Welcome to Examined Life, our new column that explores the intersection between politics, culture, and living mindfully in the Bay Area and beyond.
EXAMINED LIFE Do you remember the last time you stepped out into nature or simply had a moment of silence to reflect on what it means to be alive? First, you felt this all-encompassing awe and wonder. Then, the sobering recognition that this feeling is the exception, not the rule, in our daily lives. That’s because we have all lost our minds. Of course, humans have been losing their minds since forever. The problem is that we’ve now lost the places to which we once went to recollect them. We’ve lost our sacred spaces.
Sacred spaces are places where we go to be alone with our thoughts and feelings, and contemplate the wonder of existence; spaces where we gather with other human beings to revel in artistic expression or natural beauty; spaces where we break bread together, and gather to share our troubles and delights. The hiking trail, the dinner table, the arts venue, and the road trip—places that were once sacred—are all abuzz today with texting, checking in, and posting.
I hiked a volcano in Hawaii this year and had reception in the crater. Every time I go to a local live music venue, half the crowd is viewing the show through small rectangular screens. Recently, I attended a silent meditation retreat where I was surprised to see that many participants, once careful to leave their electronics at home or in the car, now had to be coerced by staff to surrender their devices in a bizarre faux-spiritual ritual. Just five years ago, I’d walk into the room to teach a yoga class in San Francisco, and the students would be on their yoga mats, quietly waiting for class to start. They still are, but now they’re on their yoga mats checking Facebook.
As individuals, we’re not to blame. The human mind is fragile and easily misdirected by shiny, alluring, temporarily pleasurable distractions. Our devices have been engineered to fit the bill perfectly. Basically, we’re addicted—and we all know it. (Bay Area musician Cello Joe even wrote a hilarious song about it.) But what does this addiction mean, for our minds and for the future?
Addiction, as you know, is a relationship with an activity or substance that we can’t break without serious difficulty. But though addiction is hard to end, it begins quite simply: We experience a very human feeling of discomfort—like loneliness, anxiety, or run-of-the-mill ennui—and we reach for some kind of balm or distraction. When we’re in an emotionally healthy space, we may self-soothe with community, nature, art, or exercise. Or, if we practice mindfulness, we may learn to tolerate the discomfort without reaching for anything. But if our nervous systems are taxed or we don’t have immediate access to healthy emotional relief, we reach for a quick fix. Dopamine.
Dopamine is a happy-feeling neurotransmitter that is awesome at taking our minds off our present heartbreak or existential crisis du jour. This chemical is necessary for our brains, and is released during profound and deeply rewarding experiences through a slow and steady pathway. However, it is also released in intense and short-lasting bursts during activities or substances that offer immediate gratification. When we receive dopamine as this quick fix, we come down hard and fast, and then feel agitated until we get more. Over time, as a result of these repeated quick bursts, we desensitize to dopamine and need more and more of it to feel good—or even normal.
This is how major addictions like alcohol or gambling get going. But it also explains why, according to a recent study by a research company Dscout, the average person engages with their smart phone 2,600 times a day. While obsessive emailing and googling won’t ruin our lives the way heroin will, the addictive mechanism is similar. Our brains have been hijacked by a cyclic chemical process of which we are not in control; in essence, we have lost our minds.
In addition to temporarily hijacking our minds, another unfortunate result of this process is that, over time, it changes the brain and distorts our memory. The result: We literally forget other less immediately intense, but more meaningful and lasting, ways to access pleasure. So, we’re not intentionally disregarding those sacred spaces we once had. We’ve actually forgotten the point of them. In our inebriated states, we can’t see any reason to protect them.
But it’s essential that we do.
Smart phone addiction poses a very special kind of problem for those affected (i.e., most of us) because device abstinence is simply not an option for most people. Our phone, as you’ve likely noticed, is not just a phone—it’s our whole life in digital form, and it’s very hard to logistically do without. According to a recent study by Hackermoon, only about 50 percent of phone time is used for texts and calls. The rest of the time, we do questionably useful things (like watch videos, engage with social media, and play games), as well as essential and practical things (like get directions, send emails, track our bank accounts, pull up our boarding passes, and even, ironically, meditate). For the first time in history, all of the facets of our entire lives—the necessary along with the potentially addictive—are completely interwoven. So, while you might nobly desire to curb your dopamine-spiking social media-posting habit, you still need to use your calendar. Since it’s all in one place, it’s nearly impossible to visit the calendar without also visiting social media. And then you’re back in the loop of distraction.
There’s really only one antidote to this insanity, and that is the practice of discernment. This is the art of intentional choice-making, and it has played a major role in every great social and spiritual movement since the dawn of time. To practice discernment, we have to orient not to the short-term pleasure an activity might yield but instead to the long-term more profound benefits of any given action. Healthful eating over ice cream, the fragile life of the planet over quick financial gains, our long-term relationships over short-lived affairs: These are all acts of intentionality, not impulse. In this way, discernment is at odds with addiction because it is less about an immediate dopamine reward, and more about living a meaningful life.
The practice of discernment is essential to protect our sacred spaces, which are, in turn, the best places to develop deeper discernment because we can notice, in those spaces, how awesome it feels to be free. Quiet, tech-free spaces give us access to the most essential parts of ourselves; if we lose these spaces forever, we’ll eventually forget what it is that we have lost, and thus have no hope of recovering it. We must establish times and places where we simply turn off technology (both the useful and the pleasure-seeking aspects). Think of it as rehab or detox for your mind. And if that doesn’t sound attractive, think of it as a time to dream and engage again with wonder and the infinitesimal space of consciousness that is your birthright.
Our lives are deeply interconnected, which means we are all responsible for creating these spaces together, whether it’s the dinner table, the retreat center, the basketball court, or the yoga studio. Create social contracts with friends, family, and colleagues to put technology aside for a meal, a meeting, or the whole weekend. Make the bold choice to leave your house without your phone when you’re walking your dog or going food shopping, and just be present to the mundane miracle of existence. Invest in a cheap flip phone (I have one for just this reason) that can be your emergency contact number, so you’ll have no excuse not to turn off your smart phone at night, at meals, or on your days off. Most importantly: When you make the choice to power down, notice how empowering it feels; the imprint of that feeling will encourage you to develop more discernment.
And remember that sacred space is not only an external construct. The space of your own mind is also sacred, and—with some effort—can be maintained even when we do use technology. This takes a different type of discernment. It means that each time you reach for the phone, you pause for a moment and check in to see if you actually need it. If you do, stay focused on that purpose and don’t allow yourself to be pulled into another app or screen. And if you don’t, consider reaching for something else. Like a feeling of freedom. Like the understanding that it’s okay to be exactly as you are in this moment—lonely, anxious, fatigued—without checking out in the digital abyss. Reach for space, itself, and then abide within it. In moments like these, saying no to technology is saying yes to your relationship with all things sacred, including yourself.