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Being in The Digital Age

The Word

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have pencilled “sunlight.”

The opening lines of Tony Hoagland’s poem, The Word, have been circling through my mind recently. I read it aloud in a recent session of my eight-week course.  A distance learner had also described how pausing at intervals in her day had become like moments of “sunlight.” The word “sunlight” captures the effect of pausing to allow awareness to illuminate our present moment experience, lifting us out of the fog of distraction and doing mode, and then dropping beneath the layers of discursive thought and the conceptual mind and to rest in awareness itself.

My practice brings an increasing appreciation and gratitude for the simplicity of these “sunlight” moments, allowing ordinary qualities and details of daily life to show themselves and be fully absorbed. It could be as simple as: hearing the raindrops on my coat; the hiss of passing traffic on a wet road; glimpsing the sodden leaves by the front door; the pale blue of the early morning sky through the outline of a tree; or the texture of a bowl of thick winter soup with my spoon. It brings to the forefront a more valued recognition of the completely ordinary textures of daily life. It also brings more conscious recognition of the gift of awareness itself.

Sunlight moments are not necessarily special moments, they are simply a doorway to “the very drab, the common, the daily presentations” as Mary Oliver describes in her poem Mindful. But they can also bring pleasure, and life shines brightly through these simple details. Allowing the warmth of sunlight to soak in helps me lean towards a more grounded simplicity and contentment that is also the basis of courage to deal with the more difficult aspects of life when they occur. It is part of the conscious holding space, the subtle backdrop of daily life, and opens to a broader landscape, a feeling of being part of an interconnected world.

The importance of sunlight moments came home further to me after reading a recent article in The Guardian newspaper on the impact of the digital world  –including smartphones and other devices – on our ability to concentrate (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-concentration-being-distracted-in-a-digital-world). Apparently, according to research conducted in 2018 by the UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom:

  • people check their phones on average every 12 minutes in their waking hours
  • 71% never have the phone switched off; and
  • 40% check their phones, often within five minutes of waking.

The article says:

by adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the word but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.

In other words, always being digitally available has an insidious impact on long-term mental health, and sunlight moments are even more important for our well-being. I was quite shocked to see this stark evidence on the pages of a national newspaper.

One evening, after teaching an eight-week MBSR course in Newcastle upon Tyne, my train home was delayed. The waiting room where passengers gathered was quite full and I took one of the last seats available. Everyone around me and in front of me had their heads down, absorbed by their phones. No one spoke and it was very quiet.

I sat down and felt glad for the opportunity of a few moments to settle after all the packing up following the session, and to reflect on things.  As I sat opposite the row of people on their phones, I wondered if, in this situation, the distraction of being on the phone removed some of the perhaps understandable social awkwardness of sitting so closely opposite total strangers. I also wondered what people were using their phones for.

My own mobile phone was tucked in my coat pocket with my return ticket home. I had put them there so they were both easily and readily accessible, instead of having to retrieve them from the bottom of my bag during the journey. I noticed how the opportunity to check my phone passed through my mind as a compelling consideration. Perhaps there were messages from the family? Perhaps some emails I hadn’t seen before leaving home? Nobody would have thought it strange if I had pulled out my phone too. It would have been entirely normal. In fact, I was the odd person out, by not getting my phone out and checking it. I let the impulse pass, settled into the hardness of the seat and listened to the hum of the bar heater overhead.

The train came into a station and people boarded. It was old train stock, not with the high-backed seats where you can slump into a corner, but rows of low-backed seats with a metal rail more like the seating on a bus, so that you are sitting quite close to the person in front, acutely aware of the detail of their hair. As the train engine roared to life, the sound of the train moving out of the station muffled the quiet tones of conversation of an older couple two seats further in front, the animated  bubbling laughter of young girls at a table further up the carriage with their shopping parcels piled up in a flurry, and the slurred efforts of a drunken man who was trying to explain something of importance to his neighbour. These were the textures of the last train home.

