In 122 CE, Hadrian, the Roman emperor, drew a line in the sand, and set limits to the size of the Roman Empire.
This step was necessary as the Empire had become increasingly unwieldy to administer. Instead of throwing even more money, and yet more troops at the problem, as many suggested, Hadrian determined on a different solution.
Boundaries were marked around the Empire, and although the walls and defensive works that he ordered to be built, did serve a military purpose, the main idea seems to have been to control what came in, and what went out of the Empire.
For many of us, deciding what we allow into our inner world is a major problem.
We subject ourselves to a constant flow of information. The instant accessibility that comes with modern technology makes it difficult to say “No” to incoming data.
It is even harder to be selective about the quality of the information we feed our brains. Sorting out signal from noise is an ever increasing modern problem.
Too often, we confuse quantity for quality. There is a difference between a friend on Facebook, and one who we meet regularly for coffee and a chat. Too many of us seem to apply the same standards to the information that we allow into our minds. Kittens being cute, Russian drivers trying to kill themselves, or the latest celebrity gossip, all rate on a par with the latest advances in our field of interest.
Quantity seems to be what matters.
For many years we lived in a world of deference. People accepted what they were told, either reading it in the newspapers, or bt listening to the radio.
“The police wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty.”
With the arrival of television, and the playing out of news stories in real-time while we ate our supper, it became clear that much of the information that we were being told was inaccurate, or even deliberately biased.
This discovery led many people to become cynical, not only about the information they received, but also about what were previously seen as being unimpeachable sources.
Various “Whistle blower” episodes made it even easier for people to distrust governments and other official agencies. With greater experience it has become clear that many of these alternative information sources have their own agenda.
In such an environment of mistrust, it is even more important to monitor the information we choose to hear.
It is hard enough trying to judge the value of “official” information, when we also have to consider the constant influx of advertising, fashion hints, and the ubiquitous trickles of information that reach us – via our phone, or tablets – it is much harder to be aware of the effects that this sensory overload is having.
Every time we are interrupted, we have to pay an additional time penalty.
It is important to pay careful attention to the quality of the information we use, and how this affects what we choose to believe.
When we take a mindful, questioning approach to our sources, we are more likely to access a balance of the available information, and so will be better placed to make our own informed judgements about current events.
Unless we exercise a sensible degree of caution, the misinformation that is available, either through deliberate policy or inaccurate reporting, will result in our making significant errors of judgement, not only about relatively minor issues, but also about those that may have significant impact upon our lives, and those of our children.
Probably of greater significance, is the sheer volume of information we can access at the touch of a screen. Most of us check our smartphones as soon as we wake up in the morning, and continue to do so at regular, and increasingly frequent intervals throughout the day.
This is problematic because it affects our ability to focus and pay attention, and to concentrate for more than a few seconds at a time.
Every time we are interrupted, we have to pay an additional time penalty. It can take up to twenty minutes, depending on what are doing, to get refocused on the task at hand. If we are in the middle of a complex report, then it will take even longer to get back into the same concentrated state of mind that was present before the interruption.
We subject ourselves to a constant flow of information.
It is important that we remain mindful of our environment, particularly being aware that it offers a considerable degree of unwanted, and unecessary distraction. This is true not just so that we can maximise our productivity at work, but also so that we can use our leisure time to its greatest effective .
One of the things that helps to support mental health, is a state known as “Flow“. This occurs when we become fully engrossed in an activity. All of us have experienced this at times, particularly when we are doing a hobby, reading, playing or listening to music, or underaking some other challenging pastime that we find enjoyable.
When we are in a flow state time seems to pass without us noticing. It is the highly focussed and pleasurable state that accompanies these periods of concentration, that constitutes the flow experience.
Frequent interruptions make it impossible to enter a flow state. It is not only the interruptions that are problematic, but also their content that makes a significant contribution to our mental state, and to our sense of well-being.
When we access information, whether in the form of videos, pornography, violent computer games, cute kittens, or political opinions, they all influence our state of mind.
Research has highlighted significant concerns about the effects such content has on developing minds. Worries about this underlie the latest guidelines on the use of computer screens by young people.
One recent set of recommendations goes so far as to suggest that in young people under thirteen years of age, that “screens” should not be used at all, other than for purely academic purposes. The equivalent recommendation for people under eighteen years of age is for a maximum of two hours daily screen use.
Although much of the concern has been focused on young people, there is also evidence that this information overload is harmful to older people as well. The condition of Attention Deficit Trait has been well described elsewhere, and causes significant functional impairment in people of all ages. Fortunately when the causal information overload is brought under control it usually improves.
Our ability to pay focussed attention and to concentrate, needs to be carefully protected. This requires that we take active steps to “Guard the gates to the senses.” This is something that both promotes mindfulness and at the same time responds to our being mindful.
Decisions about what we allow into our world, and when we do so, can make a considerable difference.
1. Limit physical interruptions at work, even to the extent of doing important work off site. Ensure that all our electronic gadgets are switched off, browser windows closed, email shut.
2. Choose a sensible time to access social media, and limit our use to those times. No one dies if we don’t reply to posts, emails, status updates etc. For a couple of hours.
3. Take an “Internet Sabbath”. Put aside one day a week on which to live without screens. Ban phones and other electronics from the dinner table.
4. Many of the young people who we admit to hospital, are surprised to find that a screen-free environment allows them time, and space to live stres-free for a while. Many say they intend to limit their online presence after an admission.
5. Be discriminating about what we watch, and for how long. Read, talk or go out with friends instead.
Being mindful means we become more aware of cause and effect, and we can directly observe how our mood, thoughts, focus, and mental well being are affected by the choices we make.
Breaking the habit of 24/7 connectivity has positive benefits for most areas of our lives.
To misquote Timothy Leary: