Something challenging, even unfortunate, happened during the weeks I was writing this article. I had been preparing my notes about our relationships with our devices and collective digital spaces. I was ready to be forthcoming about my own continued efforts and struggles at balancing my technology use as well as always engaging in mindful behavior online. Right Speech has, for many years, been one of the more challenging precepts for me, particularly when engaging in certain discussions about politics or political movements. The difference between disagreement and disrespect can become quite muddled in the noisy, ever-awake spaces of social media and online forums, and in one challenging instance in early 2019, I lost my footing.
It took weeks for me to regroup, recenter, and ultimately return to a more thoughtful space where I could, once again, consider what it is that I engage with online and, as importantly, why? It was clear to me that my overwhelming drive to participate in online dialogue and other activities—reading articles, consuming media, chatting with others—is for connection, information, and nourishment. But in recent years, while working my way back to the Buddhist teachings and the occasional puzzle work that is the practical integration of teachings in our daily life (thus challenging some habitual patterns), I realized that mindful engagement can also mean choosing not to engage at all.
This is not so much about avoiding conflict or controversy but rather giving attention to what drives our various motivations for connection. As I thought about this article and my own continued efforts for ever-more-mindful interactions with my devices and the online world, it was clear that my message related to the conscious, careful crafting of one’s own media diet. During my reflections I was also drawn back to the times I had taken a digital retreat, motivated by the realization that sometimes the most mindful scroll of all is choosing not to engage at all.
The first time I decided to take a “retreat” from my intensive engagement with the digital realm, it was for a quieter mind and fewer distractions. I had been sitting in our living room chatting with a friend online about our busy, loving lives as parents of young children and our social engagement in various online spaces, and about whether we could simply walk away from the many distractions of the latter. I decided, quite promptly in the midst of this conversation, to take a break from round-the-clock connectivity and my intense dependence on my mobile device. The bliss I felt when I made this decision was sudden and all encompassing, so directly connected with cutting out the noise of being nearly constantly “plugged in” and deeply curbing that compulsion to mindlessly scroll. It was as if in that moment my spirit winked at me and confirmed that this was indeed a journey I needed to take.
In fact, almost instantly the prospect of being disconnected felt like embarking on retreat. Sitting in the cool air of the late evening, with my toddler son curled up asleep on my lap, the comfort of a private exchange with an old friend allowed me to open up to a truth about my own vulnerability to distractions, a recognition of my very beginner-like monkey mind and my occasional challenges with mindful engagement.
The idea behind leaving the digital social space was also to open up more space for things that mattered, such as daily walks without a mobile device in hand (in fact choosing more often to leave it at home), an increased focus on my surroundings, more attention to the joys of cooking, and working on my writing and photography. Last year, a friend shared that her birthday plan was to get out to the countryside for several days without Internet access and a focus on activities such as movies, puzzles, hikes, fires, and sleep. I knew immediately that these sorts of breaks were exactly what my soul, mind, and practice needed as well.
For those of us working with media as well as being everyday consumers of media, these themes acquire a new weight. A few years ago, a speaker at a panel talk I attended noted: “It tends to be the most tech-savvy people who are thinking about tech balance.”* Topics of the evening included unplugging, youth and tech time, dopamine levels and smartphone use, parenting and smartphone use (practicing what we preach to our children), media literacy, and my favorite: being present.
One early morning recently, I sat with my 11-month-old daughter in the living room shortly after we had both woken. My husband and son were still sleeping and my young daughter and I were both awake yet calm and still. The atmosphere was colored by a deep blue characteristic of so many February mornings here in Scandinavia, the rich serene hue flooding through the bay windows of our third-floor apartment in the middle of the city. I recall thinking to myself that I might not have many opportunities for meditation right now, but this here might be the next best thing. No rush for a cup of coffee or reaching for my phone. There is nothing else that needs to be done in this moment. All there is, is this; this sitting stillness.
* David Ryan Polgar at Disconnect: Conversation in the Digital Age, a panel talk held at Mark Twain House in West Hartford, Connecticut, May 2016
Annika Lundkvist is a photographer and writer from the United States currently based in Scandinavia. She became interested in the Buddhist teachings, architecture, and space after a road trip in 1999 to Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling (Wood Valley Temple) on Big Island (Hawaii). She has previously researched and written on Vajrayana design and space in New York state and seeks to explore and document more Buddhist architecture and design. She is also exploring the lessons and challenges of combining Buddhism and parenthood, including the often humorous but precarious balance of mothering young children and creating time for practice. As a writer and photographer, Annika is committed to using her crafts to contribute to the expanding field of Buddhist journalism. Her monkey mind is still in training.