In this 'information Age', most of us are processing vastly more information than any of our predecessors. The digital world and social media impact on our society, politics, relationships - and our mental health. Many of us are, quite literally, addicted to our phones, tablets and laptops, to the extent that even when we know that we would benefit from taking a break from life online, we can't bring ourselves to put away our devices.
An aspect of mindfulness practiced since ancient times in the Buddhist tradition is known as 'guarding the gates of the senses', by which one notes what sense impressions are 'entering' and what effect these various stimuli are having. 'Senses' in Eastern thought includes not just our five physical senses, but also our thought-based 'mind sense', used for making sense of the information we read, hear and watch.
As a student I used to live at the end of the main shopping street into Brighton and, on my regular walks into town, sometimes found myself buying things it had never previously occurred to me that I needed. There was something especially appealing about bargains! I began to notice that the very act of walking along this shopping street had the effect of making me want to buy things – no surprise, as that is precisely the effect that shop windows are intended to have on passers-by. Making a decision to walk a different route, it was surprisingly easy to free myself from this unnecessary spending. This is an example of consciously ‘guarding the sense-gates’ – I arranged my life to be further removed from temptation’s way. In more recent years I have had similar experiences online of spontaneously buying things I didn’t need that had caught my eye. As I regularly spend time online for work and to stay in touch with friends and family, the equivalent of choosing to walk down a different street is less obvious.
Perhaps more invidious than a bit of retail therapy are occasions when I find myself drawn into feelings of recrimination and outrage in reaction to news and social media items. A while back I started to notice frequent feelings of despair, reading about political views and actions I disagreed with and other news items featuring all sorts of dreadful things happening on the planet. Such reactions can appear to be a way of countering those things I see as wrong, however the reality is that getting upset rarely has any positive effect. (There is a lot of truth in that saying ‘don’t get mad, get organised!’) Finding ways of staying informed about current affairs without getting sucked into unhelpful states of mind is an ongoing process. I am sure I am not alone in this.
One way of managing the stress of contemporary life is to consciously reduce the sheer volume of 'input'. For some of us that could mean deciding to spend less time checking social media or news sites.
We can also notice the effects of what we choose to take in. A while ago I was 'relaxing' at home, watching a gripping drama ('The Bodyguard', since you asked!) At one point I noticed that my body was rigid with tension and that I was barely breathing. 'Curious way to relax!' I thought to myself. I chose to continue watching, but encouraged myself to rest back into the chair and breathe more freely.
Sometimes when I notice that I'm feeling stressed by what I'm reading or watching, I manage to peel myself away, at least for a time. Extricating myself from the computer or phone to go for a short walk; do a practical, physical task or talk face to face with a real human being, I generally find that I am soon feeling better.
Here are some questions for anyone who feels they might benefit from a digital detox:
· What do you think the benefits might be?
· How might this 'detox' work best for you, in your current circumstances?
· Is there someone who could support you in your intention?
How about testing out the practice of ‘guarding the sense gates’ in your own way and measuring the effects for yourself? Good luck!