Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Connected - How Much is Too Much?

An increasingly complex and discussed topic: In a world where we have devices on our person which are keeping us constantly connected to the digital world… Is this actually good for us, or society as a whole?

I’m not going to suggest that we do away with all this tech, because it can be a force for good. What I will be exploring, however, is if we should be approaching this by treading a little more softly and slowly, rather than simply stomping ahead like a foolish child, unaware of the possible dangers, or even what it’s already doing to us.

What's the big deal, anyway?

People love being connected with other people; it’s just who we are. So what’s wrong with using devices that helps us to be connected with people even when they’re not in our immediate vicinity?

The problem isn’t the use of these devices, it’s the incessant use. It’s that when we constantly try to be social on the internet, it has other effects on us which aren't often noticed. This can sound at first like wild conjecture mixed with hippy-speak, until you look at some of the studies on this topic:

And from our own lives, how many times has it occurred that during a party or other social gathering, at the first quiet moment in the conversation, the people present have all pulled out their phones to check their various social network feeds? I.e. choosing to give the phone their complete attention, ignoring the people around them almost entirely in the meantime.

All too familiar?

This has become the norm for many people, where if their phone is vying through vibration for the phone-holder’s attention because someone has done something involving them on their chosen social network, there seems to be no way that they could just let it slide until the conversation with the people around them is finished. They have to check their phone, and now. The person right in front of them effectively doesn’t matter until this notification has been checked, and responded to if necessary.

Moderation is key

As with all things in life, moderation is key. Despite the possible sound of this article thus far, I’m not suggesting that people should give up their smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with using any of these devices. This is proven by the people who are able to withhold from immediately checking their notifications so that they can finish interacting with the person in front of them, first. The people who can go more than five minutes without checking their social network just to see yet another post about how good someone feels because they cooked a nice meal for themselves.

People can absolutely use their phones in a way which allows them to be connected, and retain their imagination and ability to amuse themselves for a bus or train ride. The problem is, this takes self-control. Self-control which people say they have, and yet often prove they don't.

The more you use your phone as a simple and easy way of passing the time, the more you train your mind to not think for itself when you have a spare moment. This, in turn, makes you more easily bored, which makes it more likely that you’ll just pull out your phone whenever you need to pass the time. On and on it goes, a kind of boredom-feedback loop, slowly making you more dependent on your phone to pass any spare time rather than just stopping, and taking the time to slow down for a few precious minutes. Think about whatever you like, but think. Or even use it as time for meditation.

I won’t try and sum up how to practice meditation while on public transport, as there are already articles out there written by people who do a better job than myself. The point I’m getting at, is that there’s a vast array of things you can do while on public transport (including writing, sketching if the ride is smooth enough, reading, etc.) that aren’t some form of staying connected to the wider world. And most of these methods are certainly better for the mind and soul than checking your social network feed for the third time in ten minutes.

How do I spend my time on my daily 20 minute bus commute to (and then again from) work? I write articles, I read, I sketch, and/or I think critically about whatever is on my mind. Consider this all personal opinion if you like, but I wholly believe that these methods of passing the time are a vast improvement on simply finding out what new funny cat pictures have been posted.

"Won't someone think of the children?"

Frequent use of technology can cause issues for kids, too. Several studies show that too much TV for young children has been linked with obesity, irregular sleep, and behavioural problems, among other things (summed up here).

Other studies (such as this one) show that any screen time at a young age (especially when the child is 2 or younger) can lead to a significantly greater chance of problems associated with speech development.

Another study shows that kids who have access to a smartphone or tablet within their room got slightly worse sleep than those with a TV in their room, who themselves get less sleep, or more irregular sleep, compared to kids without a TV in their room (reported on here).
So, babysitting kids with TV, smartphones, and tablets (though it can provide a welcome relief from time to time) is unfortunately far too easy to overdo, and it can cause possible harm to the children's development.

Yet on the flipside, disconnecting and taking your children out of the house and into somewhere sporting a little natural green can be good for children, especially those diagnosed with ADHD (as found in this study). One of the interesting things to take away from this study is that to get the good effects which help with ADHD, the child doesn't need to be taken far off to a rainforest, or anything like that. Taking them to a nicely kempt park after school is enough.

Pictured: Possible daily medication for a quieter mind

Furthermore, other studies show that kids who are exposed to greenery on the commute to/from school, and around/within the school itself, generally develop better working memories and attentiveness. One study (reported on here) theorised that lowered traffic-related pollution thanks to the greenery doing it's part to clean up the air would be one of the major causes of these beneficial effects. However, the study authors noted that another major cause would simply be the sight of greenery itself (which has been shown to have beneficial mental health effects, for adults and children alike). This is also known as/highly related to the Biophilia hypothesis.

A quiet plea

At this point, I feel the need to re-iterate. I'm not saying that we should do away with technology and start heading backwards. I'm simply saying that we need to be a bit more cautious with how and how often we remain connected, and especially how we're introducing our kids to this world.

Furthermore, nature is something we can't afford to just lose our connection to. Even simply keeping a garden, or working in the shade of a tree, can have health benefits for us and our kids (though a full exploration of this topic in particular would be an article in itself).

