Nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein wrote the following: “I fear the day when technology will surpass our human interaction. We will have a generation of idiots.”
As anyone who knows my blog knows, I also worry about what technology is doing to us as a species. And lately, I worry specifically about how our increasing reliance on technology is affecting our intelligence. As we cede more and more responsibility to our devices, are we humans becoming dumber? Are we forgetting how to think? Is now the time that Einstein prophesized?
I was at the home of a friend, an educated and highly intelligent woman. A serviceman was working in her house at the time. Upon completing his work, he handed my friend a bill. From where I was sitting I could see that on it he had written “2 Plumbing Services: $295.” The following exchange then transpired:
My friend: “If you remember, you told me that you would charge me your lower rate of $130 for the first service and the higher rate, $165, for the second. I think you may have forgotten and charged me the higher rate for both.”
Serviceman: “I remember our conversation. That’s why I charged you $295.”
My friend: “But you didn’t itemize the two jobs so I didn’t know if that’s the case. I wasn’t sure you remembered to charge me the lower rate for the first job.”
Serviceman: “But the total is $295 so that’s the lower rate plus the higher rate.”
At this point my friend went and fetched her bag, searched out her iPhone (a process that took a few minutes) then tapped a couple icons on her screen and several moments later, a calculator appeared. She typed in 1, 3, 0, +, 1, 6, 5, =, and voila… the device flashed the magic number: 295. My friend had her answer.
My friend: “Oh you’re right, sorry. I just didn’t know because it wasn’t clearly itemized on your bill.”
At the AT&T store on Broadway:
Clerk: “I will need your phone number to upgrade your plan.”
Customer: “Hmmm. Well I never call myself so I don’t know my number.” (She then turns on her smartphone to retrieve her phone number.)
I was buying a new flat-screen television at Best Buy. When I asked the sales girl how to operate the system, she told me I could go online and get the instructions. When I asked her how I would get it home and install it, she told me she had no idea, but that probably I could do a Google search or perhaps it was also listed on the Best Buy site.
Answering questions that required thought were not a part of her job. She was trained to do one thing: enter my data into her computer. At one point her computer froze and she stood there helplessly, waiting for the grand master to tell us what to do with a frozen screen. Unfortunately, it was the master who was frozen, and so we were out of luck. When I (still of the thinking world) suggested that we try her companion’s computer, she relented and we began the process all over again.
Ideally, we delegate responsibility for menial tasks in order to free ourselves up to do more meaningful work. But in the case of computers, we are turning over the tasks of life to technology in order to free ourselves to do what? Get to a higher level of “Angry Birds”? Play more “Scrabble with Friends”? We have turned over the nuts and bolts of living to technology and instead of becoming higher functioning creatures, we have become idle, helpless sloths.
Now that the computer is here, we no longer seem to feel that it is our responsibility to think. We know how to enter information into a screen, but have we given up responsibility for the processing of information? I worry that the more we ask our computers to figure things out, the less we will be able to do it for ourselves. Just as the tail lost its purpose, will the ability to think will no longer be necessary?
The problem is that we humans still (and I hope will always) need to be able to think. Figuring things out, processing information, connecting ideas — these are the skills of invention and progress — the skills that separate us from sheep. I for one am not comfortable with becoming (or living in a world of) helpless and lobotomized sheep, deferring to the computer for answers that I used to be able to and still want to be able to figure out myself.
Copyright Nancy Colier 2013
We all go through hard times now and again. And when the hard times come, we need good friends to help us through. I have been hearing a lot of stories about friendship lately, and it has gotten me thinking about what we really want and need from our friends, particularly when we are in the rough seas that every life includes.
We all want to help our friends when they are suffering. But do we know how to help them — really help them? And on the flip side, do we know how to get what we need from our friends when we really need it?
How do we fail each other as friends?
Some common offenses:
We offer advice and stick to it even when our friend tells or shows us that our advice is not helpful and not going to be followed.
We project our own experience onto our friend’s situation and stop hearing what our friend is actually living.
We are too busy or distracted to give our friend the focused attention that she needs.
We talk when we really need to be listening.