As the train crossed the Tyne Bridge, I saw the coloured lights of the city laid out like a firework display, sparkling in the river below. I wondered how I would spend the journey. Could I look at my phone, and see if my daughters had left a message or photo? I could call my husband, text a friend, or read the news. I had a book in my bag and a notebook for journaling and reflection, and my to-do notebook was in my bag too. I decided to do nothing and settled into the slowing of my breathing and listening to the rhythmical slowing and speeding up of the train, the hissing of brakes and vacuum doors opening and closing, and the automated announcements as we heaved to a standstill at each stop on the line. Gradually, the residues of the day began to settle and ease within me – fragments of visual memories and thoughts, mixed with the hum of conversation in the carriage, the heavy metallic clunking of the track and the shuffling of the man in the seat behind me.

Stop by stop, the train gradually emptied and the number of passengers dwindled rapidly once we had left the Metro Centre stop. Nobody new boarded either. The drunken man had slumped asleep in his seat and the girls had left in a whirl of paper parcels and bags. The lines from the poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas came to mind, “No one left and no one came/On the bare platform.” Nothing happened. No latest news of Brexit. No likes or shares. No messages. No emails. No texts. No posts. No alerts. No new friend requests. No weather updates. No new photos on Instagram. Just the buzz of the departure signal, the train restarting and the swaying motion of the carriage and the odd glimpse of the moon, a white coin moving between the trees as the train curved along the line of the river.

By the time I stepped out at Hexham station, I felt a quiet alignment with the gradual slowing of the train to the platform edge. The journey home had been a coming home to myself at the end of a full day, a time without any to-dos, where I allowed the business of the day to quietly settle within me. I walked slowly to the car and drove out on to the dark winding roads home. I chose not to put on the radio. No late night news. No interviews. No latest from Parliament. No discussion. No interesting book reviews. No traditional fiddle music. Instead, the colours of the waving autumn trees flashing by in the car headlights, the glistening stone walls and the moon still making its ghostly appearance through skimming clouds.

The Guardian article has made me more conscious of my mobile phone usage. I have poor signal where I live, so this naturally limits activity. However, with both daughters now away at university, I find myself checking my phone more often as we exchange messages and photos together. I love to see and laugh with them on Facetime, and I often wonder what it would have been like before this was possible. Keeping in touch with them by phone also means I see when emails have come in, even when I may not wish to look at them, or Facebook notifications, which are a lost cause as I never manage to keep up with them. It’s not an easy balance, having a smartphone these days! I have by no means mastered the art of it. But increased awareness of phone usage  helps me to notice the subtle moment-to-moment choices around when I pick up my phone, such as when and how often I check it;  what I choose to look at; how long I spend on it; and  when I switch it off altogether. I am making more of a conscious effort to notice how the reality of my day is shaped by the presence of the phone and the activity that surrounds it.

So here it is. A question of balance. How do we participate in achieving a spacious balance in an age of digital and social media, and in a world that is saturated with information triggered by the slight pressure of a fingertip upon a portable screen? Nowadays, appreciating the fleeting and ordinary may be even more revolutionary and vitally linked to our well-being than is recognised. It would seem that today, social and digital media offer limitless and world-embracing benefits of communication, creativity and connectedness, but that on a personal level, can also strain our capacity for focus, flexibility, concentration, and calm. Continuous partial attention (CPA) threatens to become the new normal along with the catapulting rise of online shopping trends. The Guardian article points out, “What is noticeable is that you cannot just go from a state of distraction to one of concentration.”

Pema Chodron repeatedly calls us to witness and appreciate the ordinary fleeting moments of everyday life, stepping out of our cocoon of over-involvement. She writes of these moments “… we usually speed right past them. So the first step is to stop, notice and appreciate what is happening. Even if this is all we do, it’s revolutionary.”  We benefit hugely from being part of a digital age, and we also need to have moments of pausing to allow sunlight in. We also need space to breathe in a highly stimulating world that leads us to switch between multiple screens and multiple activities, potentially disrupting the focus and rhythm of our attention and our capacity to absorb the reality of what is really taking place within and around us. Awareness, rather than an app, keeps us connected.

The gift of practice is that it serves to bring us to the gaps that exist between stimuli and input and allows spaciousness to manifest. Like the, the essential nature of the mind is already there, waiting to shine. We are participants who shape our own reality, and through awareness we become more aligned with the creative possibilities and choices that exist in the fullness of life’s many seemingly competing and complex textures.  As the Irish philosopher, John O’Donahue has said, quoted in Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, “Each of us is an artist, everyone is involved, whether they like it or not, in the construction of their world.”

