Archives for category: Creating Change

This is the fourth and last post in a multiple part series. For the introduction and table of contents, see part 1.


The Always-On Trance

The growing popularity of connected devices like computers, tablets, and smart phones, is both a boon and a challenge. On the one hand we have constant access to unimaginable stores of knowledge and can easily share in the lives of friends and family despite the otherwise fragmented nature of modern living. On the other hand, constant distraction, the inability to stop and take a step back from the constant barrage of email, tweets and status updates and the intrusion of the digital stream into our in-person relationship space are presenting us with new struggles. For many, this has become business as usual (or the new normal) but a growing body of evidence is exposing the cost of the always-on trance.

A recent study by Rosen, Carrier and Cheever (2013) found that students spent less than six minutes before switching tasks while studying. Participants who accessed Facebook had overall lower GPAs. Foerde, Knowlton and Poldrack (2006) showed that a demanding secondary task reduced declarative learning about the primary task. Meanwhile, multiple studies document the prevalence of exactly such multitasking in the classroom. For example, Kraushaar & Novak (2010) found that students engage in non-class related multitasking about 42% of the time, and Martin (2011) found that 80% of students sent at least one text message during class and 15% sent more than 10.

Beyond the classroom and the workplace, computers and mobile phone are a part of our every waking moment (and sometimes in sleep as well). Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes this experience in his book, The Distraction Addiction (2013).

Digital life can be great but it also has a price. Keeping up with everything that everyone’s sharing can become overwhelming – not just the sheer volume of material, but also the obligation to stay on top of it. These are your friends (or “friends”) and if you don’t keep checking in on what they share, you might miss something. The little buzz from a new e-mail or text message is nice, but it’s also disappointing when you hit Refresh and there’s nothing there.

The ongoing feeling of overwhelm and the obligation to stay connected lead to experiences of anxiety and even dread. In order to lessen these effects some have turned to what amount to a digital diet. Some practice a digital sabbath and even go on digital detox retreats. Do these practices actually get at the core issue? Rebecca Rosen suggests that these digital diets lay the blame on the technology itself and allow us to, “absolve ourselves of the need to create social, political, and, sure, technological structures that allow us to have the kinds of relationships we want with the people around us.”

Like Rosen, Howard Rheingold (2012), who has been writing about the cultural, social, and political aspects of online media for almost 30 years, takes a larger view of what’s at stake here.

Digital literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. Most important, as people who are trying to get along day to day in a hyper-scale, warp-speed civilization that seems so often to be beyond anyone’s control, digital literacy is something powerful we can learn as well as exercise for ourselves and each other. (p. 3)

The automatic nature of our relationship to technology comes through in Pang’s, Rheingold’s and Rosen’s writings. Pang and Rheingold also offer frames of practice geared toward de-automatization of this relationship.

Rheingold’s (2012) concept of digital literacy includes such aspects as controlling one’s attention, critical thinking, and the power of participation. Digital literacy, according to Rheingold, requires that we be aware of the way the digital world works so that we’re better able to tap into the collective intelligence of the network. The skills and attitudes Rheingold includes under digital literacy not only allow us to see the digital world in a new way (de-automatizing our assumptions) but also invite us to reinvest attention into the way we consume media and the way we participate online.

Pang (2013) describes a practice he calls contemplative computing which offers a new way of relating to and using technology. The principles of contemplative computing ask us to recognize the unique depth of our relationship with technology and to accept that if we want to keep that depth, we must face the distracting nature of today’s world and take control of our environment, becoming calmer and more purposeful in how we use information technologies. As an example we can look at some of Pang’s rules for social media. Notice how these rules ask you to create a new and more conscious relationship with social media.

  • Engage with care. Think of social media as an opportunity to practice right speech.
  • Be mindful about your intentions. Why are you going into Facebook or Pinterest?
  • Remember the people on the other side of the screen. Remember that you’re dealing with people, not media.

Summary

I’ve described two frameworks for practice in daily life. These frameworks focus on aspects of modern life that many find challenging: food and information technology. Following Chögyam Trungpa, I suggest that we can use these frameworks as a way to engage the “man on the street” in transformative practice that is conducive to waking up from what Arthur Deikman called “the trance of daily life.”

References

Martin, C. (2011). In-class texting behaviors among college students. University of New Hampshire. 2011.

Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(31), 11778-11783.

Kraushaar, J. M., & Novak, D. C. (2010). Examining the Affects of Student Multitasking with Laptops during the Lecture. Journal of Information Systems Education, 21(2), 11.

Pang, A.S. (2013). The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. NY : Hachette Digital.

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive inline. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosen L.D., Carrier L.M., Cheever N.A.(2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 29(3), May 2013, Pages 948–958.

 

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This is the third post in a multiple part series. For the introduction and table of contents, see part 1.