Having been at the receiving end of each of these responses at one time or another, I know how incredibly painful these experiences can be to endure. We reach out to a friend with the hope that we will be heard, comforted and ultimately helped, only to receive one of these heartbreaking misses. These moments are little deaths. There is a precise instant when we realize that we are not going to receive what we need, that we will not experience the emotional hug that we crave. Exquisitely painful in their clarity, these deaths are repeated over and over, leaving us not only with our original pain, but now, simultaneously, with the loneliness of the missed connection.
Sometimes we allow the friend’s advice to go on long after we have shut down inside, aware that we are not going to be properly heard or understood. Sometimes we allow the friend to kidnap the moment, make it about themselves, thereby giving up on getting what we really need. Sometimes we allow the friend to use us as a projection screen, to work out something about themselves or someone in their life — none of which helps us. We let it happen because we cannot fight or take the risk that it is to try and receive what we actually need.
There are an infinite number of ways to die these little deaths, but each is profoundly disappointing, even heart-breaking.
What is it we really need when we are in pain? I believe that it is much simpler than we imagine. We need to be heard, understood and cared about. We need a friend to hold our pain with us, for a moment, without judgment, to hear and care about how we are, in truth. Most of all, we need our friend’s focused, undivided, and caring attention. Not solutions, not tales of our friend’s similar woes, just the simple hug that is true and heartfelt listening.
There are times in life when our pain is very strong and we actually do not want to get together for a lunch in which we get the allotted amount of time to wrap up our suffering, and then move on to the business of trading stories. You get your five minutes, I get mine. There are times when we need to be allowed to fully dip into our pain, and not just describe it and then move on.
Here’s the good news: We can ask for the kind of focused attention that we need. We can ask if it’s possible that a good friend just hold the space and listen to us, for today, and maybe even tomorrow. We can ask if just now, we can not hear about her life situation, but really make this moment about ourselves. We are taught that it is not okay to ask for this kind of attention, that it would be selfish to request it, even occasionally. And yet, what is remarkable is that we all need it, and we all try and make do without it, pretending it’s okay. We keep our mouths shut while we die little deaths, silently, again and again, on both sides of the table. The longing is crystal clear and yet we hold back, afraid to demand too much, even from our dearest friends.
To pretend that we get what we need when we really don’t, in fact, doesn’t do us, our friends or our friendships any good. A part of friendship is taking care of and knowing each other. No one is taken care of or known when we walk away from our interactions feeling lonely and emotionally unfed.
When we request what we really need, we not only give ourselves the chance to receive the care that we long for, but we also deepen and sanctify our friendships. We set an example and standard of truth that the friendship can then rise to. I suggest that we step up and be brave — take the risk that is the truth. We can be the first to voice what we really need, knowing that deep down it is the same thing that we all really need. Ask for the best from your friends, and you will receive the best friends that you deserve.
Anyone who has ever practiced mindfulness knows that there is something akin to a wild animal living inside each of us. We call that wild animal “mind.” If you stop for just a minute, right now, and pay attention to what your mind is telling you, I am certain that you will hear all sorts of disjointed random thoughts. In the last minute, I am aware of having had at least 20 — a memory of my mother’s sneakers on camp visiting day 30-something years ago, the feel of the indoor arena footing beneath my boots at a horse show in the late ’90s, something I need to tell my husband, dinner plans, fixing the piano, and everything in between — literally. Between the identifiable thoughts exists a background buzz, loud and energetic but without any specific content. What is clear is that there is no reason or sense to how, when and why thoughts appear. Thoughts simply appear without asking us if we want to hear them. And who is it then that is hearing “our” thoughts?
Still, we believe that we are the thinker of our thoughts. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we think that we decide our thoughts, and as a result, that we are responsible for their content. Because they are “our” thoughts, and we “did” the thinking, our identity is determined by their content. We are a good person if we have “good” thoughts and a bad person if we have “bad” thoughts. We spend a lot of time trying to control our thoughts and create order out of the chaos that the mind delivers.
In truth, thoughts happen — on their own. We are not in charge of what our thoughts are about. We are the recipient — the “hearer” of thoughts, the screen upon which they are projected, but certainly not the one doing the thinking.
If you are like most people, the majority of what your mind tells you, you have already heard before — many times. So too, many of the thoughts you receive are useless or boring. Only a small percentage might actually be of interest to “you.” While it is true that we can direct our attention to a particular topic and thus encourage certain kinds of thoughts, still, most of what we hear in our heads is useless chatter that we would not miss if it were not heard.
