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School’s call to unplug welcomed by some, unanswered by others

Clark University senior Lila Milukas participated in her first qigong class as part of the school’s Day of Slowing. Clark University senior Lila Milukas participated in her first qigong class as part of the school’s Day of Slowing. (Ellen Harasimowicz for The Boston Globe)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 7, 2010

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WORCESTER — They posted quotes around campus from Henry David Thoreau. Meditation groups discussed Buddhist techniques of emptying the mind and overcoming attachment. Some sipped organic tea or took knitting and crocheting classes. The dean took off his shoes and socks and led students in qigong, a traditional Chinese breathing exercise to promote awareness of body and mind.

Still, no matter how much administrators at Clark University sought to promote their Day of Slowing — 24 hours without texting or checking Facebook or listening to an iPod — nearly every student in the academic commons of the main library yesterday was either talking on a cellphone, checking e-mail on a laptop, or otherwise connected to a digital device.

A few feet from a group downing herbal tea and discussing the difficulties of disconnecting, Jeremy Weyl, a 22-year-old graduate student, stood out as a model of apostasy, gabbing on a cellphone while tapping on his laptop, with earbuds plugged into the music port of his computer.

“I totally admit that some of this is an addiction,’’ said Weyl, reluctantly acknowledging sending several text messages and even more e-mails.

The Day of Slowing was sparked by new research that has shown how our brains are increasingly affected by the technology we use to get through the day, making it harder to focus. Some of the research has suggested that there are benefits to unplugging.

With that in mind, Sarah Buie, director of the Higgins School of Humanities at Clark, began planning the Day of Slowing, which she hoped would make students more aware of their relationship with technology as well as what they miss while stuck in their electronic bubbles.

“The only way for them to see that is to withdraw from the technology for a bit,’’ she said. “At least a certain part of American society is moving at a speed that is negative for our bodies and minds. I think when we slow down, our attention becomes more acute and we can become more aware of our senses.’’

As she spoke, her husband, Walter Wright, dean of the college, kicked off his shoes and led a group of seven students through qigong, while wearing a tie.

“It’s all about relaxation,’’ Wright told the students as they followed him, reaching skyward and making figure eights with their hands as they stretched to the ground.

Afterward, Yelena Finegold, a 19-year-old sophomore, said she felt tingly.

“It was good to feel the flow of energy in my limbs,’’ she said.

Adam Liptak, a 19-year-old freshman, said he was inspired to start a tai chi club. He said he wore special pants without pockets to keep him from reaching for his phone constantly, but he still kept it close by in his backpack. He said he sends and receives about 25 text messages a day.

“It’s weird not feeling my phone in my pocket, which is a problem,’’ he said. “It bothers me that I’m so dependant on my phone.’’

At the tea group in the academic commons, John Sarrouf, assistant director of the program that organized the slow day, said he relished the opportunity to talk to people face to face.

“I spend all day in a small office sending e-mails, and, really, I could be anywhere,’’ he said. “It’s nice to be able to share a smile with someone.’’

Elsewhere on the 123-year-old campus with 3,000 students, there were yoga sessions, walks through the rain, and gay students sharing stories about how they came out.

At the Higgins University Center, Faye Terry, a 19-year-old sophomore, stopped to use a graphite pen to draw her hand on a board set up for the day. The goal was to heighten her awareness of the creases and contours of her left hand, while not looking at what her right hand was drawing.

Like many others, she acknowledged carrying her phone and sending about five text messages earlier in the day. She needed the phone to arrange a study session.

“It’s not like I can send a carrier pigeon,’’ she said. “We need technology to accomplish what we’re expected to accomplish.’’

Then there were those who flaunted their obliviousness to the Day of Slowing. Lamar Duffy, a 21-year-old junior, sat in front of a laptop in the academic commons, a BlackBerry at his side, within eyeshot of the disconnected.

He said he could not remember the last time he shut down. It had been years, he said, since he went without using his cellphone or posting a message on Twitter or Facebook, which he does religiously. He said he sends and receives about 50 text messages a day.

“I like to be connected,’’ he said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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