So “whether we like it or not,” we are all part of a digitally communicating age. The title of The Guardian article was “The Lost Art of Concentration.” In all our losing of concentration, there are multiple opportunities for remembering and recognising awareness in the subtle details of ordinary life. As a course participant of mine wisely said, “If mindlessness is definitely with us, then mindfulness is more than possible.” If there are limitless possibilities for doing, then there are limitless possibilities for being that lie not in opposition, or as self-correction, but in leaning towards more creative, spacious and harmonious balance. This is the gift and art of practice itself.

Tony Hoagland’s poem, The Word, continues:

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.

The power of the present moment

When we begin to practice paying attention, we start to notice how strong the tugs and pulls on the mind are and how well developed our habit of distraction is. It can seem so engrained, so vivid, random and unruly. The process of building a new muscle of attention, a new mental habit of present moment awareness, may feel quite daunting and effortful to begin with, a bit like getting into a boat and launching off and finding a wobbly balance on the water. Launching into practice may seem reliant upon our wavering good intentions and willingness to find those moments of having strayed right off track, and allowing ourselves to begin again. However, the good intentions and willingness to find those new beginnings are a vital part of the process of building a stable mindfulness practice. Like an underlying buoyancy aid, we begin to discover that practice is always there, supporting us and holding us on the water.

Through practice itself, we learn to return repeatedly to the reality of the present moment, wherever and however this places us, and how far and for however long we have strayed. We do this hopefully with some good humour and compassion, yet all too often too we will also notice how hard we are on ourselves and how readily the inner critic has a field day with our rampant minds. This too is a vital part of the process. Nothing is excluded or unworthy of our compassionate attention, perhaps especially those harsh judgments and unkind ways in which we relate to ourselves and our lives. And what perhaps we don’t see at the beginning is how the endeavour of practice, those repeated moments of beginning again with ourselves just as we are, without judgement or conditions or agendas, is building compassionate awareness and the very basis of practice itself.

Each time we return our awareness to the present moment, we are creating the possibility of standing in an open and creative relationship to our experience. We are offering ourselves the opportunity of being more aware and responsive in our mental, emotional lives, rather than having the quality of life dictated to and overruled by our negative habitual tendencies. My meditation teacher, Yongey Mingyur Ronpoche, once described the process of practising moments of awareness as drops in a bucket filling slowly. We may not be aware of the accumulative effect of the process, but invisibly we are building a new way of perceiving and relating to ourselves and the world around us. We are oiling our tools of awareness for when we need to use them wisely and to good effect.

In our pressurised world, we don’t always have the luxury to step back from situations to work things through and think things out rationally and logically. We often say how we don’t even have time to think. And so our human and inbuilt tendency to react is easily hair-triggered by a backlog of automatic engrained perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, concepts, preferences and past memories, all loaded to the trip wire of the moment in which we hit the unwanted and downright inconvenient. We are hardwired to reactivity. The moment an experience is registered, our subconscious tendency to classify it as positive , negative or neutral kicks in to gear. If we like the experience, we are drawn towards it, if we don’t like it we will reject it or push it away, and if it is neutral our attention will skate over with disinterest.

The power of stopping even for a fraction of a second and knowing what we are experiencing and what is happening in the landscape of the present moment is a radical reversal of our reactive tendencies. The very moment we lean in to the here and now and see our thoughts and emotions for what they are, a little bit of distance is created between the raw material of our experience and our automatic tendency to over-inhabit and solidify every experience that comes our way. We underestimate the small wedge of freedom this creates. The power of the present moment offers a sliver of space in which the gap is widened between reaction and response, between solidity and flexibility, between hard and soft, between open and closed. Awareness is space itself.

Each time we catch ourselves and pause, each time we stop in the knowing of our experience for what it is, we are offering ourselves a space to breathe, a greater chance of dealing with our life experience more creatively, instead of being ruled by our more practiced negative feelings and thoughts. When we learn to catch a thought as a thought, and know an emotion for its taste and texture, a new muscle memory is being laid down. It only takes a moment for awareness to shine through to illuminate precisely the experience we are having. A moment of pausing is all that is needed.

We may not see directly how the bucket is filling with these drops of awareness and precisely how beneficial and infinitely valuable they are. Perhaps we take for granted how the very ordinariness of all we experience is the fertile ground from which this awareness has the capacity to develop and grow to bring us this degree of rich connection and insight. Yet the power of the present moment is reinforced each time awareness is allowed to manifest.

