One of the quickest triggers for compulsive behavior, in my experience, is boredom. Learning to do absolutely nothing, even for a few seconds, is one of the hardest and yet most important lessons for me in the hermitage. It is also a very, very common challenge in our modern times, when we've all got a perfect little rectangle of constant distraction in the form of a smartphone.
I'm 53 years old; I grew to adulthood without a PC, let alone a smartphone. We used to use phone books, big, thick, paper phone books. We used to buy maps at the gas station to figure out how to get where we wanted to go. If we got lost, we'd have to pull off the road to look at the map again, and if a road was closed for construction or the map was out of date, we'd have to find a pay phone to call for directions. If we had car trouble, we'd have to get out and hike to the next rest stop on foot to call AAA from a pay phone. We had a complete set of Encyclopedia Brittanica at home, a 3" thick unabridged dictionary, and library cards. We used to write our school papers longhand. It's incredible how remote those memories are. It's almost as if I read about that life in a book (an e-book, borrowed from the virtual library), instead of having actually lived it myself.
I'm typing this on a Chromebook. I've closed the sudoku tab, the two Gmail tabs, the journaling app tab, and the tab for the article I was reading that was not relevant to this topic. My phone is on the table next to me. As almost always, it is on do-not-disturb mode. I have no notifications coming to my lock screen; I unsubscribe from almost every mailing list; I don't do Facebook or Twitter or Instagram at all. And still, I struggle with the temptation to lose hours playing solitaire or browsing endless web pages. There's nothing wrong with playing solitaire, and there is certainly nothing wrong with letting my curiosity roam freely around the fascinating resources on the internet. But I've lost something, and I think that it is something really crucial to the contemplative life: boredom.
I think of boredom as what Thomas Merton called the point vierge, a pause that is empty in itself but poised with infinite potential. I think of it as "fallow mind," a pause in which the mind can rest, unmolested, and regenerate its creative fertility, the way a field does when it is left fallow for a season. It is a very uncomfortable state, itchy, littered with the burs and twigs of whatever came before, groping around semi-blindly for what might come next. It is really surprisingly hard to do nothing, even for a minute. It's surprisingly hard even to do just one thing at a time.
I want to share with you some books I've read that have made me think about disconnecting and quieting my mind. One is What the Robin Knows, in which the author pretty much blows me away by describing how he has learned so much about bird behavior: by just sitting still and watching them. So simple, but so hard to sustain! Another is How to Eat, by Thich Nhat Hanh, about how to pay attention to what you are doing, and only what you are doing, for as long as you are doing it, and how valuable that is. Nir Eyal's Indistractible and Manoush Zomorodi's Bored and Brilliant are both specifically about asserting a right relationship to the gifts of technology. Check out this TED talk by Zomorodi.
My phone and my Chromebook are tools. They are amazingly useful. I use them to keep me on track with my horarium, ringing bells at the different hours of the day to call me to prayer time, meal time, chore time, bedtime. I have much of my library on Kindle. The phone is a tool for citizen science, for learning about and contributing to knowledge of the natural world around me. I've got weather forecasts and tide tables. My calendar is there, to-do lists, grocery shopping lists. Medical records and communication, banking, shopping, recipes -- on and on and on. But it takes mindfulness to keep the tool from becoming the master.
And (this is supposed to be practical asceticism, right?) OK, here are some things I do that help to keep my phone under control:
- I have multiple e-mail addresses, and they have separate notification settings. I don't get pop-ups for newsletters, shipping confirmations, etc.
- Unsubscribe! Even if I have signed up for a news feed of some kind, I usually end up unsubscribing from it. If I don't want to, I have it sent to a separate inbox, so I can sit down and browse through it at a time of my choosing.
- Use the Do Not Disturb setting on my phone. I can customize that setting to let through calls and notifications of my choosing. Ditto notifications on the lock screen.
- Remove icons from the home screen. If there are shortcuts I want there, I group them into folders to reduce visual clutter.
- I don't use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anything like that. If you don't want to give them up completely, I'm pretty sure you can customize your settings so that they don't bombard you with information you aren't looking for. Either way, maybe schedule a specific time or times in your day for looking at them. The point is to choose how you want to use them, not just to react to constant clickbait.
- Ditto YouTube, which I do look at sometimes -- just turning off Autoplay is all it takes.
- There are games I've had to just uninstall. Sometimes more than once. I know I'm not the only one!