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Defining Digital “Mindfulness”

What is “mindfulness”? TIME Magazine recently released a cover story on “The Mindful Revolution,” outlining a return to conscious living emphasized by modern enthusiasts. Many in the “mindfulness” crowd want us to step away from the Internet, unplug, and take a break. But Evgeny Morozov put the trend into perspective in his article, “The Mindfulness Racket”:

If it takes an act of unplugging to figure out how to do it [“mindfulness”], let’s disconnect indeed. But let us not do it for the sake of reconnecting on the very same terms as before. We must be mindful of all this mindfulness.

Morozov’s piece considers calls to take a digital “sabbath” or “detox,” to disconnect temporarily “so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction.” But all of this talk of disconnecting and becoming mindful begs the question: What is “mindfulness” for? Why should we be mindful, and how can we cultivate a proper mindfulness?

I would suggest that there are two types of mindfulness: one inwardly focused, the other outwardly focused. When people draw upon the terms “fasting” and “detoxing” for technology disconnections, they bring up two interesting examples of how mindfulness affects our inward and outward health.

In religious fasting, a lack of eating is not focused on dietary benefits. It is meant to be a time of focus on larger, more important things than bodily craving. In fasting, we center on the spiritual, and step away temporarily from the physical. Yet in that stepping away, we learn to appreciate the goodness of food and drink. Fasting brings us to thankfulness. We eventually return to savor the goodness of the things we left.

Detoxes focus on inward cleansing, looking inward at incongruences and junk in my own system. A “digital detox” would necessitate that, in stepping away from digital tools, one also looks inward at personal cravings and inclinations. How is digital media shaping the way we live? Is it fostering unhealthy habits within us? Have we allowed it to build callouses of anger, discrimination, or fear in our souls? Statistically speaking, Facebook is reported to foster depression in its users. We must exercise introspection toward online habits, desires, and emotions we’ve inculcated. A detox may also help us consider what we haven’t dwelt on or considered enough—a person, situation, or decision we’ve neglected in the technological mayhem.

But a digital “fast” would be a time of mindfulness toward religion, family, friends, and society. One could consider relationship priorities outside the constraints of Facebook and Twitter, even the telephone and Skype. Such a fast would prompt us to analyze the ways such tools shape societal and work interactions, and consider how they benefit (or detract from) the spiritual, soul-fostering work of relationship. This fast would, one hopes, enable the abstainer to return to his or her computer with a renewed sense of purpose and limits.

A proper understanding of human nature is vital in our consumption. We must keep our own inclinations in mind. Pride is a natural susceptibility of the human soul. In every tweet and Facebook status, our own pride will venture to the surface. We must look carefully at our motivations, and consider what sort of online (and inward) presence we’re cultivating. This is the sort of consideration that might go into a digital “detox.”

Stepping away from technology will not make us more or less mindful—just as a day of detoxing or fasting will not automatically change our perception of food. In all things, we want to cultivate Aristotle’s virtuous mean, searching for that place between excess and defect where excellence dwells. Mindfulness does not necessitate pure abstention from iPhones, Twitter, and the like—it is not about neglecting certain platforms. Rather, it defines how we use those platforms. The reason for a “fast,” “detox,” or what-have-you is to help us see the big picture, to give us greater purpose, understanding, and discretion.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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