Meditation and Social Media Fasting

I meditate daily. Maybe you do too. Either way, the kind of meditation I do is what you might call "poor man's," a very easy and basic simplification of Zen meditation. Essentially all you do is get comfortable in a quiet place, with or without some comforting music playing softly in the background, and attempt to focus your mind on your breathing to the exclusion of all other thoughts for a short period of time (15 minutes is my usual time commitment, but sometimes I will double it if I feel a need). It's pretty hard to do this focusing on breathing thing to the exclusion of other thoughts, especially if you have a lot on your mind, as I usually do. But actually the goal is not success at that, because failure is certain; the goal is actually just DOING IT...going through the process...and if you do, then that is the success. If you just do it, you win. That's why I make it a point to do my daily meditation first thing in the morning, after drinking my coffee, because if I let the demands of my day take priority, I might forget to do it or run out of time. In other words, I have made daily meditation a priority in my life, and if you read on, you will see one of the ways it has benefitted me.

"Real" Zen Buddhists and transcendental meditators call daily meditation their "practice," and that's a good descriptor, because it is about training your mind to push out extraneous thoughts when they happen (and they will) and recentering your mind on the present rhythm of your breathing. With regular practice, you get better and better at recognizing when your mind has wandered (as it always will) and bringing it back to thinking of only your breathing. The skill is not so much keeping all extraneous thoughts out (impossible) as recognizing when they have crept in and then kicking them out with a solid combat boot to the arse.

The daily practice of meditating helps train you to center and calm your mind in everyday life as well. A practiced meditator can recognize when life is throwing non-essential chaos and drama his/her way and can then willfully choose to block it out by centering, perhaps finding a quiet safe place to take a few deep breaths and be in the moment. Meditation is really all about practicing how to be in the moment, the present moment. The application of this in everyday life is often casually and appropriately called "being present." When I am worrying out loud to my wife Deborah about future events that have not yet happened, she will often remind me to "be present" and enjoy the NOW, which is usually quite pleasant most of the time. Worrying about things that haven't happened yet is a waste of finite mental power that can be better applied to making the present the best it can be.

Most extraneous thoughts we have tend to be reflections on things that happened in the past or will happen in the future. When such thoughts are negative, we often call these regrets (past) or worries (future). But being present in the present is a null state. Literally NOTHING happens in the present. What we call the present isn't even the present. Let me explain that. Due to the latency of our senses and nervous systems, things we perceive as the present actually happened a few hundred milliseconds ago, give or take. Our minds autocorrect for this latency and extrapolate what we perceive as the present. For example, if you are in a flying jet airplane traveling at cruising speed, the airplane is actually about 500-600 feet ahead of where you perceive it is. When your senses receive stimuli from the external world, the interior of the airplane for instance, the sense organs convert the stimuli into electrophysiological impulses that travel to your brain at far far less than the speed of light. Once in the brain, the impulses then have to be processed, which takes a few more milliseconds, before you actually become consciously aware of the external stimuli. As a result, you are really always a little bit behind the times. If your airplane crashes into the side of a mountain, you will actually never be aware of it, because it happened about a half second before the sensory stimuli of the crash could reach your conscious mind. A half second is a long time (some might say an eternity) when your brain is disintegrating under several tons of metal, glass, and plastic in a mountainside explosion of kerosene jet fuel.

Have you ever dropped a heavy object on your foot? If so, you know that the pain is not instantaneous. Your eyes see the object fall on your foot and the visual stimuli are actually processed by your brain (something to the effect of "holy shit, that's gonna hurt") faster than the pain stimuli traveling up the nerves of your leg to your spine, and eventually to the pain centers of the brain (when you holler bloody murder and blast out a few expletives while hopping around on one foot). That is because your eyes are a lot closer to your brain than your foot is, so the visual stimuli reach your brain and get processed sooner than the pain ones from way down in your foot. Your brain does a post facto latency adjustment to make it all seem simultaneous, but it really isn't. However, I digress.

The thing about meditation is that it is more in the present moment than is the external environment. Your internal thoughts are being generated in real time, hitting your consciousness at pretty close to the exact moment in time they occur. They don't have far to travel because they bubble up from right there in your brain, already pre-processed. That's why they are able to creep in even while you are trying to keep them out. There is a latency involved in recognizing the presence of a thought and quashing it. That latency is not very long, but it's enough. Focusing on your breathing helps to preoccupy your mind with something, to take up mental bandwidth that useless extraneous thoughts are competing for. As soon as you recognize that a thought has crept in, refocusing on breathing pushes it out.

