Being in the Digital Age (Gwennie Fraser)

– written by Gwennie Fraser

 

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.


Gwennie is a mindfulness-based supervisor and personal practice mentor at the Mindfulness Network.

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