I just came back from a Vipassana meditation retreat. After unplugging completely from every element of my normal life for ten days, I’m staying at a quiet house in the outskirts of Boston allowing myself to selectively reintegrate into the flow of modern life.
At the retreat we had no access to our devices, no entertainment, and nearly zero interpersonal interaction. We spent the entire day either eating, meditating, or walking circles around the small wooded path behind the center.
Having that separation from all of the stimulation we normally encounter made it easier to meditate. Now coming back to the world of conversations, screens, and notifications, I find that as I sit down and try to clear my mind for meditation, there’s much more stuff bouncing around in my head. This mental clutter is easier to notice when you try to meditate but it’s bothersome at all times in less obvious ways.
At the root of the problem is the unconscious reactive nature of the human mind. Below the surface of our conscious thought processes we have endless “background processes” running which take whatever input we are experiencing and transform it into some new thought, impulse or action. In Vipassana meditation we use a technique of self observation to start de-programming these reactive mental patterns. We reflect on how by allowing our reactions to run away the natural result is that we experience strong feelings of attachment and aversion that reinforce these unconscious processes.
After several days of doing this practice one does indeed begin to have a much stronger sense of mental clarity. Focus is achieved more easily during meditation and a deeper understanding of one’s patterns starts to naturally arise. Unresolved emotional memories from the past surface. In part this comes from the cultivation of a less reactive, more observant mind, but there is also another extremely important factor: the absence of any new information during the retreat.
Even the most reactive mind will become more still if the system of reactions and thoughts is not given any new input to feed off of. When I got back to the world outside of the meditation center it immediately became clear to me that we live in a world saturated with information and technology that makes it easier than ever to access it. This information provides the fuel that kick starts the old engine of unconscious mental processes.
All of this is to say that when we learn something, watch something, have a conversation, read a piece of news, or even walk down a busy street, we are consuming information, and this information comes at a cost. Whatever content we take in will be bouncing around in the mind for hours or even days to come until we start consuming more to take its place.
What becomes clear when meditating is that absolutely anything can become fuel for the thought engines of the mind to start running amok. While news, conversations, and media are obvious examples of information, food that we take into our body or even a single inhalation can grease the gears of the mental locomotive. The more emotional weight a piece of information carries, the more potential it has to echo in the mind.
Seeing this clearly after being in retreat has made me want to change the way that I consume information to be more intentional. While there are many channels that information can come through - I focused on one, and below is an explanation of how I want to try to use technology different to keep myself further from the Internet’s information blast radius.
Technology is a vehicle for information addiction. This excessive exposure to new information ensures that more and more thoughts will be echoing around in the mind, triggering unconscious emotional complexes and preventing mental clarity.
At the same time, we want to use technology as a tool to help us achieve our goals, and in some cases we may want entertainment. To clean up our interaction with our devices it’s helpful to distinguish our intentions of use from the moment we turn on a device as belonging to one of these three categories:
(1) Create something, send something, write something, etc. (i.e. using technology to create an output)
(2) Retrieve information which is relevant and necessary to a current situation. (e.g. checking the address of an event you are going to, googling for instructions on how to complete a task, reading a text from a friend who is on the way)
(3) Discover information for entertainment or general learning (e.g. scrolling Facebook news feed, reading the New York Times, clicking through Wikipedia)
As you have probably experienced, a major issue with our technology interaction is that the three above purposes are often distractingly intermingled. We start off with an intention to do (1), then perhaps need to do (2) in order to complete it, and then suddenly we realize that we’ve been doing (3) for the past 10 minutes. Of course this is by design - the creators of our technology have a vested interest in pushing us down the funnel towards (3) where we are exposed and receptive to advertising.
So to begin with it is helpful to eliminate every vector for the introduction of (3) when you are trying to do (1) and (2). For me this meant disabling “news” from my phone’s home screen, turning off notifications for a large number of apps, and only having relevant windows / tabs open at a particular time to whatever my current task is. In addition special care should be taken when venturing into high risk zones like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Sometimes you need to visit these territories for (1) and (2), and you can use it as an opportunity to practice determination in sticking to your planned use.
Another risky moment occurs whenever we are using technology to accomplish (1) or (2) and then we either complete the task or become fatigued and need to take a break. In these moments the lull makes it incredibly tempting to switch over to (3).
For pauses that result from the completion of one task, a good to-do list practice will close the gap where temptation to switch to (3) would creep in. Having completed one task, you go to the to-do list to mark it as “done” at which point you also see your other tasks and have an opportunity to start a new one if you aren’t too tired.
On the other hand for a pause that comes from fatigue for example if you are writing a long essay (1) and just can’t think of the next sentence, one must recognize that the source of exhaustion is as much in the sustained use of the device as it is the work itself. While doing (3) might seem tempting as a way to take a break, it won’t be nearly as restorative as simply taking a couple minutes to discontinue your use of the device completely and look around, stretch, etc.
Of course there may come a time when we do just want to be entertained, to discover, or to learn. That is ok. We can do (3) sometimes. It will still introduce information which can echo in our minds and cause distraction, but when we do (3) intentionally and equanimously, it is far less dangerous.