Sometimes I think about times in my younger days, when I could spend hours reading a book or listening to music on my walkman (remember these things?). Now I can barely get through thirty minutes on my kindle before feeling the urge to check my phone. Once in a very long while I do get immersed in a great book, but they seem rare to me these days.
I feel quite disturbed, as I am finding it harder to carve out the psychological space to write or work on my website. I cannot tell if it is because my attention span is getting shorter, or that I am less interested, or I am lacking the stimuli that is required to create because I haven’t gone out in weeks. Or is it low grade despair because the pandemic has caused my already small life to become even smaller? Our brains like novelty so much that they grow (neurogenesis) when stimulated with novel stimuli and environments – now my only source of novelty comes from reddit.
I am consciously trying to reverse my shortening attention span. I borrowed a couple of fiction books from the library through suggestions on r/suggestmeabook. I have read so much non-fiction in an attempt to heal myself in the past few years that I have simultaneously become deeper, wider and yet duller. Fiction stimulates our ability to imagine, and non-fiction gives us doses of reality that sometimes can be frankly quite depressing.
I haven’t been able to listen to music purely like my younger days, when I could pop in a CD and play it on repeat like twenty times without doing anything else. But listening to music while washing dishes have made a chore seem a lot more bearable and it has even gotten somewhat enjoyable. I sing along, and my soul feel cleansed afterwards, as though I’ve been through a session of therapy.
Running and cycling helps too. Exercise is the only extended time in my day when I am without a screen. I am gradually getting aware of my brain being in a very different space when I run. It can finally stop reacting to information overload.
Isn’t it weird that I am aware that I am in more optimal mental states when I am not with a screen, and yet without conscious effort to force myself to do things like exercise, I can’t stop being with a screen? Nothing is stopping me from sitting still at home for an hour or so without a screen. Yet I succumb hopelessly to it, so sometimes I will myself to exchange a very interactive phone screen to a not very interactive e-reader eink screen. A book is basically still loading information except at a much slower rate than say social media. But my brain is already addicted to the high velocity of information that the internet provides.
I think I use information to soothe myself. I used books when younger, and the internet felt like books on steroids. Consuming information is an easy way to feel busy, or to escape the current world. But it creates a gaping hole that becomes harder to fill as time goes by, and in the aftermath it leaves an unpleasant sort of emptiness. Like any addiction.
There were periods when I was doing well with meditation, but the paradox of meditation is that it is something that is extremely valuable in times of stress, but also the most difficult to do. With stress hormones coursing through my body, it is so much faster and easier to reach for food instead of trying to sit still and not go berserk with unnamed anxiety. Something always inevitably break the momentum of my newly formed meditation habit, and it is always hard to get back into it. I can’t even get myself to read a book, much less meditate.
I feel like part of it is because we are leading compressed, uneven, imbalanced lives now. We don’t feel safe, there are tons of things we cannot do, and there are people we haven’t met in ages. Some of us are robbed of potential and opportunities as everything is in a standstill and borders are closed. It is also chronic mental fatigue because the situation is not abating.
Our psyche, our person wants to be whole, and yet we can only be fed piecemeals here and there. When there is a lot of tending needed, it is difficult to thrive. Just like a hungry person will eat anything even if it is unhealthy, we can’t expect hungry people to consciously choose a healthy diet.
I tell myself the journey is not linear, and I can’t expect to go from zero to one. So I keep picking up my book, hoping I’ll turn a few more pages each time before checking my phone, and one day perhaps I’ll be willing to let music feed my soul once again without any other distractions.