– In the 21st century, we must all learn to balance our use of technology with a lifestyle that is conduce to mental, physical, and spiritual health.
What a fascinating age we live in! Imagine traveling through time, and explaining the mystery of the internet to an ancient Roman citizen. Imagine approaching Isaac Newton, holding up an I-Phone, and saying, “All the knowledge of humankind is now contained in this.” Imagine Galileo, who worked tirelessly to create a telescope capable of seeing Jupiter’s relatively nearby moons, gazing through the famous Hubble Telescope at untold galaxy clusters that populate an ever-expanding universe!
Technology is a beautiful expression of the human mind, yet the way we use technology also reflects the dichotomy of the human condition, and our age old capacity for both good and evil. The internet, for instance, is potentially the most innovative tool the human mind has ever created. It has the capacity to educate every human being on Earth about the subtlest discoveries in science, the humanities, spirituality, and the arts. Yet, a vast portion of it is used exclusively for pornography and cat videos… To use another well worn example, nuclear energy has the capacity to support humanity by providing power for entire nations; yet, as we all unfortunately know, it could also destroy the planet many times over.
I mention all this because I am philosophical by nature, and I typically cannot simply talk about a topic without shamelessly digressing about grand themes. This post wont be a grand exploration of technology’s effect on human society; rather, it will be a series of observations and practical tips about how to skillfully manage daily technology use from a spiritual perspective.
Our ambiguous relationship with technology is, I believe, strongly affecting our mental health. Technology is a blessed tool, but we often abuse it, and consequently our energy on a daily basis. Instead of being the masters of technology, technology often becomes our master. We go to sleep with our laptops open and complain of insomnia; people sometimes spend hours per day on social media as a substitution for real, living relationships. Smart phones often become a means to distract ourselves from our emotions, and from the difficult but rewarding task of meeting new people. And instead of engaging in gratifying creative pursuits, we often lose ourselves in the seemingly endless stream of entertainment now available virtually for free.
A Hypocrite’s Confession
At this point in the post, you would be right to quote this ancient Jewish proverb, “Physician, heal thyself!” For everything in this post is both a suggestion and a confession. As a practitioner of daily meditation, and someone who is seeking God-Realization, I have found that the overuse of technology often hinders my highest aspirations. And lest you call me a hypocrite, let me first openly admit that I myself have done everything I will say not to do!
Yet I am also attempting to become a Master of Technology by sincerely developing a skillful relationship with it. Technology is a big part of my life. I use the internet for my career, and to share this blog. I use my cell phone and email frequently. I also enjoy watching movies and documentaries, and using the internet as a research tool. However, like so many people today, I am trying to find the line between using technology skillfully and maintaining my own basic sanity.
We all know how much technology has blessed the world, and there’s no need for me to list the gargantuan achievements of the internet, modern global communication, etc. So in this post I wont take the time to explore the more positive aspects of modern technology, and the admirable human efficiency it generates. I’ll rather explore some ways that inordinate technology use can become a hindrance to intimate relationships, stress reduction, and healthy work habits. I’ll also share a list of suggestions for developing a more skillful relationship with technology. By “technology” I am referring mostly to phones, the internet, social media, TV, and email. I also recognize that some people must overuse technology for reasons of work, school, or personal relationships. My suggestions are specifically for people, like myself, who have the luxury to intentionally limit their technology use without harming their professional or personal life.
Information Consumption, Stress, and Meditation as Medicine
So many people are constantly stressed today in America, even people who have a relatively high standard of living. Part of the reason why, I feel, is our unprecedented consumption of information. For the vast majority of human civilization, information has been a precious commodity. People heard music only rarely, books were difficult to purchase, and there were no movies, computers, or television. Looking even further into the past, we basically had no information other than the immediate sensory world for most of the 2 million years that humans have existed. Because of this, our brains are probably not wired to process the sheer amount of information people consume on a daily basis. The average person probably consumes more information in a week than earlier humans did in their entire lives.
In addition to work and family demands, people check emails ten times per day; they tirelessly surf the web; they watch TV for hours at a time; they watch movies; they are constantly ingesting the 24-hour news cycle (aka 24-hour fear cycle); and the whole time they are often maintaining multiple texting/email conversations with people in faraway places. These things are obviously not bad in themselves, but the sheer quantity of our information consumption has become pathological. This constant in-streaming of information depletes our minds of energy, and can distract us from the simple miracle of the present moment.
Modern people need to have the mass realization that the mind, like the body, needs rest, and will get depleted if it ingests information/entertainment without ceasing. We all understand that if the body moves for many hours it will eventually need to rest. We also must realize that our mind is a muscle that needs rest. Our mind must have times of complete relaxation where media information is no longer being consumed.
A natural medicine for our distracted minds is mindfulness meditation. I usually begin most days with at least a 30-minute session of breath concentration. When the mind focuses on the breath to the exclusion of all else, it naturally becomes calm. It is a simple concept, yet so difficult to practice! Calming one’s thoughts, which is a natural byproduct of sustained mindfulness of the breath, is not only a mental exercise; deep meditative concentration can be physically pleasurable and even sometimes blissful. Anyone can learn to calm their mind in this way with sustained practice.
