The disease of distraction

When we stop the busyness of the mind and come back to ourselves, the enormity and rawness of our suffering can seem very intense because we are so used to ignoring it and distracting ourselves. When we feel suffering, we have the urge to run away from it and fill ourselves up with junk food, junk entertainment, anything to keep our mind off the pain that is there inside us. It doesn’t work.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, “No Mud, No Lotus”

If I have a forte, it is finding distractions. Texting, checking Facebook, playing with my 101 gadgets, listening to an audiobook as I fold laundry or a podcast as I get ready in the morning, playing a game as I watch a show …

Long story short, I have a really hard time being alone in my head. And not only is it bad for my punctuality (I can intend to check one Facebook notification and emerge like Rip Van Winkle hours later from the Internet), it’s bad for my brain. And yours.

First, it can be dangerous (like trying to send a text while driving). Second, it gives us little satisfaction from EITHER of the activities we’re trying to do simultaneously (you can’t focus your full attention and enjoy “This Is Us” if you’re also playing Bubble Witch 3 at the same time). Third, it makes us less effective at both tasks.

life-is-availableBut I get irritable and fidgety without my phone. As I said, I have a hard time being alone in my head. Without distractions, I can tend to “ruminate,” or continually replay problems in my mind. It often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, as well as depression, addiction and eating disorders. This article by psychologist Jennifer Mulder has some excellent info about rumination as well as coping strategies.

Distraction is one of coping with ruminating, though there are healthier ways to do it than scrolling endlessly through Facebook, getting in arguments with strangers over gun-control legislation. Um, not that I would do that. Mulder suggests that distraction is better used for coping temporarily with rumination than as a regular method. (See the linked article for more tips!)

So, I’ve just traded in one unhealthy habit for another when, instead of ruminating, I turn to my phone or computer to distract myself. The ideal, of course, would be to use mindfulness to stay in the present moment and not dwell on past or future stresses. And that’s a work in progress.

I’ve noticed that the distraction -> stress -> distraction cycle generally builds on itself. The more I allow myself to focus on distractions, the more restless and stressed I get when they aren’t present, to the point where even watching a movie or TV show without my phone in my hand becomes difficult.

To that end, I’m focusing on limiting phone and browser distractions. Some tips that have been helping me:

  • Keep your phone in your purse or your pocket, or in a drawer in your desk, if you’re at work, so you aren’t constantly tempted to check it.
  • If you tend to pick up your phone first thing in the morning and stay up too late using it, charge it overnight in another room. Get an actual alarm clock instead.
  • Don’t bring your phone EVERYWHERE with you. Unless you’re a surgeon who’s on call, you can probably leave it at home while you go for a walk.
  • Use Airplane mode if you MUST have your phone with you but don’t want the distraction of notifications. I often use this while I’m meditating (since I use the Headspace app on my phone).
  • Minimize notifications on your phone or other devices. Do you really HAVE to know every time someone “likes” something you post on Facebook? One study showed that receiving a notification can be as distracting as responding to a text or phone call.
  • Remember that you don’t need to respond to every message instantly. Your friend will be fine if you take a little while to reply “LOL” to that meme.  I promise.
  • Don’t leave social media tabs open on your browser, so it’s more difficult to constantly check in. (I’ve even taken to deleting the Facebook app from my phone at night so I’m not tempted to fall down the rabbit hole; I don’t re-download it until I’m ready the next morning.)
  • Before you pick up your phone or log in to social media, ask yourself, “What am I hoping to gain from this?” Are you genuinely in need of checking a message? Or are you seeking connection? Distraction? Inspiration? Make sure you’re clear on your intentions and that they’re healthy.
  • Set goals and rewards; go 30 minutes without checking anything and then maybe give yourself 5 minutes for your effort.
  • Use blocking software or extensions if you’re really struggling; I’ve had good luck with StayFocusd for Google Chrome and Cold Turkey for Chrome and other browsers. (There’s also a mobile version, but I haven’t tried it.)
  • You knew I was going to say it … but practice mindfulness. When I am in a more peaceful place mentally, I am less likely to feel that restlessness and go searching for things to distract me.
  • Remember that what you practice grows stronger. Every time you make a decision to pick up your phone for the third time in five minutes, you’re strengthening your “distraction” muscle. Every time you decide you really don’t need to check it yet again and choose to be present instead, you’re strengthening your “focus” muscle.

Let all go


let it go – the
e.e. cummings

eecummings1let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to

let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go

so comes love

‘Detach from outcome’

My sister is always suggesting I try to “detach from outcome.” I admit, I always kind of blew it off. But today, after sending her some frantic texts about a situation that has been causing me a lot of anxiety, and she offered the same advice, I decided to Google it.

I particularly liked the article titled ” ‘Let Go, or Get Dragged’: Find Your Peace by Letting Go.” It includes signs that you are holding on and getting dragged, including:

  • Constantly thinking about a person or situation.
  • Trying to control a person or situation and create the outcome you want.
  • Engaging in rigid, all-or-nothing thinking.
  • Experiencing body tension and stress.

3c43b95b207e52a0e502373d50e56432--trauma-ptsdAnd yes, those are allllll things I do, generally on a daily basis.

The article points out that “if we relax and let go, we may feel we are giving up, giving in or losing control.” Hoooo boy, is that one hitting close to home too. I feel like worrying about something incessantly is part of caring. If I don’t worry about an outcome incessantly, how will the universe know I REALLY REALLY REALLY want it?! How will I MAKE it happen through the magical power of my worrying?