Each time we know what we are seeing, hearing and tasting, every time we are conscious of an emotion, a thought or a sensation, we have an opportunity for practice and we move towards the reality of a more richly inhabited world. Each time we repeatedly step over the threshold of unawareness, habitual distraction and reactivity, and enter through the gateway of direct experience, mindful awareness brings us through to a more fully lived sensory, mental and emotional landscape. It leads us to a more conscious life, a life of greater compassionate interaction with ourselves and others, and a life that is infused with greater discernment, care and ease.

This is why we practice pausing, and unleash the underestimated power of the present moment. Again and again, vital moments of clarity guide the boat forward with certainty and a growing confidence in the trustworthiness of our craft.

Revisiting autopilot

In our last “Staying Mindful” practice support meeting last week, we reflected  a little on working with distraction and how we can go about renewing an interest in habitual patterns of mind and activity where we have an ongoing tendency to drift out of the present moment. At the start of an 8 week course, we begin with recognising the difference between  autopilot and mindful awareness, and what is revealed to us when we begin to intentionally bring mindful attention to our experience.

We’re all on a continuum between distraction and awareness, and the practice of mindfulness helps us to lean further towards a fuller attentiveness in our lives, and also towards  being  more readily able to recognise when and how we get caught up in habitual and preferential mind states, in the many forms this can take.

As practice becomes more established and embedded in our lives,  we develop our capacity for awareness and get used to the renewed effort, patience and intention that is required to bring ourselves back to the  present moment when we have drifted away, both in our formal practice and everyday life. But as  the process evolves over time, how can we maintain a curious, yet gentle interest in  continuing to see  how our well worn habits and patterns play themselves out? How do we open up to working with the thoughts and emotions that come round and round again instead of switching off?  How do we remain alive to the impulses and tendencies of liking , not liking and finding downright good old boring, that so readily hook us out of where we are  and that block or obscure  our ability to  experience the full vitality of life in any given moment? Where do we go when we are not here? How do we drift? What habitually hooks us out?

When we start training the mind through the small steps of practice, we embark on a journey that  requires  kindness and honesty as we begin to see ourselves and our neurotic, human patterns  more clearly. We’re such creatures of habit, that even our practice can become routine and familiar, and sometimes a bit dulled and lacking in focus at the edges. It can be helpful to refresh practice from time to time by renewing an interest in where  the camera lens habitually goes fuzzy in our lives, where  we tend to  zone out from and drift off to, the places where we get habitually hooked and entangled. Our whole life becomes an arena for wonderful and rich learning through becoming more aware of the geography of habit; the places, people, situations, thoughts, feelings, activities, things we like and  avoid, and are indifferent to.  By waking up to the force of habit, we reclaim  the vitality and colour of life from the dead space of unawareness and reel more of our moments in.

So perhaps, in daily life, we can begin to notice again, how much we still drift in to the grey zone of autopilot, and perk up and notice what it is actually like. Does it feel like a sort of inert dullness or does it take the form of busy, multi-tasking whizziness? Where do we go when our minds drift? Is it to planning or re-hashing the events of the day, or drifting towards a dreamy wanting, or analysing how things could be different? Do we surround ourselves in  subtle entangling veils of “if”, “but”, “when”, “could”and “should” and “can’t”? Do we lean forwards to the future, or lean back to the past? Are there strong areas of habit we exercise without questioning  in our daily life? When do we check email? How and where do we have our lunch? Where do we sit? What do we snack on? What do we google? What do we do if we get a free moment and nothing is happening?

Our habits are part of us and it is through our habits and learning to see them more clearly, that mindful awareness offers us different possibilities. We need to see them, to work with them.  We’re in partnership with them, whether we like them or not. But if we can begin to see the pieces of the jigsaw a bit more clearly, the picture begins to open up to something a bit more wider, spacious, giving and flexible. What we practice grows stronger. We can become part of something bigger,  less constrained and predictable. New pathways open up through the woods, small little trails leading between the trees that we haven’t been down before, but which perhaps take us somewhere new.