The more we calm our mind through meditation, the more concentration power accumulates. Japanese Buddhists call this power, “joriki.” Excessive technology use fritters away joriki that can be channeled into deeper meditation or meaningful creative output. Conversely, meditation conserves and restores joriki. In the Bhagavad Gita, meditation is compared to a turtle drawing all its limbs back into its shell. Like the turtle, in meditation we draw all our outward flowing senses inward by focusing our awareness on a single object. The concentration energy developed by this spiritual work is not the goal of meditation, but it is a wonderful byproduct of it, and a natural tool for stress reduction.
Meditation practice is what I believe chronically stressed people in this generation desperately need, even if they do not know it. They are constantly ingesting information, and never let their minds rest. Their mental power consonantly flows outward into an ever increasing diet of visual, textual, and auditory information. Even up to the point of sleep they brows the internet, text, or listen to new music. Not knowing it, they are depleting their life-energy. We live in this way and then wonder, “Why am I tired all the time?” “Why can I not sleep?” “Why do I feel so distracted?”
There came a point in my life that I simply couldn’t live this way anymore. That is why I set aside times in the morning and before sleep dedicated to meditation and prayer alone. No matter how busy I am, or how eagerly I want to keep learning, I shut off all technology and enter meditation. I turn my cell phone on silent. I make sure not to use the internet or listen to music in these times. I focus on my breathing, and let go of the material world. Then, like a cell phone plugging into its charger (wink!), I am rejuvenated by the Power Source of the universe itself.
Technology as a Hindrance to Human Intimacy
We have all probably been out to lunch with a friend who was texting for the entire conversation. And no matter how “talented” people are at multitasking, we all know this truth deep down: you simply cannot fully focus on what someone else is saying and text, or surf the web, at the same time. It’s simply not possible! There are, of course, times when it is necessary to do this, and we all have those times. Additionally, there are “chillaxing” moments when we are with people but not necessarily having a meaningful conversation, and in these times using phones while being with people is arguably permissible.
However, when we are having a one-on-one conversation, it is a stretch to combine this with surfing the internet or texting. And let’s be honest: the vast majority of people are not Barack Obama, and don’t have to make critical decisions at every moment of the day. The person texting them is probably their roommate or their grandma, and in reality it can probably wait. We have also all been in rooms with strangers who, to avoid the discomfort of meeting new people, whip out their phones. Is it not depressing to be in a room with 10 young adults who, instead of getting to know each other, brows through the informational abyss of the internet to avoid socializing?
Part of the spiritual path is realizing the sacredness of ordinary moments, especially moments with our loved ones and friends. A Zen master was once having tea with his students, and his cup fell from the table and broke. Then he cryptically remarked, “The cup is already broken.”
The master was pointing to the impermanence of life. The “cup” of this moment is already broken, or over, because it is naturally impermanent. This fact should not depress us, because impermanence is the natural state of the physical universe. Rather, it should inspire us to pay attention ever more deeply to the sacred people in our lives who we only have limited time with. How unfathomably precious are the moments we spend with the people who care about us! One master said, “Listen to everyone as if you were hearing their last words.” Another spiritual maxim states, “Listen to everyone as if they were God Himself speaking to you” (which actually is the case, though most people don’t realize this). Everyone in our life is in it for a very important reason, and each moment we spend with them is incalculably precious.
Sometimes I notice that I am engaging in conversation with my friends distractedly because my mind is on a text I have just received, my emails, etc. But at the end of my life I wont remember all these texts, emails, and to-do-lists. I will however, think of all the people who impacted me, and all the people I impacted. For this reason, I believe that part of leading a satisfying human life is the ability to drop everything and attend fully to the people around you.
I, and much of my generation, often forget this deep truth. We try to juggle texting, emailing, and surfing the internet with nourishing genuine human connections through conversation. But this simply is not possible, in my opinion. Technology is a tool, but we become its tool when we allow it to rob our attention from the precious people in our lives that really matter. Part of being a Master of Technology is the ability to tune it out completely when we are spending time with people, and to offer them the fullness of our appreciative attention.
Email and the Culture of Overwork
This may sound strange, but I used to envy my Dad when he would tell me about his lunch hour in the 1980s. In the 1980s, the average person didn’t have a cell phone. So when my Dad left work, no one knew where he was, and there was no way to reach him. As he enjoyed his food, his mind could totally unplug from work because there was no information from his office that could get to him. Then, when he returned to the office, he was rejuvenated and ready to work again.
Nowadays, people have more difficulty unplugging from work because they are never apart from their communication devices. People check their emails and Facebook shortly after waking up. On their lunch hour, they sometimes continue working through their phones and computers. When they get home, they check work email again. The net result of this behavior is that many people never totally unplug from their work environment.
We all know what its like to get home after a long day ready to relax. Then we get a text or an email about work that stresses us out and puts our mind back into “work mode.” The good news is that most of us have the power to limit this effect. We can intentionally refuse to check our work emails on off hours unless we must, allowing us to more completely relax and rejuvenate our souls.
