Go with the Flow

Go with the Flow

Counteract the rising tide of online distractions with a digital detox—slow down, take time and unwind.

How do you start the day? I wake up, and almost immediately, I reach for my phone. I check emails, then Facebook, then Twitter. From then on, I'm on the Net. Back home in the evening, the last thing I do is check my messages before going to sleep, my brain still whirring from all the day's information and online interactions.

We are losing our capacity for sustained attention and absorption. We find it harder to get lost in a book, in a film, or in nature. We can't just enjoy a beautiful view, we have to post it on Instagram. We can't simply listen to a concert, we need to share it, to prove to others what a good time we're having.

What can we do, if we feel we are increasingly stretched thin, if we struggle to concentrate? We can log off with a digital detox—control our use of the internet, so that it's the tool and we're the master, rather than vice versa as is increasingly the case.

Earlier this year, I decided to go cold turkey—and signed up for a 10-day Vipassana retreat at a monastery in a snow-covered forest. Everyone handed in their phones at the start of the course, as well as reading tablets, wallets and passports. We also took a vow not to speak to anyone for the entire time, and to follow the schedule of ten hours’ meditation a day.

It was very hard at first. But gradually, my mind calmed down, I became less bothered by negative thoughts, my attention began to gather and strengthen, and I grew increasingly focused. Psychologists believe the more we are absorbed in an activity, the more we can enjoy it. As I walked through the woods, each crunch of my boots on the snow sounded crisp and delicious. Every bird song seemed miraculous.

Of course, one doesn't need to go on a retreat to switch off the chatter and find rest and recuperation. We all have different ways of disconnecting. Just taking the time to go for a walk in nature can help you shift your consciousness and expand into a calmer and more open mindset. A 2015 study by Stanford University found that a 90-minute walk in natural surroundings reduced 'rumination'—a type of anxious self-preoccupation.

The poet William Wordsworth was the great prophet of walking-as-meditation. He strode around the Alps, the Lake District and all over Britain, covering an estimated 180,000 miles on foot by the time he was 65. Walking in nature, he said, helps us enter 'the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness'.

Psychologists today call this state 'flow'—we become so deeply engaged in an activity, such as reading, cooking or playing the piano, that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. It's profoundly refreshing and rejuvenating.

One of the most reliable routes to 'flow' is through the arts—we see, hear or read something beautiful, and in that rich pleasure we forget ourselves. Sometimes, at a concert, you can feel the moment when the audience are rapt, their attention fully fixed on the performance. We get 'lost' in a good book, 'transported' by a marvellous play or film. It's a holiday from our usual preoccupations.

Personally, I find flow by playing tennis. For 90 minutes or so, I close out everything else in my life and concentrate on the 78 square metres of the court. The less distracted I am, the more I focus on the game and trust my body—and the better I play.

A friend of mine, meanwhile, treats bath-time as a solemn ritual. He light candles, pours oils in the tub, puts on his favourite music, and then soaks for an hour or more. This elaborate daily ceremony is his way of letting go.

One of the simplest ways to slow down is to calm your breathing. Try inhaling to a count of seven, and then exhaling to a count of 11, then repeating the cycle six times. Feel different? Slowing the breath decreases the heartbeat, which relaxes our autonomic nervous system and helps us to unwind and recuperate. Some of the most relaxing activities, from yoga to singing, work in part by helping us to intensify our air intake and to uncoil.

Meanwhile, many of my friends are actively choosing to limit their internet usage, and some even eschew it altogether one day a week. They tell me it helps them feel less scattered, more present, and more at ease.

At the end of the Vipassana retreat, on Day Ten, we were solemnly handed back our phones. We sat there, greedily plugged in like babies at the breast. I ran my eyes eagerly over all the unanswered emails, tweets and Facebook messages I had received over the previous days. And then I realised—I had missed nothing at all.

by Jules Evans

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