Just back from 3,000 miles of road tripping. Time decelerated, created a gap and, in so doing, shifted me. Hours of dreaming out the window, quiet canyons for miles, sweeping sky, snow strewn summits. Aspen in every elevation—green to yellow to bereft. The sun and leisurely waxing moon constant companions. Meandering through desert sandscapes. Strange beds, weird eating habits, restless and bottomless sleeps, both. And barely any screen time.
I was halfway through Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus—Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again when we took leave a couple weeks ago. The basic sensibility of how dang much has insidiously shifted in the last twenty years was on my mind. The rise of the internet and, it’s partner in crime, the smart phone has radically changed our interior life, the way we relate to each other, our communities, our globe.
We’ve all experienced bits and pieces, but to read (and by the way, reading actual books is falling by the wayside) the rock solid research is unnerving. Our insatiable screen diet has been created and is constantly being refined by very brilliant minds. Experts on “surveillance capitalism” sit around all day dreaming up new schemes to keep us on line. Sites and apps are carefully designed to not only make us crave frequent reward but also to switch tasks more frequently than we normally would. Behind the scenes we’re cunningly tracked every which way so we can be personally targeted for distraction and sales. We are individually and communally and quite carefully being algorithm-ed toward anger. Because all this adds up to money being made.
Sure, we can get a grip. This two week gap helped. I turned off all phone and laptop notifications. That was easy. I moved my laptop from the kitchen and into the office. I’m tracking my triggers to screen engage, using the activated moment as signal to pause. All good. But there is a much deeper question here. Something is terribly rotten in the state of Denmark. Why is the burden on us to have take control? Right now dozens of states are banning together in a federal lawsuit against Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, alleging harm to the mental health of young people. This is a drop in a huge bucket. But it is a start.
Hari opened this treatise with a beautiful exploration of flow state: “that we have within us a force that makes it possible to focus for long stretches and enjoy it, and it will make us happier and healthier, if only we create the right circumstances to let it flow.” For me flow is happening here as I write. It happens when I read books, too. It happens on the dance floor and on the mat. It happens wandering in the natural world, in deep conversation, while cooking and gardening. It is not happening when I scroll or go down a distracted rabbit hole or skim an article or zone on T.V.
Flow is totally related to the researched benefits of mind-wandering. Which I had plenty of during these 3,000 miles. Day-dreaming invites us to slowly make sense of the world. Studies show that mind-wandering opens a door to personal goal setting, unlocks creativity, helps us make patient, long-term decisions. This kind of time has gone missing in action. We need musing time to make new connections, tap our intuition, harness insights that move us toward solution and resolution. It is a different and necessary form of attention. It is the opposite of distraction. It feels like a mind cleanse. What happens right now if you look out the window for a minute?
What happened? I’ll be out there tonight in support of what happens. An entire second wave hour to simply be a witness to your alone self. Taking refuge in the practice, in the body. Aware of feelings arising. Tracking the incredible thinking mind. Engaging in the balm of mind wandering. When we are a witness it is not distraction. It is a beautiful thing. It is a cleansing thing. It is a necessary thing.