Equanimity and Tech Overload
by Greg Milner
Men have become the tools of their tools.
— Henry David Thoreau
Do external things which fall upon you distract you? Give yourself some time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then, you should also avoid going over to the other extreme. For they are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object toward which to direct every thought.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.7
monkey mind, from Chinese xinyuan and Sino-Japanese shin’en 心猿 [lit. “heart-/mind-monkey”], is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”.
The Importance of Focus
Most Hellenistic philosophies believe it’s good to have control not only over your mind, but also the mental processes that get you through the day. You also need to have control over your thoughts and emotions in a pinch, when the chips are down, in order properly and efficiently to suspend judgement so you don’t let spurious impressions wreck your day, or make you behave in ways you’ll regret later. Too much internet, and the mental overload common in modern technological society (“tech overload”) can work against this.
Why the Internet is Bad for Your Concentration
The Freedictionary.com defines “presence of mind” as “The ability to think and act calmly and efficiently, especially in an emergency. The ability to think clearly and act appropriately, as during a crisis.” Merriam-Webster says that it’s “Self-control so maintained in an emergency or in an embarrassing situation that one can say or do the right thing.” Ernest Hemmingway called courage “grace under pressure.” I have no doubt such definitions and explications go back to the Romans and even earlier. Most Hellenistic philosophies and Buddhism aspire to this type if equanimity. To be able to have enough control over your mind to be present and remain level-headed, even in times of crisis requires practice, and quality practice requires concentration and focus. Concentration should be what I call “effortless effort.” To routinely to be able to focus on, say a piece of long-form journalism like an investigative story in Rolling Stone, you have to be in the habit of doing so. It can’t seem like work. It almost has to be de rigueur, second nature — something you can just fall into.
Monkey Mind, a colorful term common to Buddhism, has been defined as “the unruly mind, jumping from one object to another.” This is the opposite of concentration. It is what we who value concentration continually struggle against. The world, as it is organized for us in the modern technological West today, does everything it can to encourage a distracted mindset, to feed your mind monkey. I’m not necessarily saying this is intentional. There are not rooms full of people at work, consciously saying, “Hey, how can we make people more addled?” But I do believe that, in a consumption-driven economy, the best consumers are the most impulsive ones.
The internet is driven by advertising, and advertising promotes distraction. But that’s not the only reason the internet promotes distraction, according to Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, it’s in the very nature of hyperlinked media to “rewire” our brains to become more adept at sifting and filtering information, and hence less able to concentrate in-depth and for long periods of time. There’s a reason it’s called a browser.
I believe the type of mindset, the mental abilities, needed to understand philosophy, to be introspective, to concentrate, and to monitor ones thinking on an ongoing basis are hindered by repeated, ubiquitous overexposure to the constantly changing stimuli provided to us in our present-day, always-on interconnected, culture. And this isn’t just my opinion. Many studies cited in The Shallows and other texts and articles bear this out; the more time you spend hopping from screen to screen, the more your attention span comes to suffer. You are what you do, after all. If everyday mind is Monkey Mind, then adding social networking makes it Monkey-with-a-Whistle Mind.
We all know the symptoms of tech overload: focus problems; the inability to follow almost any long thread; difficulty reading more than a couple of minutes of text (if that); compulsive checking of devices, email, twitter feed, etc.; generalized anxiety. Whether you’re working toward Buddhist detachment, Epicurean ataraxia, or Stoic equanimity, the problems associated with tech overload will stand in your way. In today’s society, the first duty of the contemplative person is to gain control over the technology that threatens to run roughshod over our psyches.
Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Communication
First of all, it’s important to recognize the differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Conversation is synchronous, as is the telephone; both parties expect an immediate response. I am old enough to remember how disconcerting answering machines were when they first came out. We expected synchronous communication and that meant that by god, Bill ought to answer his damn phone! Instant messaging (IM) is on the cusp but is lately trending toward the synchronous, if your status shows as “available” people expect you to respond in under a minute. That’s why it’s called “chat.” Everything else (telegraphy doesn’t count), from the old “snail mail” letter onward, is asynchronous. This includes email, Facebook messages and posts, blog post comments — all of it. Asynchronous means you can respond after a reasonable, socially acceptable time, but not necessarily immediately.
