The birthday of the United States (a.k.a. The Fourth of July) is right around the corner.
Americans will spend the day celebrating our independence with fireworks, cookouts, and being with family.
Yet, most of us will still be dependent…and not just a little dependent…very dependent.
I am referring to our dependence on technology, specifically the phone and the Internet.
Being “connected” (via our phone or computer) has become our number one source of stimulation, yet it is also our downtime.
Being “connected” is our work, yet it is also our play.
Being “connected” is how we use time more efficiently, yet it is also how we kill time.
Being “connected” is how we associate, yet it is also how we detach.
Being “connected” is just a way of life…like eating and sleeping; it’s just what we do.
Oh yes, indeed.
Now at this point, some of you are probably thinking, “I know people like that, but that is not me; I don’t have a problem with excessive use of my phone or the Internet.”
I ask that you continue reading, for three reasons:
1) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for awareness.
2) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for improvement.
3) On the Hands Free journey, you often discover you’ve been missing something.
Which is exactly what happened to me.
Despite the fact that I have spent almost an entire year reducing both external and internal distraction in my life, I was still missing a major piece of the grasping what matters puzzle.
And I didn’t even realize it.
This is my story…
Several weeks ago, my daughter got an aquarium for her eighth birthday. You might remember the post, “Tipping The Scales,” which explained how she chose to forgo gifts and a birthday party to become a full-fledged ichthyologist.
The aquarium was brought home a few days before her birthday and my husband was kind enough to assist her in the complicated set-up process. Granted, my daughter had done extensive research about the fish themselves, but there were many things she had yet to learn about creating an environment that would keep them alive.
Yes, come to find out, fish are fragile; they die easily…especially in the first initial hours of their new tank.
Are you kidding me? All this trouble, and there’s still a 99% chance they will die.
The young salesman at the fish store was wealth of knowledge, but the more he talked about purifiers, filtration systems, bacteria, residual ozone, ammonia, and waste, the more I dreamed about the simplicity of a cute, cuddly cat.
As you can probably tell by now, I am not really into creatures that do not have fur. If I am going to put forth time, effort, and money into keeping something alive, I want to be able to hold it and cuddle with it. (Call me crazy.)
But my daughter had chosen fish with every ounce of her being. And through every Fish List she created and every fish fact she rattled off, I Saw Promise. I saw her grasping her own Hands Free version of “what really matters,” even though it was not my version of what really matters.
But that did not mean I was going to clean the aquarium.
In fact, I wasn’t really planning on having much to do with the fish at all. That was her dad’s “thing,” so I kindly stepped aside and allowed that “bonding experience” to occur.
So as overpriced necessary aquarium supplies to the eager learners, my youngest daughter and I ventured to the other side of the pet store where animals with fur were located.continued to educate and suggest
Three hours later we were home, standing in front of our very own aquarium. The water had been treated and the fish had been freed from their bags. (Don’t freak out, Fish Advocates of the World, this was after the bags had been properly “floated.”)
I really can’t tell you what was happening in the fish tank because my focus was on the faces of my children.
Pure and utter joy…
Delight and amazement…
Wonder and bliss…
Happiness…good old-fashioned happiness…
If grasping what really matters had an expression, I think it might look like this…
I was so grateful that I had not allowed my aversion of slimy, furless creatures to prevent this moment from occurring.
(But I still was not about to change my mind about cleaning the tank.)
Within a few hours of the aquarium coming to life, our leather ottoman had a new location. It was no longer situated in front of the chair with which it matched. It had a new home directly in front of the fish tank, which happened to be in the natural walkway of our family room. (I know because I tripped over it not once, but twice, while walking through late at night and have a large bruise on my shin to prove it.)
When I decided to leave the ottoman in its new location, I had a mini Hands Free celebration in my head. These are the moments when I know I am making progress in my effort to let go of distraction (and perfection) to grasp what really matters.
I refer to these momentous achievements as, “Hands Free Baby Steps.”
In years past, having the ottoman in front of the fish tank would have bugged me. I would have to push it back to its proper place time and time again. Now, it doesn’t bother me at all. OK, maybe a tiny bit. Well, let’s just say, I can live with it. And that’s progress.
But there’s more…
What is even greater progress than allowing the ottoman to remain in front of the fish tank is the fact that I find myself sitting there. A lot.
I find myself sitting there when the children are not even around.
I find myself sitting there when I have many things to do.
I find myself sitting there when I was originally on my way to doing something else.
