Examined Life

Examined Life: Reclaiming sacred spaces in the Digital Age

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.

Examined Life: The subtle power of ‘me too’

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 It seems like every day another wealthy, powerful man is in the headlines for harassing or straight-up assaulting multiple women, each scandal seemingly larger than the last. To male onlookers, it might seem like there’s been some weird upsurge in sexual violence perpetrated towards women in recent years. But women know that’s not the case. This stuff has been going on forever. The only difference is that now women—at least some of them—have enough power to report it and be taken seriously. On the one hand, we should be celebrating the little victories, like outing people like Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein. On the other hand, it feels like we’re slowly moving a huge boulder of silence and shame, and the result is an unearthing of millions of cockroaches. It’s gross and uncomfortable to watch it all.

Like many people, when I logged in to Facebook last Sunday, expecting the usual baby announcements and vacation photos, my feed was full of posts—by women I knew well, women I didn’t know well, and women I barely knew—all writing #metoo as their status. Some left it at just that, others created a visual meme, and others recounted disturbing stories of sexual harassment and assault. It took a moment to understand what was happening. Then, I felt a growing ache and rage inside. Was it possible that nearly every woman I know has been harassed or assaulted?

Emboldened by the bravery I was witnessing, I posted my own Me Too, sharing the multiple experiences of groping, objectification, stalking, and harassment to which I was prey both as an adolescent in New York and later as a grown woman in San Francisco. While it felt liberating at first to share my story, I soon became overwhelmed by the vulnerability of the action, the memories of the experiences, and some of the responses I was seeing (both to my post and elsewhere). The next day, I chose to delete it. I’m glad I shared it, but I couldn’t keep looking at it. And that means it still has a pull on me. It has a pull on all of us.

Me Too didn’t start as a hashtag. Social justice activist Tarana Burke got the idea for the movement in the mid1990s when she was a youth camp director in Brooklyn. After finding herself speechless upon hearing a camper’s horrific story of abuse, she realized that it was important for her to find a better way to connect with abuse survivors. This revelation led to her starting a movement in 2007 called Me Too, primarily focused on communities of color, in which survivors connected with one another through empathy.

This movement was recently amplified when, on October 15th, actress Alyssa Milano posted on Facebook a request that women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted write “Me Too” as a social media status. Within 24 hours, women chimed in from the US to Latin America to Pakistan. For about 48 hours, it was hard to see anything on social media but thousands upon thousands of Me Toos.

And then it all disappeared. In part, that’s a good thing—no sane woman can look at this stuff every day and keep on keeping on. But we should also be concerned. These stories are people’s traumas, and the first step to healing trauma is for the survivor to feel valued and heard, preferably for longer than a 24-hour news cycle.

Also somewhat concerning is that not everyone fully understood the point of Me Too. Many people were incredibly supportive, but some remarks from other women, while well-intentioned, missed the mark:
a) Why are we making this about women? Men are responsible for this behavior. They should be posting apologies rather than us outing ourselves!
b) Why are we saying all men are evil? Some men are great, like my husband and brother, for instance. #besthusband
c) Why are we bringing negativity into our lives? Let’s think positive, ladies!
d) This never happened to me but so sorry it’s happened to so many people. [sad face]

Here’s why these responses aren’t helpful:
a) Me Too is an empowering movement for survivors. Yes, it’s important that men, as a group, stand up and show support for the expression of these stories. But blaming and shaming men is not the point of Me Too. Absolving women from shame is.
b) Me Too is not saying that all men are evil. It’s not even saying that all abusers are evil. It is saying, however, that we live in a culture where objectification and assault are still widely acceptable. When you turn this issue into a platform to talk about your wonderful relationship, you lessen the healing power of Me Too.
c) Telling a trauma survivor to stop trippin’ on her trauma and get it together is an unskillful and potentially triggering response. Me Too is about being honored for your story, not criticized or minimized for it.
d) Cool, glad you’ve been one of the fortunate few who’s never been harassed or pawed, but voicing that in this context is Me Neither, not Me Too. (Also, it’s pity, which is not empowering.)

Me Too is about being heard and seen, believed, and supported. Much of that support comes from empathy. Empathy creates community. Community creates numbers. And numbers create organization and change. For many of the millions of women who posted Me Too, it was the first time they admitted that someone copped a feel, asked for a sexual favor, rubbed a penis up against them in a store, made an inappropriate comment about their body, or assaulted them on a date. That admission is a huge step and the most empowering immediate response, as Burke points out, is empathy from fellow survivors. The second most empowering response is a commitment from men to deepen their comprehension and re-attunement. (And I have seen a lot of just that, which is encouraging and moving.)

As a teacher in the yoga and mindfulness community in San Francisco, I am asked by women who are just starting to tell their stories of gender-based oppression and abuse how to reconcile this owning of their pasts with contemplative practice. They are pointing to an understanding of the Eastern religions that we are not our stories, that our stories are merely an aspect of ego mind, and that to be liberated, we must let go of our stories. And, sure, technically that’s true. But for most people, you have to come to terms with your past before you can release it. You can’t root out the cockroaches if you don’t unearth them—though they will be there regardless.

For most people, there’s not some super highway of enlightenment that takes you from trauma to nirvana overnight. You can’t transcend the self if you have a fractured sense of self in the first place. The work for many women (and all abuse survivors) is to develop that healthy sense of self, to learn how to love all of you, even your wounded parts. We need to tell our stories until we no longer need to tell our stories, and that will be when we feel fully heard.

I think of every brave woman who posted a Me Too story, most of them probably sitting alone at their computers, typing their heartbreak and fury onto a screen, desiring to be held by community and released from shame. In a recent tweet, Burke wrote that the Me Too movement was intended “to not only show the world how widespread and pervasive sexual violence is, but also to let other survivors know they are not alone.” She went on to call it “empowerment through empathy.” In other words, the empathy is part of the action. And it’s a part we can own. It reminds us we are in this together, and that makes it a superpower. I believe you. I see you. Me too.