People often have an ambiguous relationship with e-mail, social media, mobile phones and modern technology in general. On the one hand we see the awesome potential for social interaction, productivity and the long reach of modern tools and on the other we are starting to suffer from their consequences. I work globally and e-mail supports this, love my Twitter connections, Youtube channel (1/4 million hits an rising) and Facebook network (which has gotten me several jobs and regularly hosts good discussions). I have come to see this online life as no less “real” than the fleshy one, installed new memory in my lap-top on purchase to make it faster than a well-lubed otter and am a little bit turned on by the thought of the latest I-phone. I am also a committed practitioner of awareness disciplines including martial arts and meditation and am aware of technology’s dangers. The most common ones I have experienced personally and hear reported by friends and clients include:
– Overwhelm and burnout – modern tech makes one-to-many communication easy and removed barriers that once stopped overwhelm. What I call “befrazzlement’ a mixture of bewitched, frazzled and enchanted results as we not only consent to but dive lemming-like into our own destruction. Stress related illness is the biggest killer in the Western world for example
– The isloation of being electronically connected but rarely deeply emotionally connected. The embodied and emotional systems that underpin deep and ultimately satisfying emotional connection are harder to engage online while superficial social strokes and methods that encourage control of the interaction (think texting) and relational consumerism where people become objects (think internet dating) are easy. We are shielded from the real-time reactions or proximity and touch required for vulnerability and emotional resonance. This distancing can feel safe but eliminates deep human relationships
– Physical problems results from ignoring our primary operating system (body). The problem is not so much our posture as lack of awareness of our posture. We usually sit in a way anyone can see is harmful because we get “lost” in our online activity – i.e. disembodied/ dissociated. Put simply, if you’ve got a computer and no awareness training then you’re going to have neck, back and eye problems.
– Skill atrophy and loss – this is associated with any new technology and may be relatively harmless – e.g. finding hand-writing tricky after years of just typing, or more sinister – e.g. the loss of certain social skills among children
– Distraction from important work (jumping from difficulty and distress to distraction and back reducing efficiency due to increased “pick-up time”. We can’t multitask so lose time and energy each time we switch). This often leads to “mission creep-off” when we go online for a useful chosen activity and emerge hours later having been seduced by less useful and more habitual use. The structure of technology and popular forums such as Facebook and Twitter encourage unconscious unchosen activity
– The addictive conditioning of being constantly socially available via technology which also has an inconsistent “reward matrix”. This can lead to us having difficulty staying present with the person in front of us (“alone together” as Sherry Turkle calls it) and other challenges managing an e-conditioned attention and intention deficit disorder. This leads to compulsive online behaviour and associated shame, damaged relationships (ask my girlfriend) and reduced productivity (as mentioned) . Do I really choose to check e-mail or Facebook as many times a day as I do or is it an itch I scratch?
– The monkey-on-speed-like hyper-arousal of a brain wired on technology. I regard broadband connected devices as a kind of e-stimulant making us operate faster than is ideal for health or productivity (more is in fact less) creating a very similar state to that induced by trauma (the eye focusing required by device use also encourages this) which is bad for us in a whole host of ways including damaged relating, learning and health. Broadband leads to narrow mind.
If all this sounds like I’m demonising technology let me state again that I love it, and these are all manageable.
These symptoms come from what I call a “non-relationship” as the nature of our interaction with the technology that causes them is essentially dissociative. The connected world and the current way we use it turns us and others from people to objects. It split us from our own minds and bodies which are the substrate of emotions and therefore relationships. A disembodied world is a psychopathic and autistic one. Ever been online and so “into it” that you only “came back” when you badly needed the toilet, when you shoulders really ached or you were very hungry? This is disembodiment. Ever felt alienated, dissatisfied and cut-off from yourself after a marathon online session? Ever flamed or trolled someone online in a way you never would in real life – this is the loss of empathy.
