Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 2

Recently on This American Life, Ira Glass interviewed some teenage girls who gave him the rundown on how interacting with their friends on Instagram is crucial to their social standing. They basically explained that in their circles, if a friend did not respond to a photo posted with the expected type of response (ie. “You’re so pretty!”) AND within the expected period of time (ie. within 1 hour or less), this was possible grounds for ending a friendship.

How many Facebook posts have you LIKED in the last week? How many Instagram photos did you give a HEART today? On the flip side, when was the last time you left a scathing Yelp because you got bad service at your regular cafe? Or, have you publicly flamed someone because their post upset you? Engaging with one another online has become as natural as scratching an itch, and we can easily forget that there is a real person on the receiving end of our reactive click.

Now, everyone has an opinion, and opinions are important. Opinions help us discern our wants and needs. Opinions help us navigate through our day. However, it is when opinions turn into judgements that they can cause suffering. These thoughts and ideas — these strong opinions — can be the seeds of suffering for both yourself and others.

A growing concern which has had a great deal of press in the last couple of years has been online bullying. The ease with which you can direct judgment and negativity at someone, and often without being held accountable for it, is astonishing. Yes, most of us, including myself, have had nasty thoughts about another person — usually when we are hurt or angry. We can take a breath, let the moment pass, and go on with our lives. Or we can let the flood of emotions blindly encourage us to post a rant or smear a person instantaneously, creating a digital record of it “forever.” Thankfully you can delete a post or a tweet, but you cannot unsend a text message.

There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today. And if you’re on social media, it is everywhere: innocent people being shot and killed, politicians throwing each other under the bus, displaced immigrants seeking asylum and being turned away by entire countries. It’s hard stuff to face, and being constantly bombarded by it hurts our hearts and triggers all sorts of feelings. It’s important to monitor our inner landscape and take care of ourselves, even when we are just catching up with friends online.

Here’s your challenge: Notice when using social media leaves you feeling good about yourself and others; OR when it leaves you feeling depleted, angry or hopeless. Notice what you want more of and what you want less of — LIKES or hugs, FaceTime or face-to-face time. Now, can you sit with it all in a place of being grounded and present, engaging in a kindhearted way without preference? Without pushing or pulling? Without loving or hating, but simply being? This is the beginning practice of equanimity.

My teacher Isa Gucciardi, defines equanimity as the practice of “engaged presence without preference.” Without the preference to pull toward you for more, or push away and ignore. Another translation of the Pali word for equanimity is, “to stand in the middle of all this.” So how can we stand in the middle of all this love and hate, and just be present and compassionate? It takes practice, and this is what it means to be a human today. It’s wonderful and beautiful — it’s heart wrenching and challenging.

We are here to experience it all. As my good friend Uncle Bear says, “Feel your feelings.” Then take a breath, don’t push, don’t pull, and be here now.

~ Nick Venegoni, MFT

Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 1

How many times have you checked your phone today? It seems that we have all become Pavlov’s dog and immediately respond to our phones alert bell, ding, beep, chirp or buzz without hesitation. Our brains salivate with each notification of a text or LIKE or HEART — and it feels good! It’s nice to connect and engage with others around shared interests and beliefs. No big deal, right?

As a therapist, when someone asks me if they are addicted, they tend to see the situation in black or white. But I think the relationship can move along a continuum of interaction. I see addiction on a scale — something like this: use, abuse, dependence, addiction.

Webster defines ADDICTION –

: a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)

Do you have a strong need for your phone? Well OK, phones aren’t drugs, and Instagram isn’t gambling. Webster continues…

:an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something

SO, maybe your interest in your phone might be considered “unusually great”?

I’ve noticed for a few years now, this strong need, this unusually great relationship some people develop with their smart phones. And it’s not really the phone itself that people are obsessed with, but the content and connections their phones provide them. Or the salivation — the chemistry our brains release with each notification and interaction.

Let me say, I find social media to be a great way to gather information and connect with community, especially for those who may be isolated in some way (such as queer teens in small towns, disabled folks, home bound senior citizens, etc). However, I also see how it can generate isolation and degenerate authentic connection and intimacy. By spending such considerable amounts of time engaging with your phone (liking, retweeting, commenting, reviewing, texting, chatting), the technology starts to become an extension of oneself. When someone has lost or broken their phone, I’ve heard many say it feels like withdrawing from a drug or like they’ve lost a limb. In some ways this is true — you do lose a particular ability to communicate, and there are particular chemicals in the brain that cease to be released when one loses this form of communication and connection with others.

So, what do you do about it? Easy — discipline. Moderation. Cut down. But, we Americans tend to have difficulty with moderation since we live in the land of bigger, better, louder, brighter, Super-Size Me! So even though discipline is a challenge, bringing awareness to your relationship with your phone (and other portals to social media and digital communication) is the first step to solving this conundrum.

In the world of mental health and dealing with substance or behavioral abuse (remember the scale? use, abuse, dependence, addiction), there’s the harm reduction model. Harm reduction is a way to evaluate level of use and level of “harm”, and then reducing use to reduce “harm.” An example of the harm reduction model is working with food addiction. Someone addicted to food can’t just stop eating or they’ll eventually die, but they can reduce their intake and change their relationship to food. The same thing can be done with your phone. Consume less time on your phone and use your newly found free time for other things — visiting with friends and loved ones in person, engaging in hobbies and physical activities, or all the other things you’ve been putting off (laundry, dishes, paying bills, etc.). The commodity is time and connection, not the phone.

The important part to remember is to start small. Maybe it means only 30-minutes less a day for a week, and then increasing to one hour, and so on. You want to stretch yourself without stressing yourself. And know that you maybe have cravings and that’s OK.

– Nick Venegoni, MFT