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Forty Day Brain Repair: or, Why I Gave Up Facebook for Lent

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I’m one of those people who only uses Facebook to post pictures of my children for my parents to see. Or to keep in touch with old friends from college and high school. Or to wish a happy birthday to one of my 2153 friends. Or to see the latest video of a llama chasing a pig chasing a baby hippo. Or to argue about climate change or gun control with some dummy who just doesn’t get it. Or to kill the interminable 30 second wait at a red light with the random thoughts of utter strangers. Or to weigh in with my approval or ridicule of the latest outrage du jour. You get the point. I like to pretend I’m above the mindless drivel that so many post on the app, but in reality I’m addicted to the chaotic serendipity of what’s going to scroll past my screen next.

For the third year in a row, I have chosen to stay off of Facebook for the forty days of Lent. While many Lenten practitioners forego some guilty pleasure in order to offer a sacrifice to the Divine, I look at Lent as an opportunity to explore how some of my automatic and habitual behaviors are affecting my spiritual discipline. My definition of spiritual discipline is pretty simple: am I using my time and attention to become the best person I can be?

Facebook, like most technology, is neither good nor evil on its own. It is a tool, and as such, should be used with prudence and caution. When I’m using heavily, however, my patience wears thin a little quicker, my tendency to ridicule others increases, and I’m left with a vague feeling of boredom and frustration when I leave my precious distraction behind. Facebook isn’t the problem, but what happens to my consciousness when I use it is problematic, and that’s something for which I have to take responsibility.

One of my favorite modern philosophers, Jacob Needleman, once described the human soul as the “force of gathered attention.” I have never heard the soul – a very nebulous spiritual concept – defined in such practical terms. This is why nearly every religious tradition in the history of humankind has a core element of contemplation or mindfulness. In order for a human to grasp the essential religious concept that “all is One,” the attention must be “gathered” and focused. This is the path to knowing one’s soul, and when it is pursued, one begins to see the stillness and the Oneness reflected in the external world.

Facebook, and many other aspects of life in the present age, accomplish the precise opposite if not used carefully. Before Lent began, I would often spend the first hour or so of a weekend morning just scrolling through my newsfeed before even getting out of bed. So before my day began, I had already heard four or five stories that really ticked me off, and I would feel compelled to either share my outrage with the poster, or argue with them if their opinions weren’t sufficiently in line with mine. What a terrible way to start the day! No thought about what I needed to accomplish, or how I might connect with my wife and kids, just a pure shot of pissed-off fuel!

Our frenetically paced, digitally enhanced lives actually splinter our attention into thousands of disconnected pieces, and consequently, we begin to see the external world as splintered and disconnected. In such a state, we are free to scoff, snort, argue, rail and fume at whatever red flag appears before our bullish eyes.

Having been off of Facebook for over a month (in the spirit of full disclosure, except for brief glimpses on Sunday evenings to make sure no one has sent me an urgent message – and they haven’t) I’ve noticed that I have more mental clarity, increased focus, and less of a need to jump into the latest “outrage.” So much of my attention has been freed up to focus on projects that matter to me, projects that I somehow never had the time for just a few weeks back. There is a profound difference between the practice of conscious awareness of what we put into our brains, versus packing it full of whatever mental junk food we find on the Facebook pantry shelf.

Psychologically, whatever we are feeding our conscious mind spills into our unconscious, where it percolates and festers outside of our awareness. The mind then looks for patterns, and attempts to collect evidence that supports whatever train of thought upon which our mental efforts have been riding. So if we’re “inputting” a constant stream of random, disjointed images and impressions, our unconscious begins to bring similar stimuli into our conscious mind. Pretty soon we’re feeling on edge, anxious, uneasy, not sure what’s coming next, but meeting it with defensiveness and distrust.

By contrast, when we are acting from a place of peace and stillness, thoughts may still be random and spontaneous, but they begin to fit together like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The mind begins to recognize the shapes of the pieces and memory recalls the holes that await that very shape. A sense of order emerges, and that can be very comforting. I notice that I feel more in control of my life, and it is easier to focus on tasks that I wish to complete.

I’m not saying everyone should quit Facebook. It is an amazing tool that has truly transformed the way we communicate with one another. But it really should be treated like any other addictive substance. I have to have some awareness about how I use it. Once Lent is over, I don’t think I’ll jump back into my habit of filling every spare second (and even seconds that really SHOULDN’T be spared) with mechanical scrolling and commenting. I’m going to try having two or three small, scheduled periods of Facebook activity, so that it can be given its proper place as a minor form of relaxation instead of another eight hour shift at the Outrage Factory.

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