The Case for Absence

The digestion of Michael Harris’ The End of Absence has slowly been happening over the last few weeks since reading it.  The time spent in front of the computer, the iPad, the phones, and social media amounts to more time in the day spent than away from it. Is there anything we do nowadays where we aren’t connected in some manner, or within hands reach from that connection. It is a balancing act that can quickly topple over to the side of being obsessively connected. My entire day today has been somehow connected to the Internet, from the time I get up, to the time I go to bed.  There are breaks when I’m not on my phone, but it is quickly ready to notify me of the next upcoming e-mail, text, or social media notification.  Michael Harris’ summation is that there really is no easy fix to the problem:

“There are no ten easy steps to living a healthy digital life; there is no totalizing theory, no maxim, with which we can armor ourselves. Nor is digital abstinence the answer, absolute refusal being just another kind of dependence, after all.”

It can seem bleak at times, and especially so when our connections, and relationships, become more and more digital. My connections with people at work are sometimes more driven by e-mail communication than actual face-to-face conversation. It’s quick and simple to reply to an e-mail with an answer. There is no messy relationship stuff; no messy conversations that are predicated on small talk. The personal element is gone. How many people today did you communicate with and not once did the thought cross your mind about having a conversation in person. Getting up from your desk, or couch, to meet face-to-face.

A year ago I came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Silence and in it, albeit briefly, he considers the modern age and it’s impact on silence, communication, and mindfulness:

“Never in the history of humankind have we had so many means of communication – cell phones, texting, e-mail, online social media – but we are more distant from each other than ever. There is remarkably little true communication between family members, between members of society, between nations.”

Thich Nhat Hanh makes the recommendation for silence in one’s life.  Silence in the form of putting our devices away and looking to open up the lines of communication to re-establish those relationships.  This type of silence is an interesting experiment. Have you ever been at work with all of your devices beside you ready to go, monitor is on, e-mail is open and connceted, and thought what it would be like to have none of these things on?  Here is another one. You are sitting in a meeting, let’s say an hour long, the information doesn’t seem relevant, and you just felt your phone vibrate in your pocket. Do you stop for a moment before pulling it out and think, I’m going to re-focus on the meeting and check my messages later or is your response automatic and that message is read within thirty seconds.

It’s surely not a new lesson or message. We’ve all heard the conversation about the need to limit ourselves. Yet, the idea of disconnecting seems trivial to many people, especially those living in big cities, or the younger generation. On a recent trip to Tokyo it amazed me the culture of train goers who are attached to their phones. My own connection to devices felt pale in comparison. It doesn’t negate that I’ve found it especially difficult in day-to-day life. Michael Harris’ words continue to resonate though:

“Experiment. Live a little. And remember that fear of absence is the surest sign that absence is direly needed.”

The fear of absence. That sounds an awful lot like the fear of not being in communication, or the physical reaction encountered when not being close to your phone or e-mail for an extended period of time. That feeling when you are in an all day conference, your phone battery is at 8%, and it’s 12:30PM. Absence may be direly needed.

Absence for everyone is personal and one of the things I’ve been contemplating for myself over the past few weeks. What does absence look like in my life? A case could be made to take a day off, leave your phones behind but then my worrying voice tells me what if there is an emergency; Edgar, my family, etc.  Ok so leaving the phone behind probably won’t happen. How about something smaller that we can begin to implement in our lives tomorrow.  Something as simple as sitting in the meeting and noticing when we go to reach for our phone. Perhaps we stop, remind ourselves to focus our attention back to the meeting, and continue on. Is the message going to be so important that it needs a response in the next 30 seconds or will the 15-20 minutes until the end of the meeting suffice. What did people do in the age before cell phones. Did they hurry back to their desks to check if there was a light on their rotary phone?

Thich Nhat Hanh’s recommendation is the need to listen more:

“If we want to be more connected to others, we don’t need to text them more; we need to listen to them more. Deep listening leads to understanding. Understanding leads to greater connection. The way to listen more deeply is not simply to try harder. Rather, it is to take time in practice that starts with silence – that is, with quieting our internal Radio Non-Stop Thinking.”

I think listening is a big part. The need to be quiet more often in situations and listen to what our mind and body is telling us. Listening to what others are really saying. Perhaps that meeting isn’t relative to your job and yet, what happens if you listen intently? You take away what is being said and an idea comes to your mind that doesn’t directly impact your job, but could be beneficial to the person who was speaking.

In our daily lives we can try and listen to ourselves more closely; we can really begin to examine what that absence is and how it manifests itself. I read in the morning, before starting my day, so why not turn my phones over and ignore any messages that come in during that time. It’s a small step but it opens up my mind a little more to listening to the words on the page. Leaving my phone on my desk when I head into a meeting is another good one.  Those mindful walks that I sometimes take at lunch; how long can I go without feeling the need to check my phone or fire off a quick message.  All small things, but really emphasize my own need for connection in today’s world.

I’d leave you with a few suggestions, if you, like me ,are a connected individual with a moderate level of absence anxiety. Take some time over the next week and recognize where your weak points are but also where your strong points are. Write down the specific reactions that you notice when you take time away from devices or even contemplate the idea. Recognize the positives as well by writing down times in your day when you are disconnected and enjoying the silence. Perhaps those one on one meetings you have with co-workers represent a real connection; that’s a strong point. What works and what doesn’t for you and can you build on those positives?  You are about to send that e-mail to a co-worker who sits on the other side of the floor, or even two cubicles over, and instead you get up and walk over to have a quick conversation. Small things that add up to more meaningful connections in our lives and the practice of exploring absence.

The folks over at Mindtools have some easy suggestions for helping to minimize distractions in the work environment that include technology.

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