No, Tweeting, Texting, and Selfie-Taking Do Not Deprive Us of Zen Moments of Mindfulness

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 17 2013 2:02 PM

Note to Selfie

We’re told that we spend too much time recording moments instead of living in them. That’s a false choice.

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The result of the oversharing and digital busyness is that it makes those of us who worry about doing the right thing feel like we’re passing notes in church every time we stop to document. Don't tweet or Instagram for fear that someone will think you're not living in the moment. We're all on the cusp of being boorish American tourists wherever we go. But this overstates the peril of a process that is fundamentally about engagement and mindfulness. When you pause to write about something—even if it's for Twitter or Facebook—you are engaging with it. Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you've got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the larger world. 

In “Why I Write,” Joan Didion explains, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.” Hey, we're all little Joan Didions! Well, not exactly, but if my theory sounds grandiose, go back to look at things you wrote a few years ago, if you can. When I look at the notes I've stopped to write in those books, entire worlds come back at me. "Watching the squirming foot of the resident during the circumcision," I wrote while my son went through the procedure. I hadn't thought about that moment since it happened, but that image of the nervous young doctor put me right back on the threshold of the small operating room 11 years ago. The set list from the Bob Dylan show at Madison Square Garden in November 2001 reminds me of my visit that day to ground zero. I’d forgotten that George Plimpton nearly ran me over riding down 54th Street on a bicycle. My wife's malapropisms dot the books ("Hang up the towel," "Breathing down my throat," "Stick his neck out on a limb for me"). I recalled each dinner where they were minted, how we laughed over them and how she has the equanimity not to care.

"Only known photo of the white male patriarchy," reads the caption to a photo I saw in Madame Dora's, a thrift shop in Minneapolis, nine years ago. That would have made a better caption for Instagram, but the iPhone hadn't even been invented yet. (I'm sure the clock I was going to save up for isn't there anymore, either.) Photographs, and particularly selfies, get a lot of criticism for distracting us, but they are even more powerful passageways to meaning than the written word. 

Surprise fireworks at wedding across the street.
Surprise fireworks at a wedding across the street.

Courtesy jfdickerson/Instagram

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Here's a picture of surprise fireworks that broke out across the street this summer. Taking the picture didn't diminish the surprise; I’d already experienced that. But what I did capture was the kids rushing from their beds and all of us hovering around the window. I suppose there were a few moments lost to possible consideration of the larger role fireworks play in man's winding path toward meaning, but the fireworks went on for a really long time, so I think I figured that out too. 

This summer I climbed to the top of a stack of granite in an old quarry in Maine. I'll spare you the revelations and Big Thoughts, but if I had lived any more in the moment, they would have found my bones there. My son climbed up to find me. We talked until the pine needles we sat on were fully embedded, and then we took a selfie before climbing down for dinner. Now, wherever I am, I can access those feelings by looking at a picture of that perch. (He'll hear about the stack of granite at his wedding and not the circumcision.)

Lake.

Courtesy jfdickerson/Instagram

In the past, you took a photo, you hoped it developed, you relived the moment, and then entombed most of the pictures in a shoebox or a photo album. Now we carry those moments with us. The first time I played guitar with my daughter, I might not have been 100 percent in the moment when I made a video of it, but I don't think I missed a chord, and when I'm stuck on a plane I'm very happy to hear her play. I am happy to swap the seconds I expended getting the video in place for the moments of escape the video provides from the middle-seat armrest competition. 

I wish I had a photograph of the place we ate sushi after I picked my daughter up from camp. There was nothing visually interesting about it, but the picture would remind me of hearing her tell me the benefits of taking risks in life. If you have children and want to give your future self a present, record their laughter as toddlers. When they’re older and away from you, you might find that clip in the middle of the day and it will transport you as surely as if you had a time machine.

Now that we can all carry meaning with us, we are more alive to its appearance in daily life. I am always looking for material—whether for my notebooks or for Twitter or Instagram—which means I’m looking for meaning. Of course it's my job to look for material (you're experiencing that in this piece right now), but my guess is that other people start to get habituated to the process too. Their eyes are open in a new way, they capture something, like a view they like from a familiar walk, and instead of a fleeting moment, they have a richer moment of their experience to savor. 

View of the capitol.

Courtesy jfdickerson/Instagram

One of the great things about children is that they have no other concern than to be simply interested in things. It is considered by some the height of mindfulness to approach the world afresh like a child. So perhaps we’ve got this all wrong. If we practice hard enough, we can become thoroughly interested in even the simplest things of daily life, the way a child would. The smallest things would become so meaningful, they might even be worthy a few words or a photograph, whatever method you use to capture them.