Monkey Mind, Monkey Run

I’ve been thinking all week about external validation, beyond the likes and blog comments and more into  (what I used to believe was) my non-digital life. Most days I struggle to walk away from my keyboard. After all, that’s where my livelihood (such as it currently is) resides—writing, school, job applications. To counteract all of this screen time, I’ve been trying to push away and spend at least an hour each day running. I was on the massage table the other day, telling my massage therapist about my last blog, recounting for her how I thought that running so much these past two months had significantly calmed my annoying physical symptoms of the past year. I told her how good it was for me to spend that hour each day away from the computer screen and out of my head. Then I mentioned in that offhanded manner that so often carries the weight of truth that I run with my iPhone because my phone is where my Nike app lives along with my running music and my Fitbit app.

“So, you’re not really getting away from the external validation,” she noted.

“I don’t answer the phone and I don’t check my blog stats when I run,” I said, a little miffed, before adding, “Usually.” Slowly I began to see her point.

As I run through the miles, my iPhone via the Nike app, tells me how far I’ve run and at what pace.  My Fitbit vibrates when I hit 10,000 steps for the day (generally by the time I’m done with my daily run). I listen to a playlist of music and when Florence and the Machine comes on with Dog Days, I know that I’m nearing the two mile mark and that about 20 minutes—give or take half a minute—have gone by. I know then I have about 30 minutes left. I know the first of the Lady Gaga songs come on around mile four, and I know that if I’m still running when The Band starts playing that I’m closing in on mile five. I know if I’m running better than I did the day before. Hell, I even know if I’m running better (or worse) than the average of my last seven runs. On good days when I’ve finished running and before I stretch, I’ll even post my run results to Facebook with a comment along the lines of “nailed it bitches!”

“What would happen if you ran without your phone?” the massage therapist asked me and then answered her own question. “You’d be able to hear the birds.”

“I’d just hear myself huffing and wheezing,” I countered. “And I’d lose miles. My averages would plummet.” As soon as I uttered those words I knew I had a problem, or, in the parlance of the mindful and aware, I knew I had something I might want to pay attention to, something to look at.

She laughed when I said I’d lose miles. Absurd, right? Of course I wouldn’t be losing the miles—my body, my health would still benefit, clearly. But would I be able to tolerate not documenting my progress? Would I be able to derive the same pleasure from running if I couldn’t compare today’s run with yesterday’s?  And how would it be to run without music? Would I be faster or slower? Could I stand to listen to just my own heavy breathing? I’m not sure I can. I’m not even sure if I want to, but I’m interested in taking a closer look at the whys of the situation. I’m interested in noticing.

I’m interested in noticing because when I pay attention, I can begin to make more conscious choices about this one life I’ve been allotted. On the surface these choices seem trivial: whether I run with or without music, with or without digital feedback on my performance, with or without compiling and parsing each mile. But are they really insignificant or are they indicative of a larger problem? Even as I type this piece I can’t refrain from flipping back to the Internet, to Facebook, to my email. I cannot focus just on this bit of writing for any sustained period. I don’t know if my monkey mind is getting worse or I’m just noticing it more, but I’m beginning to worry that I’m not paying close enough attention in other areas of my life, that being easily distracted could be taking a toll on my relationship and my career (or lack thereof), on my desire to be a writer. Is this inability to focus on just one thing at a time without soliciting feedback and validation getting in my way?

For one of the psychology classes I’m taking this quarter, I had to read about and then write a page and a half paper on BF Skinner—I had to pick out my favorite theory of his, write a paragraph on said theory and then find a related online source to write about that had to do with my favorite Skinner theory. I started this exercise thinking I wasn’t a big fan of Skinner—I think (or used to think) that behaviorism was reductionist and limiting. After all, behavior modification techniques did not work at all when I tried to use them on my kids. My kids could give a flying fuck if they got a gold star on a refrigerator chart. I came out of my active parenting years with the firm belief that nature will always triumph over nurture. But, a funny thing happened on the way to writing my Skinner paper—I started connecting the dots. Duh. I remembered a book I had purchased but only partially read a few years ago, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I looked Mr. Carr up on youtube and listened to him read from and discuss his book at the Harvard University bookstore.

If Carr is correct (and I do believe he is), the Internet really is changing the way our brains work. My brain has been changed to actually need to push the levers at Twitter and Facebook, to peck away at my email icon. All of this screen time is rewiring my grey matter, new neural pathways are being formed based on Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory. I have been trained to push the levers just like the lab rats. Nike and Fitbit, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Google are delivering enough random little doses of oxytocin to keep me coming back for more.