One area of my life to which I have applied centering and being present is on social media. Have you ever found yourself scrolling down your Facebook feed for a long time looking for something interesting to stimulate your mind? This is by design. It's beyond the scope of this post, but social media companies (underwritten by their advertisers) actually engineer their apps to essentially "addict" you to your device screens, the same way that addictive gamblers will sit at slot machines pumping in quarters for hours on end in hopes of that eventual cash reward. They are "renting" your eyes (for free) to garner ad revenue. As with casinos, on social media, rewards are engineered to come just often enough to keep you engaged, and even though these rewards are small (a grumpy cat or Morgan Freeman meme), your brain gets a tiny dose of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine every time, enough to motivate you to continue looking for the next micro-high. Google it...it's actually pretty fascinating, albeit diabolical. 60 Minutes did a spot on it that you can probably find on Youtube.

Deborah and I refer to the social media trap as "the sinkhole." Once you get sucked into it, it's hard to escape and your valuable time is wasted. You can't get it back. If you use social media, you know what I am talking about. We often help each other get out of the sinkhole. If I see Deborah glued to her phone (or vice versa), I will just ask her, "Are you in the sinkhole?" About 50% of the time she will look up, chagrined, then shake her head as if a spell has been broken and put her phone down. I am the same way.

When we are alone, we don't have this teamwork effect to help us disengage from social media. That's where the daily practice of meditation comes in handy. As I said, the skill you develop with meditation is to recognize and transcend your extraneous thoughts to focus on the present (usually your breathing, but you can focus on anything as long as it is happening in the present). You can also use the skill to transcend undesirable behavior as well. This skill can be directly applied to escaping from the ill effects of social media (and there are many besides just wasted human potential...Google it). Think of social media use as your extraneous thoughts. You can apply the same technique of recognizing the presence of social media and then willfully stop engaging with it. When I recenter myself after falling into the social media sinkhole, I make myself log off whatever app it is. I've implemented additional safeguards as well, like keeping social media apps hidden on my phone to reduce temptation and logging out of the apps whenever possible (hard, since so many other apps we use are, also by design, tied into our social media login credentials).

The goal with this, and I feel I have achieved it to a large extent, is to get a bigger dopamine bump from successfully escaping or outright resisting the pull of social media, rather than from social media itself. I need social media sometimes, particularly to post information about social events my band GUPPY EFFECT is hosting. I don't need social media for much else. Social media is very adept at trying to undermine my avoidance of it though. Every time I go on Facebook, for example, I see at the top of my news feed a picture or video of a fond past memory from a year or so ago. That's a pure dopamine injection into my brain's pleasure center, bringing back good memories from the past, and hard to resist. Then I am at risk of starting to scroll down to look for more good memories...and they aren't there. But with a little pre-social media centering prep, I can usually avoid the sinkhole entirely.

Leave a comment or PM me if you are interested in discussing how to do simple meditation or to escape a time-sucking or aspiration-crushing social media addiction. If you are interested in some punk rock lifestyle coaching, I offer new clients one free 60 minute session, with no obligation to continue if you don't get anything useful from it. Nothing to lose, everything to gain. I'm a happy and successfully self-employed free agent in the universe and I want to teach you how to be one too.

1 comment:

Mike Huberty said...

Great post. Meditation is like a little gift to yourself. It's the one time of day where you don't have to think about anything, you don't have to feel guilty about anything, or worry, or get angry or think about what other people are telling you to think about, or worry about ambition, or problems, you don't have to do anything besides exist. It's making ourselves just exist for a few minutes every day. It's the most selfish thing you can do and it is wonderful!

I've found my trick to social media lately being just checking when I actually want to collect people's messages and then getting out as fast as possible. Pick a couple times a day and hang out on Facebook or Twitter then, like when you get the mail. Everything I do has a huge social media component, which is good and bad. Good that I can do it from anywhere, bad that it's like dancing with the devil every time you need to do something (I'm a total information addict, I can read about other people's lives all day, I could sit just on Wikipedia and look at things I'm interested in, the sinkhole is bottomless for me) so I just give myself a time window and do my damnedest to stick to it!