” as an experiment in nurturing greater mindfulness. My wife is skeptical. When I told her about the topic of this article, she replied, “You can’t go a single hour unplugged; how can you write an article on the importance of having a weekly ‘unplugged day?’” She has a good point. It would be intellectually dishonest to write about the topic as if I’d already discovered its benefits; hence the provisional tone of this post. I want to give it a try and see what happens, and to check my results against other writers on this blog and others. If the analogy to chemical dependency holds, I suspect to experience withdrawal symptoms before I realize benefits.

My first scheduled “unplugged day” is scheduled for tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it affects me! I’m quite interested in learning how other practitioners balance their need for information with the goal of ongoing mindfulness.



Copyright © 2012 by William K. Ferro, All rights reserved

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