The nation of Germany understands that it is unethical to mentally deplete workers by expecting them to think about work when they are not working. The German employment ministry, for instance, recently officially banned managers from calling or emailing workers during off hours unless it is an emergency. Unlike Germany, and other more socialist nations, the United States has a culture that basically celebrates overwork. We are not machines though, and we should feel entitled to have our work time be work time, and our off time be off time. Part of making this a reality is limiting the amount of time we check our work emails once we are at home. We need to totally disengage from work, both mentally and physically, to be restored.
Our own culture fuels the way that people think about work when they are not at work. We live in a capitalist culture that positively deifies work. A big American criticism of meditation, and of rest in general, is that it stops us from reaching our full potential in our work lives. In reality, the opposite is true. When our mind is fully rested, we can use it better than ever before. A new host of studies is also concluding that rest and creativity are inseparably connected.
The ancient and revolutionary Jewish idea of the Sabbath is a powerful expression of the principal that human beings are not designed to work constantly. God commanded the Jews to rest for one full day, and to enjoy this day as a celebration of life and creativity. We similarly should give our self the gift of a Sabbath-Mind when we are off work. We should not feel guilty about needing to rest, and should give ourself the gift of “me” time.
On off days and off hours, we should not have to worry about work. We should enjoy our families and friendships. We should give ourself time to explore hobbies that nourish our soul and inner child. We should enjoy the present moment without worrying unnecessarily about the future. Work is unquestionably important, but we were not born for work. We are Spirit beings that engage in work, but work does not define us. We were born for God – to enjoy and express our own Divine Nature – not to work for God.
Unlike previous generations, many of us must make a choice to intentionally relax on our off days because we often have access to work related information on our virtually omnipresent (no pun intended…) computers and phones. Once again, being a Master of Technology involves using it but not being used by it, and being able to ignore it at will.
Practical Suggestions for Being a Master of Technology
- Set aside times in the morning and evening for quiet prayer and/or meditation. During this time, turn off (or turn on silent mode) all technology.
- Designate a time each night before bed that you turn off all technology. This includes the internet, phone, and TV. If you go to bed a 11 p.m., you can turn of all technology at 9 or 10 p.m. , for example.
- When you eat lunch during work, turn your phone on silent and practice mindful eating. For the entire lunch hour, do not use your phone. Do not check work emails in the lunch hour.
- Unless you must, do not check your email after a certain time you set (say, 6 p.m.). When you are out of work mode, allow yourself to completely unplug from your professional identity.
- When you are having an intimate conversation, turn your phone on silent for the entire conversation. Practice giving people your full attention.
- Become mindful of the times you pull out your cell phone because you are socially anxious. If this is the reason, try a new strategy. Perhaps you can meet the person next to you. Perhaps you can notice something interesting in the room. Perhaps you can just sit quietly and meditate.
- Set concrete limits for social media use, internet browsing, and email checking. You give yourself X minutes per day to be on Facebook, and check your emails only twice per day, for example.
- Be mindful of what you consume. Do not be surprised, if you constantly consume bad news, violence, and depressing stories, if you too start feeling depressed. This maxim is true: “We become what we behold.”
- Begin a hobby that you will genuinely enjoy as a substitute for TV watching, internet browsing, etc.
In this post I am really speaking to myself. I love the internet, and use it frequently – I watch movies and documentaries, use social media and blogs, etc. I also have a smart phone I consider a blessing because it keeps me from getting lost in my own city, as I don’t have a particularly strong sense of direction. I also value my phone because it enables me to maintain friendships across vast distances.
Yet I have also noticed in my own life that unregulated technology use depletes my energy and creates unnecessary stress. It also sometimes distracts me from the unlimited preciousness of my human relationships. Additionally, it can cause the times I have set aside for rejuvenation to be polluted by work related stress. Yet I am discovering that setting limits with myself (e.g. by implimenting many of the suggestions above) has brought me more peace of mind, a more satisfying life, and generally more sanity.
Technology is inescapable for anyone who wants to participate in the economy, or even survive in present day America. Everyone is basically expected to have a cell phone and internet access. I have accepted this reality, but have also developed the ambition to become a Master of Technology. I want to use technology, but am tired of it using me. I refuse to let an addiction to screens, overwork, and information steal any more of my precious sanity.
There are no easy answers to the question of how spiritual practice and technology interrelate, and we all have nuanced personal situations. Nevertheless, this relationship is a sort of “koan” for modern times. A Zen koan is a question or statement that is often paradoxical in nature. It is not “answered,” but rather explored deeply in the context of one’s own experience. The exploration itself – “being crucified in the paradox,” as Robert Johnson puts it – becomes the catalyst for intuitive insights and fresh views of reality. One modern koan is this: “What is the relationship between technology use and human well being in the 21st century?” There is no easy answer to this quandary, but it is an exploratory question that none of us can afford to miss.
p.s. Leave comments below if you feel inspired. I would love to hear what you think!
- My New Book, Daily Bliss
- God’s Forgiveness
- Purposes of Meditation
- Six Practical Ways to be More Connected with God in Daily Life
- Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita: Introduction
- Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation
- Working from the State of Rest
- Peaceful Protest: Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita on Helping the World from a Spiritual Perspective