Now that I have this awareness, what am I to do? Initially, I’ve decided to just be aware, to simply notice (is it obvious yet that I’m taking a mindfulness class?). When do I press the levers? What distracts me? Do I feel better or worse if I stop writing and check an empty inbox? What do those Facebook likes and new Twitter followers mean to me? Does my self worth rise and fall with my stats? Why? And maybe most importantly, am I engaged in meaningful and purposeful relationships outside of these places? Am I moving forward, toward my goals for the next year, the next five years?

This afternoon I thought briefly about leaving my phone and earbuds behind when I headed out for my run. After all, I knew the run from my front door to Boulevard Park and back again is just over five miles. I don’t need iTunes to mark my distance. But, I do know that I seem to be in a running groove right now that works for me. I am aware enough to know I don’t want to fix something that’s not broken. I’m getting fit. My pants are getting looser. My body feels great. I LIKE having Macklemore, JayZ, and Rhianna in my head. Screw the birds–S & M motivates me. Today I chose to run with the technology in place. Tomorrow I may decide differently. Tonight I will decide if I want to read a book or spend my time before sleep anxiously checking online stats. I’m leaning toward the book. I’ll let you know what actually happens.

15 thoughts on “Monkey Mind, Monkey Run

  1. Facebook and Twitter have changed the game for digital multitasking. I used to click over to my email for short brain breaks from writing, but now I get truly distracted. I can’t turn it off. When I don’t have wifi, I feel like I can’t write… even when i don’t need to research something. It’s changed my brain and not for the better.

    1. It’s starting to really disturb me. I feel the same way and I shouldn’t need wifi to write–that’s just crazy. It’ll be really interesting to see how I can curb this when I start school next month–it’s not an issue with the short papers I have to write now, but next quarter it’ll be a whole new ballgame.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this stuff ever since reading your Monkey Brain piece. I have become totally addicted to my tech. As we discuss our spring break plans, where there will be NO wifi… I almost sweat. As others tell me I don’t need to bring my laptop, I can’t help but find arguments to defend my need… Ok,so maybe I can write without wifi, but how will I know what’s happening else where? And, if I don’t post it, is it real? That seemed like a joke, a while back… now I wonder. This is another truly thought provoking piece, Pam. Pushing my buttons… ugh.

    1. Oh Dawn, what am I here for but to push your buttons 🙂 Glad to do it. Seriously though–spring break without wifi? Like Kari said, it’s getting tough to write without it and what’s that about? Also, another friend said that just because we notice something doesn’t mean we have to fix it–being aware is good. Acting out of awareness. Thinking, always. Being conscious. Thanks for reading! xo

      1. While I know we don’t have to change things we are aware of, it’s much easier when we’re in denial… once I really start thinking about something, I feel a push to work through it. This attention thing is definitely troubling sometimes. Strange how I’ll walk out of a café that doesn’t have wifi, when I went there to write! Seriously? Ok, resume pushing… 😉 xo

  3. Really connected with this one, Pam. When I was a runner in Mexico, my Walkman blasting Maná was critical. The bass thwomp beats were so energizing that sometimes I felt like I could run forever. But that was then. Simple technology, way before the tsunami that now slams down on us daily and has become way more than just a collection of tools. It’s undeniably shaping us and our world in ways we can only imagine. Sometimes it feels a lot like drowning.

    1. True, true Susan. It is a tsunami. I’ve read a number of articles in just the past 48 hours on just this subject–people who are getting offline, ditching their social media accounts, limiting their email check-ins, etc. It’s going to be fascinating to watch (she said as she was wearing her Fitbit, charging her iPhone, and working on her iPad @AWP).

      1. Ha! And I watched videos on watercolor all day in bed since I have food poisoning! When my computer crashed this last time in MX, I had a three week vacation from the tech scene. At first I completely panicked, but by the end of the day, life was something lived, not watched on a screen and conversations were spoken, not read. It was Nirvana! A short one, but who can forget?

  4. So I have never responded to a blog before…10 years ago I didn’t know what one was. Did they exist then? I used to run, in those younger days, probably 4-5 miles. I did it to releive the stress of having 3 kids and a marriage which wasn’t working, but I didn’t know why. Of course there was none of the tech stuff you refer to, but I dutifully logged the date and my time for the run and commented on how I felt after the run. So was that really any different? I do know that while running my mind was at its creative best.
    So I am slowly making my way through your posts. Fun reading and percetive writing. And guess what…long before I knew Sue and I would move here from VT, we were at the same Indigo girls concert.
    If you don’t know who is writing to you, think Linda L. and the writing date a few weeks ago at the Colophon Cafe.

    1. Linda–Of course I know who you are . . . thanks for reading and commenting. I am also at my creative best while running–just need a pad and pen with me! I think being away from the tech and day to day stuff frees my mind. As for keeping stats, I guess it all depends on what I want to accomplish. I’m not running a marathon–not yet anyway–so are the stats important? Maybe, if they motivate me, they are.

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