When you walk by a crazy person on the street and they yell out wild, non-sensical things at you, do you take the comments personally? Do you feel responsible for their content? Probably not. The mind is not much different than that crazy person on the street. The main difference however is that your mind lives inside your head and thus you can’t walk away from it. And more importantly, that you believe that crazy mind to be “you”!
What if we didn’t have to take credit or responsibility for our thoughts? What if we could use thought but without taking ownership of it? What if we didn’t have to do anything about or with the thought-racket that the mind makes? Indeed, all of these are possible! And how liberating and relieving to be given permission to let the mind do its thing without having to get involved or be responsible for it.
Try it for a day: Let your mind fire off like the out-of-order computer that it is. Don’t get involved in the contents of what it fires — don’t feed its firings, or build a storyline from its random fragments. Starve the mind. (Be careful however, not to turn “starve the mind” into another thought that interests you.) If you are lucky enough to hear a thought that is genuinely interesting, you can move toward it, engage with it, and build something with it. But otherwise, you can get on with your life and let the thoughts simply pass through, like weather, without much ado. Imagine yourself inside a giant mosquito net with hundreds of mosquitos buzzing just outside the net, unable to get through. You can ignore the mosquitos and go about your business without getting bitten. After a while, you may not even hear the buzzing anymore. And when not paid attention to, the mosquitos often take off to find someone else to bug. The same is true for thoughts — without your energy, your juice (in the form of attention) — they lose their power. You can make use of thoughts, but don’t believe them to be “yours” in some fundamental, identity-defining way.
We cannot stop thought but we can stop being interested in thought.
The “you” who is hearing the thoughts is the real you. You are the space within which the thoughts appear (and disappear). Practice turning away from thought — not feeding the thoughts with your attention. And then, notice what’s there — the silence behind the noise, the stillness behind the mind’s movement. Indeed, you may find that starving the mind can deliver a most profound form of nourishment. Remember, the mind is not yours to control. Let the mind do its thing — and you do yours!
Are you “shoulding” yourself to death? All day, every day, are you telling yourself what you “should” do? Have you forgotten what you even “want”? If you are like most people, the answer is “yes.”
The “Should” List Best-Sellers
You should be grateful to be alive
You should forgive
You should be compassionate
You should meditate
You should give back
You should be able to do nothing
You should be productive
You should de-clutter
You should take more trips
You should appreciate what you have
You should spend more time with your kids
You should want to spend more time with your kids
You should have more fun
You should spend less time on technology
You should have more sex
You should want to have more sex
You should laugh more
You should lose weight
You should exercise more
You should drink less
You should be happier
Whatever the specific “shoulds” on your list, they always add up to the same “should”: You should be better! The “should” police are here to tell you that, as you are, you are not good enough.
What are we afraid will happen if we stop “shoulding” all over ourselves? We have been taught, mistakenly, that if we don’t “should” ourselves into action, we will become like those giant sloths that hang on trees–inert. And worse, if we don’t “should” ourselves into being good, we won’t be good! If not controlled, we would be unkind, ungrateful, un-generous, unproductive and every other “un” you can think of. Quite a vision of our basic nature! “Shoulding” all over ourselves actually strengthens our belief that–left to our own devices, we cannot be trusted.
Because so much of our behavior is driven by “should,” we are losing our ability to distinguish what we really “want.” We have been taught what we “should” want, but no longer know what we actually want, and often confuse the two. Out of touch with our own “wanting,” we have lost a sense of intimacy with ourselves. We know who we are supposed to be, but not who we are.
To correct the “Should”/”Want” imbalance and bring us back into alignment with our true selves, I suggest the following practices:
1. Ask yourself throughout the day “Am I doing this because I want to or because I should?” If it’s because you “should,” then “Why do I believe I should?” “What do I fear will happen if I don’t do it?” Finally, notice if recognizing your choice as a “should” changes the choice itself, or the way it feels to carry out.
Even if your actions remain unchanged, simply identifying your choice as a “should” or “want” is meaningful, and will help you know your true motivations and intentions and thus–know yourself.
2. Set aside a period of time (at least an hour every day) as a “should-free” zone–a time when you only attend to that which you “want.” If anything shows up as a “should,” set it aside for later or let it go altogether. If no “want” shows up, that’s fine as it may take some time for a “want” to actually form inside you. Remember, “want” itself has become atrophied, like an under-used muscle. As well, sometimes the “want” is just to do nothing, so listen for that “want” as well.
