Most of us spend most of our lives moving toward the pleasant and away from the unpleasant.
We don’t always do this consciously. It’s just standard human behavior.
That cup of coffee in the morning? Goodbye grogginess. Dinner plans with friends this weekend? A nice warm feeling, as opposed to the loneliness of a solo Saturday night.
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And there’s nothing wrong with this way of being in the world. Nothing wrong, that is, until we encounter an unpleasant feeling that we can’t escape—which of course happens all the time. Being human isn’t always fun.
Yet we try to escape anyway, and technology is our favorite escape vessel. Feeling a bit lonely? Facebook is there. Bored? Pinterest, Twitter, Gmail, Buzzfeed, Instagram, and SnapChat are all within a swipe or two.
These spaces are designed to be habit forming. In a few clicks, we can reap powerful social rewards. For example, when we get a “like” on Facebook, we feel accepted by the tribe, and a shot of dopamine is released. Before long, we come to rely on these activities as a form of therapy.
Instead of facing our problems in the present, we opt for the quick fix. We treat the symptoms while the disease remains untouched. With the requisite internet connection, we think we can conquer displeasure.
But this is a dangerous understanding.
“The understanding we have of things leads to the way we think about things,” says meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. “The way we think about things lead to the actions which we do. Actions have powerful effects. But very often we don’t reflect, we don’t investigate, our basic underlying assumptions […] Is what we believe really true?”
Let’s reflect for a moment. We think that mental suffering can be relieved through a variety of escapes—email, video, and social media, to name a few. But is this healthy for the mind? Or does this thinking lead to more problems?
When we feel sad or lonely, these beliefs lead to certain thoughts. Maybe I should watch a movie and cheer up. The thoughts lead to actions—we fire up YouTube. Then we are rewarded with a temporary burst of chemical happiness. The habit is reinforced.
As a result, we come to rely on electronic stimulation to relieve negative feelings. And with our smartphones always within reach, an amusing distraction is never hard to come by. Unfortunately, this means we never investigate the source of our problems.
All that said, I can see the positive side of technology. My writing career, for one, depends on it. The social media outlets I’ve been ranting about—Twitter, Facebook—are vital for spreading my work.
But I’m not just clickbait, I hope. I feel like I’m one of the good guys here.
That said, sometimes I need a break. A little while ago, I unplugged for a week in the Adirondacks. I know “unplugging” sounds like a cliché, but I would recommend everyone give it a try, even if only for 24 hours.
In the mountains, in the pine-drenched forest, in my little cabin miles down a bumpy dirt road, there was no wifi, cell service, or power lines. I couldn’t access technology. I couldn’t escape. And my mind settled down.
It’s ironic, right? Once I stopped trying to escape, I didn’t need to escape anymore.
I’m aware this is a slippery concept, but here it is again: the more we try and distract ourselves from suffering, the more we suffer. The escaping is the problem, not the emotions.
“The human organism has the most wonderful powers of adaptation to both physical and psychological pain,” wrote the British philosopher Alan Watts. “But these can only come into full play when the pain is not being constantly restimulated by this inner effort to get away from it.”
We suffer, in large part, because we try to escape our inner pain. Each time we push it away, it comes back twice as strong. Understanding the source of the suffering—and giving our brains the chance to adapt to real emotion—is the first step toward a more tranquil mind.
And we can take this step today. Not after we check Facebook, but right now.
Goldstein, Joseph. “Understanding Comes First.” Dharma Talk. Dec 2 1990.
Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York: Pantheon, 1951. Print.
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