In 2008, shortly after we moved from Los Angeles to Denver with our two-year old son, I adopted a weekly ritual in honor of the Jewish sabbath: to shut down my computer for twenty-four hours. This was before the era of smartphones and before I was pouring my energy into my online business daily, but even back then it was a weekly challenge to rip myself from the seductive distraction of the computer and literally shut it down. Now, with my increasing business demands and feeling chained to a second computer (my phone), it’s even more challenging to divest myself of the opportunity to check, scroll, write, text, and search but, with the exception of a few Saturdays a year when I start a new round of a course, I shut down from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. And, without fail, every time I shut down I feel a weight release from my soul, as if my inner Self knows that it’s being given a chance to come out from under the rock of technology and sing its own song.
When I’m working with a client who is having trouble connecting with his or her inner Self, one of the first suggestions I make is to take a phone fast. Can you shut down your technology for a 24 hours period each week? My clients will inevitably hem and haw and make all kinds of excuses for why that would be impossible: What if someone needs to reach me? (Get a landline and let me people know ahead of time that you’re shutting down your phone.) What if I need directions? (Use a map. A what? Or ask an actual person; see video below). What if someone makes a big announcement on social media? (You’ll survive learning about it the next day.) What if…? What if…? What if…? It’s astonishing to me how compelling – aka addictive – these devices can be. And it’s astonishing how quickly they’ve taken over our lives. In just a few short years we’ve gone from a world populated by people who knew how to use maps and send actual letters, a world where people considered “talking” the actual act of talking (as opposed to texting), and a world where time and space moved a bit more slowly, to a world completely and utterly dependent on phones.
I can’t tell how many times a week my clients tell me about the time they waste staring at their phones. Whether it’s social media, becoming sucked into a wild goose chase of click-and-bait, texting, or binging on Netflix, minutes easily turn to hours when we lose ourselves inside our phones. What are we looking for inside these tiny, and admittedly miraculous, devices? In a word, we’re looking for meaning. (I was going to write we’re looking for God but I know that would off-putting to many people; the search for meaning is really the same thing). We’re looking for something that will fill us up, a moment of connection, a thrill, a sense of adventure, an escape from the stream of uncomfortable feelings that pipe up through our souls like the notes of a water flute. We’re looking for an antidote to the disconnection and emptiness that pervade modern life. It’s profoundly ironic that in this age of global connectivity, when we can communicate with a friend on the other side of the world within seconds, we’re more disconnected than ever.
Hours lost. Time wasted. Falling into the cultural mindset that our well-being is anywhere other than inside of the miraculous computers of our own minds and the tender, full-bodied terrain of our own hearts with a soul inside waiting for expression.
What paintings might you create if you gave yourself twenty-four hours a week to create them? What poems might alight on the sill of your soul if you opened the windows long enough for them to enter? What dances might surprise you in your kitchen when, instead of checking your phone while making dinner, you put on music and let your body move? What conversations would you have with real people? How much more present might you feel with your partner, your friends, your children, yourself? Or perhaps you’ll join my son and I for one of our favorite nightly summer shows: the starry sky. No wi-fi necessary.
It’s not only creativity that is awaiting expression, it’s also the labyrinthian worlds of your emotional life. Most of us were raised in a culture that told us that crying is weak and so we learned to soldier on and “be strong”. We also learned to push away any uncomfortable feeling. When we make the choice to separate from the phone, we have to be willing to feel what arises in the empty spaces, the spaces that we obsessively fill with the phone. We have to be willing to feel boredom, loneliness, grief, frustration, disappointment, longing. Many times when we reach for our phones we’re pushing away the fundamental sadness, boredom and loneliness of being human.
Most media is soul candy: an overly saturated, sensationalized, multi-sensory overload that desensitizes our ability to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of real, every life. Just like eating donuts daily desensitizes our tastebuds rendering them incapable of appreciating the sweetness and simplicity of an apple, so mainstream media desensitizes our psyches so that they cease to appreciate the sometimes boring, quiet, lonely reality of regular life. When we train our minds to need the overstimulation of a virtual world – where every moment of your favorite show is jam-packed with high-interest storylines and ends with a cliffhanger so that you’ll watch the next episode (and the next and the next and the next…) – what happens to your ability to sit and watch the rain falling outside your window or the bees collecting pollen in the flowers in your yard?
Just like we can retrain our bodies to appreciate and ultimately crave natural, whole, unprocessed foods, so we can retrain our minds to crave real life in real time. Let me be clear that I love many aspects of technology just as much as the next person and know that it can be used toward profoundly creative, innovative, and mind-expansive ends. This isn’t about restricting media altogether any more then it’s about eliminating ice cream forever. Rather, it’s about finding a balance and noticing how we use media to avoid the uncomfortable aspects of being human. Like everything, our intention determines the result: are we using screens to avoid, anesthetize and distract or to nourish, create and inform?
It’s not screens or sugar or money or food or any of our other temptations that are the problem. These potential vices are placed here as part of our human journey of growth and consciousness and offer us daily opportunities to help us hone, access, and test one of our most fundamental gifts: free will. We choose how we spend our time. We choose what we feed our minds and our bodies. And without temptation, we would have nothing to push up against.
What I’ve found personally is that if my phone is within arm’s reach I’ll grab it in a moment of boredom or loneliness, but if it’s turned off or far away I’ll meet the empty moment directly and invariably find that something much richer occurs than would have happened if I had turned to my phone. It’s heartening to me to know that our capacity for interiority isn’t completely lost; it’s just hidden behind the compulsion to avoid ourselves which our phones make so easy. It’s a lot easier to avoid cookies if you don’t keep them in the house ?.
So I pose a challenge for you, my readers: turn off all of your devices for twenty-four hours and come back to tell us about it. What did you notice? Was it easy or hard? What did you feel? What memories arose? What creative expressions emerged? I’d love to know.
On the topic of the addictive nature of screens, if you ever text and drive, please watch this documentary. It’s very painful to watch, and hopefully it will prevent you from ever texting and driving again: