This article was originally published in the January 2019 Burning Issue of W42ST Magazine and edited by Ruth Walker.
On January 1, 2018, my journal reads:
spend less time on email and more time experiencing the rapture of being alive.
Inspired by the intoxicating words of Joseph Campbell, it dawned on me last year that the rapture I desired was not a someday, once-I-finally-arrive sort of thing, but, rather, a choice I could start prioritizing at any moment. If I wanted more rapture, I needed to make space for it to enter in.
Rapture did not appear to be blowing up my social media feed, nor did I think that I would be 103, in a mu-mu and rocking chair and telling my grandchildren about those award-winning emails I wrote. After gorging on the depressing statistics about how the digital world is ruining our brains and bodies, I followed the advice and drafted a protocol, convinced that a plethora of boundaries was my pathway to more aliveness.
24-hour digital breaks each week
Unplug during vacations
Limit email, social media, and the news to after morning writing.
Only check social media and email at specific times during the day
Don’t have important conversations with your phone in your hand
Keep your phone in your pocket while walking so you can smile at people and birds
I was successful some days and succumbed to the rush of dopamine on others—ping!—something wonderful could happen!—ding!—someone likes me!—alarm!—Trump did something inhuman again!
Just this once, I would say, as I peeked at the Times before morning writing.
Only a few more emails and I’ll put it away I said to my fiancé far too often.
It was hard for me to tell if the boundaries were helpful, because I was distracted by the onslaught of shame I felt over failing to be perfect at my endless rules.
I created a binary labeling “resisting the urge” as GOOD and “succumbing to anything on a screen” — even my allotted time — as BAD.
Not so rapturous.
And, not actually true. A multitude of good things happened as a result of my being online last year, even though, at times, I also felt drained and overwhelmed by it.
I whole-heartedly believe we need to spend less time on devices, but I’m learning that the phones are killing us rhetoric doesn’t help me with the time that I am spending online. Blaming devices revokes my power, casts me as the victim, and renders me helpless. It also lets me off the hook and fails to hold me fully responsible for my behavior. I will continue exploring ways to unplug, but when I do engage digitally, I want to be able to show up from a place of power and integrity, not guilt and shame.
A new frontier
I needed a fresh approach for 2019, so I asked my intuition my favorite provocative question: What would a miracle look like?
She said immediately, as if waiting to be consulted.
I thought she was going to say that I needed to cancel everything and go live on a mountain.
A miracle would look like forging a brave relationship to the digital world.
I hadn’t even considered the possibility.
I love exploring bravery even more than I love drinking coffee, but I had always thought of the digital world as something we had to deal with—a necessary evil we complained about—and not an opportunity to live into one of my most sacred values.
Painfully, I made an honest list of all of the behavior that felt like the opposite of brave:
Getting stuck in perfectionism and the patriarchal disease of scarcity
Taking all feedback extremely personally
Judging other people and feeling superior
Comparing myself to others and feeling less than
Outwardly denying but secretly believing that likes, comments and followers = my worth
Trying to please everyone and their mother with every post and email
Reading too many articles and feeling generalized despair about the world and not doing enough about it
Feeling pressured into buying things by persuasive marketing copy and well-placed advertising
Checking email when I feel challenged in the middle of creative work
Checking Instagram when I feel vulnerable
Okay. The truth is hard. The truth is also liberating. Looking at this list gave me insight into why the time in the digital world felt so draining and what I could do about it. I felt power in the new awareness.
If I’m going to spend any amount of time in the digital world, then I have to believe I can find the rapture of being alive there, too.
What if everything--even screen time—is an opportunity to wake up?
The index card
After years of battling an array of eating disorders, I decided one day in the middle of my 20s that I was going to commit to a healthy relationship with food. I threw out my endless lists of rules and diet books, read one exquisite, actually helpful book, and wrote a list of 7 gentle but powerful guidelines on a single index card. Thanks to those guidelines, and a slow but dedicated commitment to healing, from that day forward, I created a healthier relationship with food and a growing respect for my body.
One decision—and that little index card—saved me.
Since I hoped to make a similar shift, I made another index card—this time with 7 gentle thoughts for being human in the digital world:
1. Be brave
Anti-courageous behavior is easier on the internet because we don’t think anyone is watching—but I am daring myself to ask:
If a younger person I care about had a front row seat to this moment, would I be proud of what she saw me do and heard me think?