Maybe it's time that more people put down their smartphones and tablets on the bus and train, look around, and find more joy in watching the scenery passing by. Perhaps even strike up a conversation with a stranger - scary though the idea may be, it could be a much better way to pass the time than you may think.

(Originally published, by me, on - 11/07/2015)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Archery as Meditation

Just to preempt a few questions about this, within this article I will be discussing the use of solo target shooting as a form of mindfulness training through the act of focusing on one thing. Whether this applies to other forms of meditation, or to bow-hunting or competition archery, is another thing entirely. I'm not going to touch on those topics as I've only had experience with the former, and am under-qualified to hypothesize about the latter.

Due to a perceived lack of information on this particular topic, I had to search for a long time, and do a lot of experimentation for myself. So if there's anyone out there who is even remotely interested in this topic, then I hope this article will help them on their own journey in some way.

I have been an avid (if amateur) archer for at least 10 years now, and have been meditating for the last 5 years. A few years ago, I wondered if there could be any overlap between the two... And so I searched.

And searched.

And after quite a while, I couldn't seem to find anything substantial on the topic. I began to wonder if I was onto something new here, or if the reason there wasn't much out there on this specific topic was because it was just a downright silly idea.

Proof, finally!

One day, I came across this Paulo Coelho video:

Finally, some proof that I'm not going crazy. And on top of that, the man who beat me to the punch is someone who's known to be quite, well, wise.

For those of you who may not have been able to play the video, Paulo Coelho speaks briefly about archery as a form of meditation. He speaks about those moments during your shooting "where you are only one thing". Where just before you loose your arrow, you are "totally tense", "and all of a sudden, in the next fraction of a second, totally relaxed".

It's from this video that I was able to really start focusing on some key points during my shooting. The silent contemplation of the next shot, the smooth drawing back of the string, holding for a small amount of time (during which the various muscles engaged in archery are very tense), and finally, that moment after you release. That moment where in the blink of an eye, your position largely hasn't changed, but your whole body is suddenly relaxed. That moment when your arrow has been released from being one with you and your bow, and is off, flying towards the target.

A change in focus...

Instead of focusing on one thing while sitting or otherwise not moving - whether that be your breathing, a guided meditation recording, your posture, on achieving a completely quiet mind (which, incidentally, is my preferred method when practicing meditation while I'm out and about), or something else - your mind and body together are focused, completely, on acting as a single whole through the movements of archery.

... and a different approach

Something to note is that you can still find joy in archery in other, more usual ways. That is to say, you can still enjoy just going out for a shoot and getting great pleasure from seeing how high you can score per X amount of arrows. Perhaps you achieve greater enjoyment from seeing how fast you can shoot accurately. Or maybe you enjoy the act of archery in some other way entirely. That doesn’t have to change at all, and indeed I still often go out for a shoot purely to practice, keep up my skills and get enjoyment from the shooting in and of itself.

But when you go out to use your archery as a session for meditation, you approach the upcoming session in a completely different manner.

To draw a parallel, I used to have a favourite spot at university (when I was still a student) for both eating lunch, and meditating. It was this quiet little spot, by a small waterfall which occurred in the course of the university’s moat. The area was covered by an old willow, and ducks would often come by to hang out. This was a rare spot to find, especially given the university was located in a major city, and even more so considering how few of the other students had discovered the area.

When I went there for lunch, I went there to enjoy the old tree and surrounding flora, the wildlife that frequented the area, the quiet solemnity of this almost magical spot, and of course, the deliciousness of whatever it was I had to eat that day.

But when I went there for a session of meditation, I approached it completely differently. Right from when I left my place of residence, I had put myself in a state of quiet contemplation, and walked there calmly. Once I was there, perhaps I took another quiet moment to appreciate how beautiful this spot is, but then I found my position and began meditating.

So it must be the same with archery. If you are serious about using it as another tool for meditation (and it is just another tool or method, it need not be your only form of meditation), you’ll quickly get over the novelty of the idea, and adjust your way of thinking to the way you would regularly think about meditation. That is: With a calm, quiet mind, focusing purely on the movements and acts of archery... and nothing else.

To re-iterate: Unlike your usual archery sessions, you won’t be caring about how well you’re shooting (or how badly). You’re just focusing on the movements and acts of shooting itself. And after each shot, remember to remain still (physically and mentally), and take a moment for contemplation before you reach for the next arrow.

William Blake, and grains of sand

As Paulo Coelho alludes to in the video linked above, the instant after each shot really can be extraordinary, once you get yourself up to this level of using archery as meditation. The whole quote in the video was:

"William Blake once said, 'You can see the universe in a grain of sand'. He was totally right.
He said, 'You can see eternity in a flower'. He was totally right.
When you can see everything, in one thing only, you really understand the miracle of life."

I believe that it's possible to achieve this state of mind within each and every arrow loosed from your bow.

Some closing words

To any of you out there who may start attempting this method of meditation, I wish you good luck. I found it interesting, and a little tricky to get my head around viewing each of these sessions as a “meditation session”, but once I got there it was truly rewarding. Meditation, and quiet, contemplative, archery, as one – for the soul, what could be better?

If you have any information (from yourself, or from other authors) to share about this topic, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

(Originally published, by me, on - 20/1/2015)