“Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” – Susan Sontag
The massive breach of Facebook data has prompted people to delete their accounts or consider it. For some, going cold turkey works. For others, a gradual approach to changing online habits might make more sense.
My own relationship with Facebook began with skepticism and ambivalence. In 2008, I relocated to Colorado. One of the first people I met, via a Craigslist ad when I was looking for a place to live, was a hip, sexy, stylish woman who was not shy about sharing intimate details in live conversation (and, also, virtually). She touted the virtues of the online platform which I, a privacy loving luddite, couldn’t get my head around. Unlike her, I did not want to broadcast all of my opinions and expose my sex life. As more and more people I knew joined, I opened an account. Still, I waded rather than plunged into this new world. I did not proactively “friend” everyone I had ever known. When a college acquaintance, someone I’d not been in touch with in years, uploaded a photo from my freshman year and tagged me, I was shocked he hadn’t asked my permission to post my (dorky) likeness. I requested that he remove it, even though that made me an uncool, online party pooper. I also ignored Facebook’s irritating and pesky reminders to provide my cell phone number to improve the “security” of my account. I didn’t list my hometown or fill in my work history. I didn’t use Facebook to “check in” anywhere because, as an introvert, broadcasting my whereabouts felt bizarre. A few friends chided me for not sharing snippets of my life in real time, as if sharing Right! Now! is better than after the fact. After I briefly experimented with Facebook and Messenger on my iPhone (another ambivalent acquisition), I deleted the apps.
Still, despite periodic “Facebreaks” of a week to 10 days, I remained on Facebook because it allowed me to stay in touch with far flung friends and family, keep abreast of events in the community, participate in specific discussion groups and find opportunities to share my writing. Despite my efforts to keep Facebook from knowing too much about me, the platform still became part of my habits to a startling if not alarming degree. For example, I created themed albums to which I could upload images, which many of my friends enjoyed and commented on. That my iPhone allowed me to take a picture and seamlessly share it to Facebook, even without the Facebook app, meant I did not have to think too much about what I was doing. Knowing I had a specific album already created made it more likely I’d snap a photo to add to that virtual collection. What began as quirky and spontaneous self-expression, firmly rooted in being present, had gradually morphed into autopilot, with my attention traveling along ruts that social media and the smart phone helped me dig. That this example is not particularly egregious or salacious does not mean it isn’t serious. To a certain extent I had sacrificed alertness and clarity by allowing my attention to be hijacked by dopamine-triggering social media, accessible through a handheld device. The loss of control over attention, both my own and of those around me, concerned me far more than the potential loss of my privacy.
The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education offers a much needed antidote to a world that extracts not just personal data but our attention, perhaps our most valuable resource as individuals in an increasingly complex world. As Zen teacher Cheri Huber tirelessly repeats, “The quality of our lives is determined by the focus of our attention”. The Awareness Through Movement lessons developed by Israeli engineer and Judo master Moshe Feldenkrais are carefully designed to gently redirect our attention to the subtleties of our bodies, which we often stop sensing when our eyes are glued to a screen or in the habit of constantly checking notifications. Reconnecting to ourselves gives us a greater capacity to chart our own course and make healthier choices rather than following the herd or the latest trend. Of the dozens of Feldenkrais lessons I’ve done in recent years, some of the most revitalizing and invigorating have involved lying quietly on the floor and moving my eyes in tiny, almost imperceptible ways. It’s easy for us to forget that, as mammals, our eyes have a huge influence on how, and how well, we function. If our eyes spend too much time in one position, or moving in a limited range, the rest of us can begin to feel stuck.
In his book Awareness Through Movement, Moshe Feldenkrais included among the 12 movement lessons one that is plainly titled: The Movement of the Eyes Organizes the Movement of the Body (click here for a recording of this lesson by Nick Strauss-Klein). Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy a large proportion of the cortex (roughly 30%), which is why creating opportunities for our eyes to move in non-habitual ways can have such a profound effect on the brain, the nervous system and a sense of wellbeing. It’s also no wonder many online platforms, advertisers and apps compete for our attention via our eyeballs, using sophisticated algorithms, bright colors and appealing graphic designs to first hook us visually, with the body following. Have you noticed how many people stoop or tilt their heads down when consulting their phones?
Learning to reclaim our eyes and our attention can be a first step in deciding whether to #DeleteFacebook or become more conscious about how we interact with it. I have not unplugged completely but I have installed “Social Fixer”, an app which gives me more control over what appears in my newsfeed and allows me to customize the screen to remove distractions. I have also unfollowed many people. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “When you know what are you doing, you can do what you want.” As the data breach revealed, many of us did not know what we were doing. The good news is, by learning to redirect our attention, we can change our habits.