What is the brave choice?
Challenging but galvanizing—these two questions alone have created more shifts in a month’s time than a whole year of rules.
2. See the little child in everyone, including yourself
The nature of the digital world can cause us to dissociate from our own and each other’s humanity—remembering the wondrous child in each of us when I am writing an email to a customer service representative or scrolling through posts on social media helps me remember that there is always a tender-hearted human on the other side of every digital interaction.
I can also take care to remember my own tender heart and little child when I feel moments of isolation and loneliness in digital spaces.
3. Be the same you on and off the internet.
The tools of framing and curation can fool us into thinking we can perform versions of ourselves we would rather be or who we think people want us to be. I have watched myself try (and, of course, fail) to perform “easy breezy chill person” (not me), “super artsy mysterious person” (also not me), “witty, sardonic, hilarious person,” and “very together ducks in a row person” (not me! not me!).
I am an earnest, enthusiastic, aggressively hopeful, insatiably curious, nonlinear duck trying hard at most everything. We never have to share parts of ourselves with the world that we don’t want to, but we will quickly exhaust ourselves trying to perform who we are not.
This also means checking in with ourselves to make sure that our internet behavior is in alignment with our values, and that we are not doing things there that we would not feel proud of or have the courage to do in person.
4. Create trust by giving the gift of your full attention
One of the most inspiring reasons to put down my phone is to remember that doing so strengthens someone’s ability to trust me. While easier to remember in work conversations, I notice that I tend to slide with the people closest to me—family and loved ones for whom trust can become implied by the nature of our relationship—and I want to shift this.
This also applies to my creative work. If I want my creative genius to keep showing up with good ideas, I’ll need to take our time together seriously enough—like I would with another human—to turn on airplane mode when I sit down to collaborate.
Thinking about who I’m showing up for is more galvanizing than meticulously following rules and quotas around screen time.
5. Be radically generous. Lead with love.
Incessant scrolling feels like the digital equivalent to walking down a hallway at a school or a workplace and ignoring almost every single person you pass. I would never do this in real life, so why do it on the internet?
How can our time on email and social media be an opportunity to lead with love? When we see someone pop up on our feed, what if we sent a prayer instead of making an assumption or a judgment? Can we shower people with blessings when we hit send on an email? How can we use the internet as a place to lift each other up? How do we explore radical generosity in digital spaces?
6. Replace general despair with small but mighty action.
This was one of my most essential learnings in 2018. When you find yourself caught in general anger and despair over the state of the world (which does, literally nothing for anyone other than make you exhausted), turn it off, get up, and do one small thing—call a senator, make a donation, sign-up for an event—bravely close the gap between the stagnant emotion and the specific action.
7. Only follow, learn from, and be led by people and ideas who inspire you
Many of us were raised in circumstances that required us to believe our teacher and leaders whether we were aligned with them or not. One of the beautiful opportunities of our digital world is the ability to be selective—however, I notice that sometimes we fall into old patterns of following people because we feel like we should, not because we feel authentically inspired.
I want to be more conscious about what messages and content I am absorbing and who I am learning from this year—sending blessings and love to those no longer serving me, and making space for new and aligned guidance.
With the index card as my north star, I’ve been exploring these ideas for the past month (I believe in starting New Year’s intentions in December) and I am noticing some subtle shifts. I feel more on the hook and responsible for how I am showing up—there is nothing easy here, but if I follow what I set out to do, I have no choice but to be a less passive and more engaged digital citizen. Mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hahn writes that every second of life is a miracle. I feel buoyed and hopeful about the possibility of being more awake to the miracles everywhere—online and off—in this bright new year.
When I ask my future self what to do about the digital world she says:
It only has as much power as you give it.
This year, instead of more rules, I’m taking my power back.
I will, of course, forgive myself when I am imperfect because I acknowledge I have made some audacious intentions.
There’s no denying the research that our relationship with devices is affecting our brains and bodies, and maybe at the end of 2019 I’ll decide to move to the top of a mountain. In the meantime, I’ll be on the lookout for rapture and miracles in between the pings and dings.
I’ll meet you there.
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