The Tech-Meat Split
I know two main types of people – those who embrace technology with little question (more popular among younger people) and those who resent it or try and reject it in some fashion because they value emotions, body, relationships, spirituality, etc and see technology as the enemy of this. Both groups often end up controlled by technology in one form or another. The “techies” and the “meaties” (labels I hold pretty lightly) do not understand each other and are often at war. The techies are winning but the meaties won’t roll over easily. Both suffer, but happily this (somewhat artificial) division is collapsing…
The Problem – The Lag, The Compromise and The Synthesis
The problem is not so much technology- there’s always change and people worried when writing was invented thinking it would ruin society – the problem is that adaptive psychological education and supportive cultural factors do not keep pace with technology. Technology has created a very new set of mental road conditions and there is not yet the necessary mind safety awareness for this new situation. The tech vs human question is not so helpful (neither aspect is going away) and is sometimes given as “how to use technology while keeping human?” There is a compromise model which wants to balance online work and “life”. In another slightly more advanced narrative mediation and the like can be used to help people destress and cope with a technological life, perhaps making them more efficient at work too. This perspective was common at the excellent Wisdom 2.0 conference I attended recently in California. It is still a lop-sided model however and worries me as mindfulness etc can simply be used to get more out of people – like the (probably well-intended) colourful bowls of cereal at Google that help people work late. A more developed and useful synthesis would be to ask “how can skilful technology use enhance being human (more fully embodied, emotionally intelligent, spiritual, relational)?” as well as the latter helping us use technology and be productive at work. This is a new and somewhat radical point of view which is why you haven’t read many articles on e-mail as a spiritual practice or how The Buddha would Facebook. I figure I’m practicing this stuff 8-12 hours a day anyway, so I might as well be both getting some personal benefit from it beyond a pay-check.
Awareness and Choice
People – even very advanced spiritual practitioners and certainly the general public – are not aware of what happens with their bodies, minds and emotions when they go online. I know this as when they are slowed down both mentally though meditation immediately before going online and though having their normal online activity repeatedly interrupted for a period and asked to stop and observe themselves – they are shocked at what they see. Modern communication methods create a spell where we literally forget ourselves (leading to emotional, mental and physical damage). People are often shocked “where the time goes” online due to this and the slippery attention slope and emotionally shallow and neurologically addictive “stroke economy” of many interactions such as Facebook. I call this the “shit-it’s-11-and-I-only-just-opened-my-email-syndrome”. The speed of possible online activity is now well beyond what people can observe at, and the process of emotional and attentional ensnarement needs to be slowed down to even be noticed. We are caught in the matrix. Once people develop some awareness as to the process they have the freedom to choose, until then they are habitual, reactive and any kind stress or time management system is a joke. I have learnt this the hard way personally and through teaching these subjects and seeing how technology’s seduction undermines people’s efforts.
Breaking The Samsaric Conditioning of the Internet
Personal, emotional and spiritual development as traditionally practiced is now largely irrelevant. This is a deliberately provocative statement so let me explain. Learning is strongly state and context specific and things we may learn in a training classroom, meditation hall or yoga class for example disappear almost immediately when confronted with the awesome speed, technical conditions and many hours of Pavlovian association that connected work and play have installed. In short, we may feel good after tai chi, therapy or whatever, but that goes to crap very quickly when we start our work-day or log onto Facebook and slip into bad habits. Given that most people have “practiced” many many more hours online in an unhealthy mode this is not surprising. While traditional practice has it’s place in building insight and basic skills like mediative focus, emotional intelligence and body awareness, it must be supplemented with an installation within the online context to have much effect on a modern person’s life. If it isn’t learnt at work it doesn’t work at work. Replace “online” for “work” of you prefer. Conditions now are just too different from those in the time of The Buddha, the founder of aikido or other “wisdom traditions” to keep practising in the same old way. The wisdom is still sound – in fact more needed that ever, I would argue a basic life-skill that should be taught in school – but the form needs an upgrade. I am tired of seeing people invest many hours that don’t translate across into their daily lives and of wisdom teachers either demonising tech or pretending it doesn’t exist.
Along with various colleagues and other groups I am working on this. We don’t have it all figured out but one relatively simple method is to ensure people have some insight into the nature of technology and online conditions in relation to bodymind (we do this by a mix of guided discussion, voice dialogue where people get to express various aspects of their ambiguity towards technology – like BigMind and traditional meditation to still the mind before reintroducing tech they have gone cold-turkey from. This where people go “shit!!! that’s what I’m doing to myself every day???!!! I knew there was a reason I feel like crap!” [video here] We then teach some basic bodymind skills and finish by repeatedly interrupting a person doing their normal work in conditions as close to the ones they use as possible [video here]. With each interruption (we use a bell) people are asked to notice their mental, emotional and physical awareness, then check their intention, then transform any of what they have noticed using skills learnt previously. This is at first done frequently and with the process (known as NIT) taking some minutes and gradually the gaps between NIT “awareness islands” is increased and the time taken for NIT’s decreased until people become newly habituated and self-sufficient. Tich Nat Han has been using mindfulness clocks for years and there are many apps to help with this process, although a sustained period of about a day really emphasising technology and the special conditions it creates, followed-up by a practice commitment is necessary in our experience to see benefits. I am also working on an online embodiment community, enquiry and set of resources and there will be more free videos like this one and workshops in the future. This is work I see a dire need for as one answer to the root cause of what will likely be the largest mental and physical health issue of the 21st century