I find myself JUST sitting there (and not because I am checking to make sure my “furless friends” are still alive, although I do that, too).
That, my friends, is unusual behavior for me….sitting, that is.
And for the first time in probably several years, I am sitting there thinking about nothing. And when I mean nothing, I mean I am not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, or two hours from now. There is no thought of the past or the future; I am in the NOW.
I am completely lost in the motion of the colorful fish, their tiny tails effortlessly flittering them from one side of the tank to the other.
And as they are suspended in serenity, I watch their little mouths open and their delicate gills flutter. How calming it is to watch fish breathe.
At times, I even find it hard to pull myself away from this captivating presentation of beautiful nothingness.
I felt the need to explain this atypical behavior to myself. I was convinced that I must have just embraced the fish (as much as you can embrace anything without fur, that is).
But then I was enlightened.
Several kind readers of my blog sent me a link to an article on CNN.com entitled, “Does life online give you ‘popcorn brain’?” by Elizabeth Cohen.
I would strongly suggest reading the whole article, but here I will share two lines that were particularly powerful for me:
“The worry is that life online is giving us what researcher, David Levy, calls ‘popcorn brain’ –– a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.”
And then this line, “We can’t just sit quietly and wait for a bus, and that is too bad because our brains need that down time to rest, to process things.”
The article goes on to explain how long-term Internet usage can actual cause physical changes in the stucture of our brain. And not in a good way.
Oh my. Popcorn brain. That term is disturbing to me…but a frighteningly accurate description of my thinking process in my waking hours.
In my spare moments, which are far and few between, I do feel a need to check my phone or the Internet to see what’s been “happening” while I have been away.
And even though I have been putting forth more and more effort to live in the moment and focus the precious people that stand before me, my mind still has the tendency to wander, to be in “planning mode,” even when I am still.
So I ask myself: When DOES my brain have a chance to rest?
I could only think of one place.
When I am sitting in front of the fish tank.
No wonder I keep finding myself there.
After I had a few days to process the “Popcorn Brain” article and consider my severe negligence of resting my brain, I found myself thinking about my dad.
I still have vivid memories from my middle school years of my dad’s after work tradition.
Dad would change out of his office attire, then he would go to the formal sitting room of our house and lie down on the floor in complete silence. (The carpet was actually lime green, which alone is a fact not easily forgotten.)
My dad’s hands would rest upon his chest, yet he would not close his eyes. He would just simply lie there and think.
As an easily annoyed thirteen-year-old, I found his habit odd; I thought it was very weird. It looked like the most boring activity in the whole world. I honestly could not fathom what he could possibly be thinking about, and why he had been doing this for as long as I could remember.
Even now when he comes to visit my family for a weeklong stay, there is always a time period each afternoon where I see him sitting in a comfy chair on my back porch. I assume he is asleep, but he’s not. He is awake. His eyes are blinking. He is watching the trees in the ravine behind my house. He is listening to the birds perched upon the deck. And he has the most content, peaceful smile on his face, just like they did twenty years ago when he stretched himself out on the lime green carpet.
And now I know.
He’s resting his brain.
He’s processing life.
And I am not questioning that behavior anymore. You won’t catch me calling it “weird” or “strange.”
Because he is the only 72 year-old I know who looks like he’s younger than 50.
He is as sharp as a tack.
He is of healthy body, mind and soul.
He is focused, relaxed, and engaged.
He is “with it.”
And if there is anyone who has lived his life epitomizing the meaning of grasping what really matters, it is my dad.
There’s something to be said for being independent of technology, cell phone usage, daily distraction, and mental stimulation…even if it is only for a few minutes each day.
Giving your brain a rest creates a pause. And in that pause you can catch your breath.
Because we all know what happens we stop breathing.
We stop living.
Just ask a fish.
Are you interested in having some independence from distraction and mental stimulation? I am, too. As members of The Hands Free Revolution, let’s make Independence Day truly a day of independence.
This Fourth of July, turn off your computer, shut down your phone. Give your brain a rest.
Feed fish in the lake…
Catch a lightning bug in your hand…
Stare into the light of a sparkler….
Look into the eyes of a loved one…
Watch a gorgeous sunset…
Feel the rain on your face…
Take a moment to rest your mind, body and soul. Because the most restorative breaths are the ones taken in the pauses of life.
*If you think this is a worthy message, please share it. In your hands, this message has the chance to make July 4th truly a day of independence for many.