On BBC Winter Watch recently, I was fascinated to see how they tracked the flight patterns of a golden eagle and a sea eagle by attaching cameras and GPS technology to them, which, by some miracle, were then  linked up to computers on the ground. Sure enough, as each eagle climbed the thermals,  soaring in to the sky above the Cairngorms, squiggly patterns began to appear on the tablet screens of the researchers on the ground. “Look at those tight spirals!” they exclaimed .”Wow – she’s going at 46mph!” The information was all there in patterns and numbers  and data appearing on the screens, constellating in facts, figures and diagrams, moment by moment.

But what I found incredible was the totally new experience of being able to see the world from the eagle’s point of view as it flew – the way the mountains tipped and the sky veered and whole valleys and rivers flew like ribbons in some enormous overview rushing underneath its soaring wings, tilting, adjusting with the detailed movements of its body and head, which you could just see below the positioned camera, pointing to the hugeness of the world below its crown of chocolate-layered feathers.

Afterwards, I reflected how in a parallel way, through mindfulness practice, we’re leaving the confines of pattern and construct behind, the gathered data and predictability of our lives,  and opening to the spaces where limitless possibilities, viewpoints, and perspectives exist, that perhaps we never knew could be possible. Perhaps, just by doing something differently, we can consciously participate in creative change, rising above the drift of our lives with renewed clarity and vision. We don’t have to be down there, glued to the graphs on the  computer, we can be up there with the eagle experiencing the sky.

 

Caring Connection

The recent horrific stream of events in Paris and Lebanon  has brought us face to face with unimagineable brutality and its consequences. It seems as if this has brought a heightened awareness of both terrible human suffering in its many shocking and tragic forms, but also of human kindness  from countless strangers who were prepared to support victims of the bombings in the street, opening their doors, donating blood, comforting, and even shielding others in the face of attack. And kindness in the form of  world-wide gestures of caring connection and solidarity, the many impromptu  street gatherings and vigils, and city lights.  An image which has particularly stayed with me is the photograph of the lights from thousands of mobile phones held up in the darkness in a spontaneous vigil that took place in Trafalgar Square. Somebody had taken care to initiate the gathering through social media, and thousands responded. The light of each phone represented someone who had cared  enough to make the decision to travel to central London and attend. Collectively, they lit up the whole square with a sea of lights and a shared expression of caring humanity; a conscious wish to connect.

These simple gestures of caring connection bring meaning and hope when not much else makes sense in the midst such  of atrocity. They arise from a basic, innate human capacity for compassion, and a wish for others to be free of suffering. In the wake of these recent atrocities, the countless stories of courage, kindness, caring and empathy that have emerged,  have emphasised the power of caring connection to sustain and nurture core human values in the face of despair and unimagineable suffering. In the questioning that inevitably follows events such as these, the mixture of horror and kindness has caused me to reflect deeply again  on the value of practice,  and how the many simple moments of caring connection that we make in relation to our own experience and  and in relation to others,  resonanates immeasurably through the sphere of our individual lives. Each moment of awareness flexes the muscle of mindfulness and compassion and builds  an inner strength to deal more effectively  with our own difficulties  and to be more able to support others. These times call us to stay connected and to make conscious caring connection, rather than falling into disconnection, or  simply feeling overwhelmed and powerless.

In last Thursday’s Staying Mindful  monthly practice group meeting, held at the County Hotel, Neville Street, Newcastle upon Tyne,  we practised and  reflected together on  how our intention and motivation to practice helps us to sustain caring connection, in ways that make a difference to ourselves and others in our daily lives. It felt helpful to give space for this reflection at a time when there is so much concious unease, fear and uncertainty. Wholesome qualities of mind are developed whenever we welcome our experience with kind attention and can remain open. Each drop makes  a difference in the accumulative  flow of our  conscious lives, and brings something to the shared collective. We start with just this; conscious, caring conection in the middle of whatever is going on.   I was reminded of a beautiful passage by meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, in which she talks about the value of practice:

This is why we practice meditation—so that we can treat ourselves more compassionately; improve our relationships with friends, family, and community; live lives of greater connection; and, even in the face of challenges, stay in touch with what we really care about so we can act in ways that are consistent with our values.”

(from “Real Happiness: the Power of Meditation”, 2010).

We can learn to trust the secure holding of being tenderly and mindfully present, no matter where we are, whatever is going on in our experience.  What we practice grows stronger and influences life around us in simple and meaningful ways. Perhaps, in these troubled times, our motivation and intention to practice can be strengthened, and our practice be of even greater value to ourselves and others.