It seems to me that at least some of our problems with modern technology come from our inability recognize this difference at a deep level. We tend toward making our communications synchronous if at all possible. Hence we feel the need to respond to a text we get while driving to work, or an IM we get when we are in the middle of writing some complex computer program. We feel the need to check our email more than 3 times a day — which is all you really need to check it, if you think about it.
The most important thing to realize about everything but a phone call, then, is “it can wait.” If it’s really important, they will call you. This holds true, even in the 21st century.
But it’s not just the drive toward synchronicity. Many researchers point to the idea that there may be something in our evolution that makes us go for the instant reward of quick response to an ever-changing environment — a little “dopamine squirt,” as I’ve heard it described — we get every time we check our mail or get an IM. Even so, being rational animals, this would not be the first time we have had to decide how to best deal with mindless responses to urges that might prove unhealthy in the long run. Nature is not fate, after all. So if you want to be a thoughtful person, less shallow, and more philosophical, take steps to do so — steps that involve gaining more control over the technology in your life.
What You Can Do
Over the last couple of years, after reading books such as Hamlet’s Blackberry, The Shallows, and In Praise of Slowness, I have developed some techniques I use to help me redevelop and maintain my powers of concentration. I have practiced most of these at one time or another and many I still do. Some have been shown by research to actually increase your attention span. I know they have helped me.
If you are into social networks, pick one social network and subscribe to that. Only one. Not Twitter.
Cyber Sabbath. Pick one day a week (for me, it’s Saturday) and decide that it’s going to be tech-restricted in some important ways. Perhaps you have a Roku Box on your TV so you can’t say it’s really an internet-free day, but you can say it’s a browser/IM/email free day. Stick to it. Tell your friends you won’t respond on that day unless they call. Don’t have your daughter Google something for you. That’s cheating!
Meditate, or have some sort of contemplative practice that lasts at least 20 minutes per day, every day.
Read a BOOK at least 30 minute per day. Not articles. Not even long form journalism. A book — preferably a physical book. This has had a great effect on my attention span in the past year.
If you have a choice between digital and analog, choose analog. If you have a choice between a Kindle book, for example, or a paper one, go with the dead-tree version. Buy a magazine or newspapers at last once a month and read it.
Don’t use earbuds in the car. Listen to the radio. Get back in touch with your community.
Don’t look at your cell phone when standing in line. Look at the people. Notice your surroundings. This does wonders for your sense of patience.
Never look at a screen while eating.
Never look at your phone while someone is talking to you.
Turn off alerts on your phone, or at least turn them to every half hour.
Remember that email is asynchronous communication, and IMs can be made to be.
If you get IM’ed (Instant Messaged) more than once per hour, consider not using IM. Turn it off. Make people call you or email. Make them consciously decide between synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Any activity you do more-or-less every day, regularly, 20 to 30 minutes per day or more, will help combat Monkey Mind. Get a hobby. Take up woodworking or metal-sculpting.
Learn a musical instrument, if you haven’t already. Devote at least four 40-minute sessions a week to practice.
Take long walks, either without headphones or while listening to an audio book.
Learn a language — take a class. You cannot learn a language from any audio-only instruction, despite what they say at Rosetta Stone.
Develop your own methods for increasing your concentration. Maybe you want to get really old school and memorize some Shakespeare sonnets or poems of Neruda. Go for it. Do yoga. Whatever. Just pick something that is non-tech related and takes more than 20 minutes and do several such things consistently every day. Soon you’ll realize how much better it feels than Facebook or Snapchat or whatever the flavor-of-the-month brain-atrophying timewaster happens to be. You’ll be a better thinker and a deeper person for it.
Greg Milner is a Database Administrator living in Austin, Texas. Fortune has blessed him with a wonderful wife, a stepson and three foundling cats. He is one of the hosts of the Painted Porch podcast, along with Mark Johnston (founder) and Matt Van Natta.