Through these practices we often discover that we are not what we assumed (and were taught to believe). When we stop telling ourselves that we “should” be good, it turns out that much to our surprise, we are good. Our natural instinct is in fact to be compassionate and kind; being good simply feels good. When we stop forcing ourselves to be good (in order to check it off our “should-do” list), and instead, allow our inherent goodness to lead us into action, we feel nourished and full, simultaneously receiving the goodness that we offer. Goodness that emanates from “want” feels radically different (and better) than goodness that comes from “should.”
We may also discover that we want some things that we could never have imagined wanting. One woman assured me that she would absolutely positively never “want” to exercise, and never do it if she didn’t “should” herself into it. I gave her a challenge–to stop exercising until she genuinely wanted to. If the wanting didn’t appear, she would simply return to exercising because she “should.” Low and behold, 23 days later, a real desire to move showed up! It turned out that her body wanted to walk in the park–not on a treadmill as she had been doing for 25 years. And surprisingly, there was also a craving for swimming, something she had never considered. “Who is this person that actually wants to move, and swim of all things!” she exclaimed. It was an enlightening discovery–to realize that she was not someone who wanted to lie on the couch and eat bonbons all day. The act of suspending “should,” and giving “want” a chance to emerge allowed her to meet her true self.
Sometimes “want” never comes. There are things we do in life strictly because we “should,” and some are very important. I am not suggesting that we stop being responsible adults. However, when we do something because we “should,” and we mindfully acknowledge that “should,” then, we can offer ourselves compassion in the doing. We can take good care of ourselves, and honor the wisdom and strength of our discernment–to choose to do something even when we simultaneously do not want to do it. The choice is made mindfully, which, in and of itself, feels both loving and empowering. Even hard choices, when made in the light of awareness, are nourishing and satisfying, which is not the case when we are blindly obeying yet another “should.”
Becoming aware of our relationship with “should” and “want” allows us to meet who we really are. Simultaneously, it gives us freedom. When we are aware of the forces that are driving our actions, we can decide how we “want” to live and break free from the tyranny of “should.” We have been trained to believe in “should” and fear “want,” but this conditioning, with a little practice, can also be undone and re-trained. Start offering your “should” police a day off here and there and get ready to meet someone you may never have known.
Friendships change, and not always for the better. Sometimes we find that a friend with whom we have had a long and important relationship is no longer someone that we particularly like or enjoy being around. Perhaps the friend has changed and become someone different or perhaps we have changed, and what used to work in the friendship no longer works.
Very often close friendships, the ones that feel like family, are like family. But what aspect of family — this is the important question. A friend might present a similar challenge as a parent or sibling, and thus elicit the same feeling in us that we had with that family member. We then interpret that feeling as love and attachment. We say that friend is “like family,” because in fact they are. We are often drawn to and surround ourselves with people who remind us of our parents, which then gives us another opportunity to correct the experience that occurred with our early caretakers. This unconscious drive to re-script the past with a new outcome is one reason that we stay hooked into certain long-term but unsatisfying/unhealthy friendships. As we become more self-aware however, we can examine our long-term friendships, particularly the ones that no longer feel good, and investigate what our sense of deep connection is actually built around, and whether that connection is something that we still want or need in our life. The flavor of the relationship may indeed be familiar, and familial, but is it still nourishing to who we are now?
It is easy to talk theoretically about friendship, but what are we to do when an old friend with whom we have a lot of history is no longer someone we like or respect, or worse, is unkind, competitive and/or critical of us? Now don’t misunderstand me… I am not suggesting that we bail when the bumps come or when it no longer feels good all the time. There is no doubt that long-term friendships require seat belts and hard work, and most of the time they are worth the effort. This is not about bumps in the road of friendship. But what about when the effort is no longer producing a relationship that is nourishing or pleasurable — when our old friend is no longer someone we like to be around? Ultimately it should feel good to be around our friends, at least at some level. It certainly should not feel bad. After all, friends are people we choose to include in our life. When it feels bad much of the time, we need to make a change.
Today’s blog is not about relational strategies, however. Rather, it is about our relationship with friendship itself, and specifically how letting go and accepting the true lifespan of a friendship can align with a larger understanding of what friendship really is.
