Stepping away from the screen

Have any of you heard of the idea of a digital sabbath? The sabbath is usually a day set aside to connect with our spiritual lives. But now, many of us need something even more basic: a day to connect with our real, non-virtual lives. One day a week when we remove the option of constantly reaching for our computers and phones to fill the blank spaces. A day when the real people right in front of us don’t have to compete with the lure of the screen. A day when we ask ourselves to stay with what is here and now, rather than casting around the digital world for something — anything — else.

It’s hard to underestimate how fundamentally the purchase of our Macbook four years ago has changed my family’s life. Before that, when we had to sit at a desk to use the computer, it just wasn’t so tempting. But now that it sits on the coffee table, and we can use it while curled up on the couch or lying in bed, its siren call haunts all our waking moments. It has become my default. Every time I have a few free moments, my first instinct is to spend it noodling around on the internet. Sometimes, I wonder if the glowing apple will be my daughter’s most salient memory of childhood.

Of course, there are many useful and enriching things we can do with the computer. We can write novels, compose enlightening blog posts, discover new music, read important news stories and learn foreign languages. But is this what I spend the majority of my time on the computer doing? Not by a long shot. The vast majority of my non-working time on the computer is spent reading personal blogs and checking Facebook — watching blurry videos of other people’s kids, reading hundreds of repetitive comments, learning the gory details of strangers’ divorces and depressive episodes. What have I missed during all those precious hours I’ve spent staring dully into the screen?

So, as a new year begins, I’m declaring Sundays my digital sabbath. I’m not going so far as to ban all screen time, as some do on the “sabbath.”  I can use the computer to write, look up recipes or do other practical or enriching things. But using the screen just to kill time is out. For one day a week, I won’t check Facebook, read blogs or check email obsessively. If I open up the computer to write something here, I won’t end up spending an hour reading other people’s blogs instead.

In meditation, teachers always tell you to simply STAY. Stay with whatever is happening without looking for escape hatches. Face up to your life. This computer is my escape hatch. I use it to put off things I am afraid of or to quell that uneasy feeling I get when I’m not sure what’s next. But when I fill every empty space in my life with the chatter of the internet, I leave no space for unexpected things to arise. Whatever arises, I have to believe it will be more rewarding than looking at 200 photos of someone I knew when I was in the fifth grade.

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