I’m just back from meditation retreat, and a week of silence. No speaking. No emails or text messages. No internet. No Facebook or Twitter. No advertising. No TV. Of course, this may be some people’s idea of hell. But it’s not mine. What happened in that space of no words, is that my mind gradually stopped spinning. More and more space appeared between my thoughts, and I had no desire to fill them with more words. I didn’t even want to read. Though I drew and took photos a fair bit and wrote, a little – intense bursts of language expressing an emotion, or describing something I’d seen in the amazing Scottish landscape that had moved me – I would then subsided back into internal silence. Mostly, I just sat, opening out to the unfolding of life, moment by moment.
And then I came home… and my head gradually filled with the clutter of words, the voices and communications that fill our contemporary media-driven lives. First I turned my phone on. A couple of days later, I succumbed to social-media. A day after that, back to the inbox. And suddenly my head is whirring again, not just with the necessary communications of relating to others, of working, but with the flotsam and jetsam of virtuality and social connectivity. And how are we supposed to find room in our heads for the important words; words for our novels and poems and creating; words for our loved ones or our colleagues – with this proliferation of chatter that forms the background and the internal mindscape of our lives? This wordy distraction, the pull of internet, social media and TV is often one of the main obstacles to writing and meditating, identified by writers on the Mindfulness For Writers courses I run, it’s also one of my main pulls away from mindfulness, creativity and productivity – so here’s a blog with some suggestions on what can be done to overcome these distractions. (And I shall try and take my own advice!)
Getting to know your communication habits
The first thing we need to do when we begin to get to grips with our distractions, is to start to become aware of our communication habits. We need to apply a little mindfulness through our day, and start to notice one very simple thing – are our communications necessary or unneccessary? Are they deliberate, mindful and useful – or are they compulsive, unfocused or distracting? This can be achieved very simply. As soon as you click the icon for your inbox, Facebook, Twitter or the like – pause, and ask yourself – why am I doing this? Sometimes, I have to be honest, it only occurs to me to do this as I’m scrolling down my timeline, thumb a blur, status updates flashing past on the screen. That’s fine. I can still pause then, and ask myself – why am I here? Often I don’t know the answer. Sometimes it’s just out of habit, boredom as I wait for the bus, or a lack of decisiveness about what I really want to be doing with an hour of unstructured time in an evening.
I’m not saying, social media – BAD. I’m not advocating we delete the internet. With three blogs and more social media platforms than I can really keep track of – I’d be the last person to suggest that. All these things are useful, informative and fun – and I wouldn’t want to be without them. But for many of us, myself included at times, social media, the internet, You Tube and TV have to some extent become an unconscious habit. It’s not that we intentionally choose to spend half an hour browsing and surfing – but rather that we look up to discover that thirty minutes have passed – and we didn’t intend them to. And we could have been writing in that time. We could have been meditating.
So our journey with mindful communication starts with that question about our habits – necessary or unnecessary? And continues with the questions – why am I here – why am I doing this?
Choosing to use
Once we’ve asked those questions – we then have a choice. To continue or not to continue. Of course if the answer was ‘necessary’ – then we go ahead and write that blog, send that email, tell our friends that curry we just cooked was amazing. If it’s important and necessary to you – go for it.
However if the answer that arose was ‘unnecessary’ – we need to look a little deeper. Of course, a lot of the unnecessary, is, let’s face it, fun. We may not NEED to know that our friend in Australia/Hong Kong/Blackburn (delete as appropriate) just bought new shoes, we may not HAVE TO watch that video of the cute penguin, we’re probably not going to learn anything new about ourselves with this particular BuzzFeed quiz, but it made us smile, and it was fun sharing it. No problem. A little of something does us good, right?
The problem only occurs if we’re not actually choosing. We want to be spending our time more productively, but aren’t. Worse – we can’t. Every time we sit down to write – we flit over to Facebook. Or we try to get to redraft an article, and end up watching TV. We’re not choosing – it’s become a habit, an unconscious impulse. If it’s become compulsive – then bringing a little mindfulness to the situation can be really helpful. As soon as you catch yourself – just asking necessary/unnecessary? – can create enough of a pause to stop the momentum. Then we can choose – and turn it off.
Escaping and returning to ourselves
But sometimes it’s not that simple. Our impulse to go online or switch on the TV, is the cover for something else – it’s an escape from some internal reality that’s making us uncomfortable. As we ask our mindful question – necessary/unnecessary? – we start to become aware of some of the cross currents to our communications and consumptions.
If what you’re reaching for is a distraction, what is it a distraction from? Are you bored by what you’re currently doing? Are you disappointed about someone turning down a recent submission? Are you agitated? Are you discouraged? Are you afraid to start that new poem in case it doesn’t come out right? Pause, and feel it, just for a little while. Make friends with it. What does it need? What do you really need – rather than a social media muffler? Take your finger off the mute button on your mind. Pause – and see if can you feel your way into knowing and feeling.
This pausing with the causes of our distraction can be uncomfortable, because in doing so – we must feel them. We have become extraordinary practioners in the art of avoidance and distraction. Numbing out to You Tube is infinitely easier than waking up to the stress of a difficult situation at work, the sadness of rejection, the dissatisfaction our current manuscript or life situation. Facebook and Twitter can seem much more palatable than the vague sense of unsatisfactoriness that sometimes rises into our awareness. But if we wake up to the causes of our distractions – we can choose, we can make changes, even small ones. And as we sit with what is uncomfortable – things shift a little. And all the while we’re making friends with ourselves, listening to ourselves as we would to someone we care for, listening in a way we can’t with the volume turned up on all the other communications in our lives.
And once we’ve done this – we can choose. We can choose to go online – or we can choose not to. But at least it will be a choice.
5 Tips for making space for mindfulness and creativity
- Ask the question – is this necessary or unnecessary? – and act accordingly.
- Allow yourself to sit with what you’re distracting yourself from. Make friends with it. Do what you can to solve it.
- Choose specific times in your day for social media and stick to them.
- Keep a log of how many hours you spend with your preferred distraction in a week. (It’s usually a bit of an eye-opener!) Then allot at least half this time to another activity you’d rather be doing – like some writing.
- If mindfulness isn’t enough – invest in some anti-social-media software – it works for Zadie Smith!