Buddhaimonia has a great article on “The Beginner’s Guide to Letting Go and Becoming Enlightened Through Non-Attachment” by Matt Valentine. It clarifies that:

All attachment originates with the ego. The ego, a construct which was built through years of conditioning and is in no way a “real” part of you at all, is what convinces you that you’re this separate entity disconnected from all other living and non-living things. And when reality doesn’t match up to the image, friction happens and pain occurs.

This is part of resisting what is so, which has been a struggle for me in the past. I can’t know what an outcome will be. I can’t control what the outcome will be, either. So instead of resigning myself to the fact that I can neither see nor determine the future, I ruminate over it incessantly. I try to divine it from little signs. I try to seek reassurance from friends who I hope will convince me things will go the way I want them to. I try to obsess my desired outcome into reality.

Instead, I should be focusing on:

  • Recognizing that I can always choose to let go.
  • Remembering that letting go doesn’t mean that I don’t care about a person, situation or outcome.
  • Watching for the physical and emotional signs that I am “hanging on.”
  • Investigating my fears of losing control of a situation (or person).
  • Realizing and respecting the impermanence of life.
  • Remembering that the outcome I’m attached to may not in fact be the outcome that God has in mind for me. It may be something far better than what I am currently hoping for, something that in my limited view of time and space, I can’t see. (Remember that Garth Brooks song “Unanswered Prayers”?)

Lama Surya Das says, “Letting go means letting be, not throwing things away. Letting go implies letting things come and go, and opening to the wisdom of simply allowing, which is called nonattachment.”

Allow your life to be what it is. Allow events to unfold as they will. And know that however it happens, you will be okay. (I’ll be over here trying to do the same!)

Rejection and mindfulness

In dealing with the sting of rejection recently, I realized how badly I had internalized the messages I was getting — or really, thought I was getting. Because no one has ever come out and said, “You’re not fun, you’re not very smart, you’re not pretty enough, and you have too much baggage.” That was just what I was telling myself.

I googled “rejection and mindfulness” to learn a little more about what was going on. First, I found a great article on “Understanding Rejection: How to Mitigate Its Effect On the Brain.” It starts off discussing “contingent self-worth,” or basing our sense of self-worth on how much stuff we have, how successful we are or how much people like and accept us.

Of course, building up your sense of self-worth would be one step to helping rejection hurt less. (And it does hurt; research shows that social rejection actually activates the same regions of the brain that physical pain does.) Building up your independence and resilience also are important pieces in handing rejection well.

In the article, psychologist Arnie Kozak says:

It’s helpful to ask yourself, ‘what’s really on the line here?’ You can then see if your sense of okay-ness is really undermined by the rejection. Often, we worry how we’ll be perceived by others and that is just another contingency. Rejections aren’t the end of the world, but sometimes we can react as if they are. Being turned away from one opportunity makes you available for another. Ultimately, I encourage people not to take things so seriously. If that reaction arises, mindfulness practice can help people to back away from it and keep things in perspective.

I liked that a lot, because so frequently, what’s on the line is … not much. So I didn’t hear back from a guy who I had hoped might be a potential romantic candidate, even though he had been the one to approach me and ask me out. What was on the line? Clearly, a guy who doesn’t have the time, interest or capability to communicate with me clearly. Whoopity-de-doo.

Another article, “Our Need for Acceptance and the Pain of Rejection,” discusses breaking free of rumination and self-criticism, which is apparently my forte:

If we’ve been rejected, we may end up ruminating on what we could have done differently; how we could have done more to make people want us. Thoughts like “What’s wrong with me?” might be echoing around in our minds. If we’re not mindful, we may start coming up with harsh answers to these questions. Before we know it, we’re caught in a downward spiral of self-blame and self-criticism.

36334268I don’t know if I have ever blamed anyone but myself for rejection. My initial instinct is to always assume I’ve done something wrong, said something wrong or even been something wrong. But when we’re mindful, we can examine the messages we’re telling ourselves, and we can examine their truthfulness. We can realize that frequently, the rejection wasn’t about us at all. Maybe there was another candidate that was better qualified. Maybe he wasn’t over his ex. There are a thousand reasons that we can’t know behind someone’s motivations.

And finally, we need to embrace the suffering to some extent. I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “No Mud, No Lotus,” and this passage struck me:

When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you. But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s no happiness.

What can I grow in this mud of rejection? What is it teaching me about myself and the work I need to do? What wisdom can it impart to me? The lotuses I am hoping to grow are Self-Worth, Resilience and Mindfulness.

What will you grow?

It’s oh so quiet

The last month has been a struggle. I have fallen into my old pattern of constantly seeking distraction and reassurance.

Spending my mornings and evenings restlessly  flipping through my phone, texting friends, reading articles and comment threads, and arguing with strangers on Facebook.

Doing anything to not think about being lonely, being bored, being hurt.

I haven’t dated, although I have talked to a couple of guys. In neither case were they candidates for serious relationships. The attention made me feel good, though — I felt happy and excited and, well, valuable, when I heard from them. And then when it fizzled, I felt rejected. Worthless. Alone.

Every time it happened, it amplified. Every time, I plunged deeper into my world of social media and disconnectedness from the real world.

So, I am trying to take baby steps to get back on track. Putting the phone out of reach. Keeping it out of my bedroom at night. Focusing on my breathing, and what I can hear and see and feel. Being okay with being alone in my head and in my house.