Waking Up From the Food Trance

One place where many operate in an automatic fashion is around food. Our relationship to food is complex; it is affected by early conditioning from our parents, socio- economic status, mood, activity, body image and more. The prevalence of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabeties have also been linked to diet. Last, eating disorders have been increasing in rate for several decades across many segments of the population in the US. It is clear that many, young and adult alike, have a troubled relationship with eating and food. We can call this troubled relationship, the food trance.

A common method employed to deal with food related issues is food restriction through dieting. According to Hawks (2005) dieting is often ineffective and does not lead to sustainable change. Further, restricted eating may even lead to such negative outcomes as, “weight recycling, altered body composition, heightened fat storage potential, decreased resting metabolism, dysfunctional relationships with food, increased risk of eating disorders, low self-esteem, and an overall sense of failure among dieters.”

Following Deikman, I suggest that dieting, and other related methods like increased exercise, do not work because they fail to wake us up from the food trance. Dieters may see short term changes but eventually this short period of “awakening” is over and they return to their automatic way of relating to food.

In recent decades, the concept of intuitive eating has been gaining in popularity. According to Hawks (2005) intuitive eating suggests that “individuals have within themselves a natural mechanism that if allowed to function will ensure good nutrition at a healthy weight.” (Tylka 2006) studied intuitive eating among college women and describes the following core features:

  • Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and what food is desired.
  • Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons.
  • Reliance on internal hunger/satiety Cues to determine when and how much to eat.

Intuitive eaters re-learn to eat when hungry and to stop when full. Intuitive eating invites us to let go of stories about what food is acceptable or unacceptable. With that out of the way, we are can decide for ourselves, based on input from the body, what to eat, how much to eat, and when. Intuitive eating requires that we re-invest the act of eating with awareness. Bringing awareness to the urge to eat allows us to look at the underlying structures behind our relationship with food. In fact, awareness of the emotional aspects of eating, is a core feature of intuitive eating. Learning to trust internal cues of hunger and satisfaction brings our awareness to old patterns of eating. Why do we eat more or less? Perhaps we are replaying patterns from our childhood or maybe we are being manipulated by ideas of body-image we’ve absorbed from the media. Reinvesting awareness into these decisions serves to wake us up from this part of the food trance.

In a study from 2006, (Smith & Hawks) discovered a correlation between high intuitive eating scores and 1)higher levels of enjoyment of food, and 2)fewer food anxieties. The second factor, reduction in food anxieties, shows that participants with higher intuitive eating scores are less caught up in the social and personal food trance. The first factor is similar to a one that Deikman (1966) noted in relation to de-automatization as a result of meditation: “The undoing of automatic perceptual and cognitive structures permits a gain in sensory intensity and richness at the expense of abstract categorization and differentiation.” This conclusion would certainly be in keeping with the core features of intuitive eating I’ve listed above.

References

Deikman, A.J. (1966). De-automatization and the mystic. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 29.4

Hawks, S.R. (2005). The Relationship Between Intuitive Eating and Health Indicators Among College Women. American Journal of Health Education, Volume 36(6) pp. 331-336.

Smith T. & Hawks S.R. (2006). Intuitive eating, diet composition, and the meaning of food in healthy weight promotion. American Journal of Health Education, Vol. 27(3).

Tylka T.L. (2006). Development and Psychometric Evaluation of a Measure of Intuitive Eating. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Vol. 53, No. 2, 226–240.

This is the second post in a multiple part series. For the introduction and table of contents, see part 1.


Working With the Manure of Everyday Life

In the book Meditation in Action, Chögyam Trungpa (1991) offers a possible solution to the question I posed in my previous post. Trungpa begins by recognizing the common split between spiritual and everyday life and the difficulty this split creates for many.

[P]eople tend to make a very sharp distinction between spiritual life and everyday life. they will label a man as “worldly” or “spiritual”, and they generally make a hard and fast distinction between the two. So if one speaks about meditation, awareness, and understanding then the ordinary person, who has never heard of such things, obviously would not have a clue and he probably wouldn’t be even sufficiently interested to listen properly. And because of this division he finds it almost impossible to take the next step. (p. 25)

It is probably true that many find mystical texts unapproachable and even confusing. Others may try some form of meditation and quickly quit because it seems to be hard. Trungpa sees that as a problem to relate to the “man on the street”. He suggests that make an effort and provide, “some way of finding out, some concept that he can understand and which will still be related to his life and will still be part of his life.” The way to create the connection is not by trying to change the person, quite the opposite, “start off by just accepting the character of that person, who may be completely worldly minded, and then choose one particular aspect of his activity or his mentality and use it as a ladder, as an anchor, as a vehicle so that even the man on the street can give birth to bodhi.”