Mistakenly, we are taught that the only way to honor our history with an old friend is to stay in an active relationship. We believe that to let a friendship go because it is no longer nourishing or enjoyable (and may even have become harmful) is to dis-honor our history with that friend and eradicate the place that they occupied in our life. If we acknowledge that the friendship does not serve us any longer, it is tantamount to saying that it never had any value at all. We believe that what is true in the present must be consistent with what was true in the past — one continuous experience. Otherwise the past cannot be true.
Unfortunately, we have it backwards.
When we allow an important history to be infiltrated with resentment and un-friendly feelings, we are in fact not honoring the friendship and not treating it with the love and respect that the friendship’s history deserves. We are injecting something sweet with poison. We don’t know it, but we can hold someone in our heart, actively, in the present moment, honoring the profound place they hold in our life history — and — at the same time, also know that the friendship’s time may have passed. When we can be honest about a friendship, and about the season of life that the friendship belongs in, then, we can be truly grateful for the miracle that a friendship is. Trying to force a friendship to keep bearing fruit past its season is a disservice to its profound nature.
As humans, we are works in process and continually changing throughout life. There are friendships that belong in different places and at different times, with different versions of who we are. Because a friendship’s time has passed does not mean that it was not and is not important — still. To demand that a friendship continue past its rightful time can be an attempt to turn it into something it isn’t, which is to take away from what it is. Sometimes the only way to get to have a forever friendship is to let it go in the form that it was and allow it to take on the form that it needs to be — all the while holding it steady in your heart.
We all have people in our lives who have profoundly harmed us. Sometimes the situation with the other person has changed. You may have forgiven them and they may even have taken ownership and expressed remorse for their harmful actions. Other times, the same harmful behavior goes on with no change or responsibility. To your reptilian brain however, it often doesn’t matter which of these scenarios is true. With trauma, the body’s memory of a harmful person can remain frozen at the time of the trauma.
This is not a blog on trauma, however. Rather, it is about our expectation of what we are supposed to do with the people who make us feel toxic. Many people believe that in order to be “spiritual” they need to:
Be able to open their heart to the people who have done them harm.
No longer experience a negative reaction in their company.
I am often asked, “What is wrong with me that I can’t feel open, loving and calm in this person’s presence?” “Isn’t being spiritual about being able to love the person who hurt me?” “Isn’t forgiveness the essence of spirituality?”
Firstly, the body’s reaction to someone who has harmed you is simply that: the body’s reaction, something that happens. You don’t choose it. It is not an indicator of your spiritual maturity, nor a gauge of your growth in life or in relationship to the trauma. In many cases, no amount of psychological or spiritual work will change your body’s chemical response to the person who inflicted harm; it is hard-wired into your biology, an aspect of survival. That said, the first thing to take off your plate is the idea that you “should” be able to feel good in their company. Any notion that a negative physical response makes you un-spiritual or un-evolved is, quite simply, hogwash.
Secondly, being able to “open your heart” to someone who has caused you tremendous pain is also not a test of your spirituality. Many people deliberately put themselves in company with family and “friends” who are profoundly painful for them to be with — in an effort to develop forgiveness or compassion — and because they feel they “should.” And yet, if your heart is not open, and the desire to be with this other is not emanating from a place of true compassion, it does you no spiritual good to do what you “should.” Pushing harder does not create more compassion. Like getting through a grueling spin class, there is a sense of accomplishment,
of being able to stay in the room without collapsing or fleeing, but this is not the same thing as spiritual growth.
The choice to exclude a person or experience from your life can be the more compassionate choice — for yourself. And indeed, when your heart opens to your own suffering, and your own well-being, that compassion for yourself can open wide enough to include even the one who caused you suffering. But this is something that your heart will tell you — not something that your mind can decide or force.
Spirituality is not a test. Being spiritual is about being with what is. If you feel toxic when in the company of someone who has hurt you, then you earn no spiritual points by forcing yourself to be there, and enduring that toxicity. We behave with spirit when we accept our experience the way it is. Deciding to not be with someone who makes you feel terrible, even if that person is your family or “friend,” is an act of courage — honoring yourself and the truth.
