Mindfulness Practice and Digital Technology

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Since I’ve come back from my summer travels, I’ve been thinking about how I use digital devices, such as computers and smart phones.

When I was traveling in Scotland (for a little less than a month), and when I was at Plum Village (for a little more than two months), my use of digital devices went down about 90 percent. Instead of looking at screens, I talked face to face with people and looked directly at the world. I did physical work. I walked a lot. I read books. And I was almost always relaxed and happy.

Of course the reduction in my use of digital devices was not the only cause of my good feelings. In Scotland I visited beautiful places and historic sites and sat with Scottish Sanghas. At Plum Village, I followed the daily schedule of the practice center and attended Dharma talks with Thich Nhat Hanh. There was time, too, to share with monastic and lay friends about how we make sense of particular teachings and how we apply them in our lives.

Two weeks ago I came home to loved ones, and also to stacks of mail, an overloaded email inbox, unfinished projects, and responsibilities that I had put aside for the summer. My use of digital devices shot back up as I wrote, planned, organized information, and solved problems. Many tasks that needed to get done got done.

But, also, sometimes I got frustrated with a project or with my writing and then checked my email or a news site, or I followed stray thoughts around the internet. Minutes and hours could easily go by with little of importance getting done. I felt that I was losing some of my centeredness. So I’ve been asking myself, “How can I use my digital devices in a more mindful way?”

For most of us, this is not a simple question. Digital devices have penetrated into so many domains of modern life that we would complicate our lives and deprive ourselves of many beneficial uses if we tried to eliminate them completely. At the same time, they are not simply useful tools, like shovels or ball-point pens. They are designed to draw us in to certain ways of acting. Thousands of brilliant people are working hard to make their particular brand, model, application, or website more attractive or addictive. Smart phones, especially, are creating a society in which everything is immediately photographed and commented on, and very little is experienced deeply.

And also, it is not about the technology and the devices, it is about us. We are attracted, we get addicted, we get lost in unproductive pursuits, because of our weaknesses and ingrained habits, especially our sense of inner desolation, discomfort with quiet, and habitual distractedness. The past November, in a Dharma talk about technology, Thich Nhat Hanh noted:

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. … People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming.

This Thursday evening (and this Sunday evening in Columbia), we will focus our Dharma sharing on mindfulness practice and digital technology. What have we learned about using technology mindfully? What are the challenges we still face? You are invited to join us.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s November, 2013, talk on technology is available here. An except from a review of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris is below. A penetrating short YouTube video illustrating how smart phones have distanced us from life is available here.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Now We Know Everything.

From a review of Michael Harris’s The End of Absence by Lisa Zeidner

Harris wonders whether all of our fact-gathering on Google and Wikipedia, our hookups on Tinder, our mountains of posts and texts and selfies, have made us dumber, less authentic. Because of the ease of our connectedness to information, we remember less and thus live with an “intellectual paradox — we know everything and we know nothing,” a condition that the futurist novelist Douglas Coupland calls feeling “smupid”: smart and stupid at once. Harris further wonders whether future generations will be trapped in the “restless idleness” of endless distracted browsing, whether they will still be able to “access absence and solitude” of the kind that made Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond so rewarding.