By meeting each person exactly where they are and exactly how they are we can find the seed of awakening that is already gestating within them. In order to help that seed grow, says Trungpa, we must meet that person fully so that he may be able to use the most painful aspect of his character as part of this process. This person may already be struggling, trying to solve a problem he cannot solve because, says Trungpa (in a similar vein to Deikman), “in his search for a solution he merely substitutes other activities for the ones he has renounced.” If we meet the person in this place, where the pain is beginning to be known, we can use just these simple, direct, and ordinary things that are already part of his life and we need not rely on arcane mystical texts or practices.

In this approach we take samsara, the world of confusion, to be the vehicle to nirvana, or liberation. We are like a skilled farmer that collects the rubbish from her farm, composts it and spreads the resulting fertilizer over her lands. Out of this smelly and dirty matter, rise all her crops. Trying to rid ourselves of samsara in order to find nirvana, says Trungpa, is not the skillful way. Start by recognizing, studying and then working with desires, passions and other negative things. Work with the life you have, and let that be the seed of your realization.

According to Trungpa, we need to be specific in this work, generic solutions do not apply here. While there may be general tools that many find useful, we need to connect to each person in this moment of experience and study that. This points at the importance of personal support in the form of a teacher, guide or coach. The external perspective of another person allows them to see the moment we move from being active to passive or in Deikman’s terms, the moment we fall back into the trance. The clear pointing out of this moment shows us exactly where it is that we need to bring our awareness.

In addition to this pointing out, it is helpful to have some theories and frames of practice. In the spirit of Trungpa’s “Manure of everyday experience”, I would like to provide two such frameworks that I believe many today will find relevant. While the two frameworks are specific in their focus, I believe that we can use them as “entry points” into the greater process of de- automatization. These are the places where a modern person may already be collecting some “manure”. By meeting the person at this pain point, we can use them as fuel to engage in practice.

The first framework focuses on our relationship with food. As a basic human need, food has been part of spiritual traditions for millennia. Many ancient practices revolve around limiting food and the enjoyment of it but I do not believe this is necessary. In the next section I’ll present a framework that offers a different way to relate to food; supporting health and well-being while allowing us to enjoy food and eating. The second framework revolves around the use of information technology. Like food, information technology is now an inseparable part of our lives. Many, however, have a dysfunctional relationship with technology. I’ll offer a way to relate to technology consciously, placing the human back in control of the tool.

In my last post I discussed a four stage model of change based on the conscious competence model. The conscience competence model is traditionally described in four stages the last of which is called unconscious competence. Unconscious competence is the point in the process of learning a skill when you can perform the skill without thinking about it (“it’s like riding a bike…”). As much as we’d like to be able to rest forever in that stage, unconscious competence isn’t free of traps. One such trap is complacency – believing that you have mastered a skill, you neglect practice and allow the skill to languish, in effect falling back into the previous stage, conscious competence. Applied to the process of change, this would be a relapse either to the conscious freedom model or, even all the way back to unconscious habit.

In light of the potential for sliding back from the fourth stage in the model, some have suggested a fifth stage. There are several names offered for this fifth stage but the one I like best is reflective competence. At this stage the practitioner is able to execute the skill without conscious effort and has a clear understanding of the skill such that he’s able articulate it to himself and teach it to others. Another key characteristic of this stage is the ability to step back and reflect on performance of the skill from an external perspective. How does the apply to the process of change?

Being able to step back and reflect on my experience is the skill of mindful awareness and a clear understanding of the skill is exactly what’s being described in this model. I suggest that in the process of change, the fifth stage of reflective freedom is composed of two main skills:

  1. Understanding the process of change itself as I’ve described it previously. Getting to know the various forces at play in each stage (ignorance, resistance, etc.) is especially helpful.
  2. An ongoing practice of mindful awareness. Coming back, again and again, to this moment and noticing: what is my mind (and heart and guts) up to? This practice can support us with maintaining that change that we want and with discovering unskillful habits that were, so far, unconscious.

To summarize the model so far:

  1. Unconscious habit – Ignorance is in full force.
  2. Conscious habit – We recognize the unskillful habit and become increasingly aware of its impact. The suffering inherent in this habit brings up strategies of avoidance (ignorance) and self-criticism. Through the practice of compassionate mindful awareness we develop a friendly relationship with the habit. It is helpful to seek support from a friend, teacher or coach at this point as their external awareness will prove very useful.
  3. Conscious freedom – We’re now able to recognize the habit happening in real-time and, increasingly often, we can even do something about it! As we actively work to bring about change, we encounter resistance. The resistance will try to convince us to give up, it’s too hard, not worth it! Instead, we bring our compassion to the resistance as well and keep practicing conscious change.
  4. Unconscious freedom – we’re now largely free of the unskilful habit. Aware of the trap of complacence we continue practicing mindful awareness.
  5. Reflective freedom – We’re able to reflect on this entire process and we recognize that it has happened before. With this awareness in mind and an ongoing practice of mindful awareness we are now more resilient. We can recognize habits we want to work with and we have the tools to do so ourselves. We can even support others through this process.