Thursday, October 24, 2013

Where to Focus

My students are playing by a different set of learning and social rules than I did when I was in school. They look to their e-devices for answers, and, often, find them. The digital universe is a wildly wealthy vein of information, and social media offer up seductive rewards of recognition. They are immersed in a world I barely know. Their brains have been shaped to thrive in Cyberlandia. They like it. I am not crazy about it. If they are digital natives, I am something like a digital hostage taken at cursor point into a world I resist, that fails to feed me, that has air I can barely breathe, sustenance that tastes like cardboard, and a prickly coercion to be perennially distracted from the here and now.

It's not that Digitalia can't require a certain type of concentration or focus, it's that it pulls me out of "this world," the world of sights, smells, flesh, blood, livelihood, earthly delight, and onerous tasks. This world is also an inner world, accessible by quiet reflection and solitude. This world is vastly complex, paradoxical, incomprehensible, and chaotic. This world requires a different set of rules to thrive in than that other world. This world asks that I sometimes delay gratification to get what I want, that I sometimes engage with work that is tedious, painful, not fun, or laden with immediate gratification.

This world has a different set of causes and effects. At the end of the day, or, if I am honest, the end of this life, what I hope to have done is to first study this reality and then to act well in it. I want to examine what keeps me from being happy and then change what I need to change in order to be happy. For example, if I spend time surfing FaceBook instead of answering prison correspondence, I likely will not be very happy because I did not do what it was I really wanted to do, how it was I wanted to spend my minutes, day, life. The little decisions and avoidance add up, become habits, begin to ossify, become hard to change.

It takes a cold hard look at reality to see that, to look at the causes and effects, and then act with intention to change, to create the effect that I want.

I find the digital world to be a bit addictive. I get a dopamine hit when someone "likes" something I post on FaceBook. I love it when I get an email that offers me money, publication, recognition, a plan for a weekend bike ride. I wait for them like Pavlov's Dog at his dish. And I learn that I get more of that if I behave in a certain way. People like light and happy and non-commital ephemera that titillate but don't ask for much beyond a click. The result is that I comply and sink further into the dopamine-eliciting behaviors, spending more and more time wired to the screen.

Social media act on me like a drug. They trigger pleasure enough to keep me staring at the screen, even when nothing is happening. The hope of a "hit" pulls me in, away from the far less pleasurable world outside the flying electrons and computer codes. Addiction is a problem because it pulls focus away from the diverse functions that humans need to live a full and balanced life.

Addictive priorities shrink to a single obsession: Where do I get my next fix? I know men and women for whom heroin and meth became more important than family, health, freedom, and life. Given the numbers of students I see glued to their phones as they fly through stop signs or wander around the sunlit campus at the University of Arizona, I would judge that the cyber world is more important to them than this one. They choose to spend their conscious attention on the virtual world, to purchase the benefits and rewards of that world, as much or more than the world of sun, sidewalks, and hunger. If consciousness is like a teeter-totter, then we are tipping ours more and more toward a mind that resides in a world on line.

Yes, I sound like a retro-grouch curmudgeon. But I am not slamming the digital world with the hope that we chuck it and return to the bear-skin loin cloths and spears of the "real world." I am noticing that my ability to focus on my life outside the cyber one has decreased. I don't want to. The "real" world is not rewarding in the same way that the digital world is. It requires a different way of being. It requires a higher pain tolerance, for one thing. It requires planning, goal setting, sustained attention. It requires work and intention. And one has to learn how to operate successfully in it. (Of course, part of that is being able to operate as well in the digital environment.)

The fully effective human needs to be fluent in both worlds. The piece that is missing for me is the training in mindfulness, the ability to focus in spite of excessive distraction.

This is not about being some kind of masochist, about seeking out pain. It is about being comfortable with adversity as part of movement toward a goal or a vision. It is about emphasis, priority, order, ranking. Does my life depend on digital connection or on soil, water, air, food, shelter, and some kind of social contribution in that other world? Which is my master? To whom do I pay attention? 

I confess that I have gotten weak, and need to begin an exercise program that will toughen my up enough for re-entry into the demanding and chaotic reality of my life. It begins with attention. To what do I pay attention? On what do I spend my mental energy, my limited intellectual capital? In what will I invest my life?

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