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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I found the New York Times article “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” irritating. Like nails on a chalkboard.

RE: New York Times article “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” August 16, 2010 p. 1

I found the New York Times article “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” irritating. Like nails on a chalkboard.

We really need five neuroscientists to raft down the San Juan River to convince us that being off the grid changes the way we think? Really? We really need Mr. Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, to go camping for a week to determine that, “attention is the holy grail,” and that stepping away from our devices will increase our ability to pay attention and thus our intellectual capacity? Really? Have we as a nation so lost touch with nature and ourselves? Apparently!

(Aside: if you know any of these scientists or the reporter, could you please send them a copy of my first book God in the Wilderness? Direct them to chapter one.)

Any of the myriad of friends with whom I hike could have told you that. We’ve known for eons that when we walk in the wilderness, conversations easily delve to greater depths than they do when walking the same distance, at the same pace, on a city sidewalk, where are thoughts and conversations are interrupted by sirens, flashing lights, and car horns. Admittedly, my friends and I don’t know the complex scientific equations, but we have heard the song of stream water exuberantly tumbling over rocks, and heard the sound of the wind playing in the aspen leaves and we know that our brains feel different when we are out there.

We know time flows differently in the wild, where there are no vibrating cell phones or blackberries chirping their cheery15 minute warnings until the next meeting. Where you can leisurely talk with a friend and really listen, or notice the way the clouds change, or turn an idea over and over until you have an eureka moment.

A week off the grid is an amazing experience and an invigorating respite from our frenetic lives. But, how about incorporating a little bit of time every day away from email/ twitter/blogging/facebook? How about a day off once a week from the computer? (Note: we Jews call this second radical concept Shabbat.)

When I started writing my sixth book, I contemplated buying a new computer and only installing Microsoft Word. When I begin writing a new book, (ok, anytime I am writing) I tend to be tempted to check email, or check my bank account, or Skype etc.

Unlike the rafting neuroscientists, I can’t tell you which part of my brain processes email and which part writes books, but I can tell you, that when I am writing, if I check email, my writing day is shot. Something switches in my brain, it goes to a different place and I am no longer able to write.

When I am writing, a physically hand my Blackberry to my husband, lest I be tempted to check email. Don’t misunderstand: I want to check my email. I long to check my email because you never know what goodies will have arrived in my inbox. Bu if I check it, I will not be able to write.

Often, I leave my Blackberry behind when I hike. I let my husband and the children’s nanny know they will not be able to reach me. I tell them where I am going and when to expect me home. But I know myself too well. If I bring my Blackberry, I will check it as I hike and whatever messages come in will then take over my hike, distracting my attention me from the ideas I need to be processing as I hike. I do my best writing as I hike and to fretter away that creative time on email correspondence is silly.

My big weekly break from email is Shabbat. When Shabbat begins, I turn off my computer with the intention of being fully present in the Sabbath. I will admit that when my kids start crying about this or that and I no longer wish to fully present in Shabbat, that I am tempted to turn the computer back on. Email correspondences suddenly seem a far more peaceful pursuit than arguing with a two and a six year old!

But I persevere in my email silence. Not only does this free my mind from email clutter, but I think it is important for the members and participants of my community to realize they do not have 24/7 access to me.

I’m a big advocate of the electronic Sabbath. Try it for yourself and see how it goes. There are many different ways to wean yourself if cold turkey seems too brutal. Some people write emails but don’t send them. Other people read emails, but don’t write reply. Or, try two hours without checking in. Or one!

I have found it helpful to be aware of why I check email so often. I have noticed that many of our addictions to email are primarily driven by two things:
1. Boredom
2. Anticipating “more”

Let me explain.

1. Boredom: When my yoga teacher is 10 minutes late, rather than be annoyed that I left work early to get here on time and am now standing around waiting, I check email. Agita averted. (I could meditate, but that’s just not me.)

When my kids are at the playground and I am ready to go home but they insist on, “just one more time down the slide!” I check email. Agita averted.

So the amazing thing is, if I am in nature and have to wait 10 minutes, I don’t need to check my Blackberry. I look at the flowers or check out the bark texture. I climb a rock. I don’t know what that proves, but I am sure it is important. I’ll get back to you.

2. Anticipating “More:”
The Adventure Rabbi Program is primarily a web-based business. My days are spent hiking up trails through fields of wildflowers and also sitting at the computer answering email queries. Most of the 1,000s of emails I receive in a week are important but mundane. “What do I need to pack for the Rosh Hashanah retreat?” or, “Can my child possibly get into the Bar Mitzvah class even though it is full?” or, “Can one of your staff rabbis offiiciate at a baby naming next Tuesday?” But I also get really cool emails. Like from a publisher asking me to write another book, a funder making a large donation, or the USA Today asking me to fly out to Lake Tahoe for an interview. I never know what today’s email will bring. How much fun it is to check in, when each time the possibility is so exciting!

These days, I am hoping that Lisa Miller, religion editor from Newsweek will contact me. Maybe she did while I was writing that sentence. Should I check? I could just check quickly. I’ll be right back. I’m going to check.

She didn’t email but predictably, the creative muse has now gone away. Foiled again by my email addiction! I better go for a hike and leave my Blackberry here.

If you think I should build on this for a Rosh Hashanah sermon please let me know by posting a comment below


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