Trust your heart; if it is ready to embrace someone who has harmed you, it will open, without force. Indeed, by giving yourself permission to say “no,” to follow your truth, you are offering yourself the only real chance you have to genuinely want to be with them, at some time. Without permission to say “no,” we cannot find the authentic desire to say “yes.” And if that desire never comes, that too is as spiritual a path as any other.
Spirituality is not about becoming the person that you are supposed to be — not about doing the “spiritual” thing. To be spiritual is to compassionately welcome your truth — what you actually feel — whether you like that truth or not. To be spiritual is to stop trying to be a more spiritual and open-hearted version of yourself, and instead, to open your heart without judgment to who and how you actually are. Perhaps the hardest task of all, being spiritual is about letting yourself — and what is so — be.
Last week, I went to Friday night services at synagogue. Immediately following, and all week in fact, I have been aware of feeling profoundly human, grounded and well — a part of something much larger than just myself. As is customary, the evening included singing, meditation and a talk by the rabbi. The topic of the talk changes weekly, but what remains constant is the nature of the theme. The conversation is always about something universal and what it means to be human. This week’s talk was about our relationship with obstacles, fear, and limitation. The rabbi spoke of the fear of both pain and joy, addressing specifically our desire to run from that which scares us. He counseled us to lean into fear and to work with and within our limitations — not against them. Wise words.
The rituals that this rabbi and countless religious and spiritual leaders offer each week in their in-house services are important not only because of the content of the messages they deliver, but because of their power to make us feel connected to the profundity of the human experience, and something more vast than just our ever-changing personal experience. They provide a narrative for our lives, mark the stages and passages of a life, place us in a larger human context, and address the infinite shared aspects of this mortal journey. Services provide bones for the body of life. These rituals point us to the big picture and remind us that our personal story is part of a larger story: humanity… existence. We come to understand that we are living something profoundly real — life — and that it is deserving of our most serious attention.
Given the fact that we as a society, and particularly our younger generations, are spending far less time engaged in brick and mortar religious and spiritual services and far more time engaged in social media, I am wondering how this shift in our habits will impact us. What I see in my psychotherapy practice is that people feel increasingly disconnected from a sense of context, meaning and the larger human narrative. They speak of being un-tethered, and not knowing what their life is supposed to be about or when it is going to begin. The teen years disappear into the 20s and then the 30s and 40s and onward, all while they wait to feel connected to some purpose, permanence — something bigger and more lasting than their momentary dramas. There is a growing sense of ungrounded or placeless-ness in people’s experience, as if the larger narrative within which their lives could be understood and once made sense is slipping away. We are floating in a world that is changing by the nanosecond, but at the same time, has no ground.
Social media is about immediacy. Before you can finish a thought, there is a new one to replace it. We are living in a Disneyworld for the monkey mind, celebrating every opinion, like, dislike, emotion, and sensation that passes through our awareness. “I am drinking a latte.” “I like this movie.” “I hated this steak.” “I disagree with this decision.” The thoughts stream by unceasingly, beckoning seductively as their 140 characters evaporate into the ether.
Tweets, Facebook musings, and even blogs (this one included) find form for a split second and then splinter into the vacuum that is social media. The speed, impermanence and shallowness of the conversation causes us to feel disconnected and disintegrated. Instant and irrelevant. The opposite of brick and mortar services, social media leaves us feeling ungrounded and without a larger context in which to place our human story. In this immediately-consumed and discarded culture, there is no longer any weight to be found and only banter to anchor us. Our own journey, indeed our own being, feels as transitory and meaningless as the latest tweet.
It is important to come together, shoulder to shoulder, to contemplate life — to consider where we fit into the larger human story, and what meaning our collective and individual journeys hold. It is important that we give weight to this thing called existence. This contemplative process not only keeps us feeling well, but also helps us develop and evolve as people. We mature through the examination of our place and purpose on earth. We develop wisdom and substance. By acknowledging and addressing our shared experience as human beings, we grow more connected to others, the world and ourselves. We deepen personally and collectively as we honor that which is not whimsical and ephemeral.
My hope is that as we disappear farther into the world of social media, we do not forget these rituals that create a structure and narrative for our human story. I hope too, that in our love affair with the instantaneous, we do not lose touch with the disciplines that allow us to feel the roots beneath our feet and all that has come before us, and will come after our personal “I”s and momentary musings have disappeared from the twitter-feed. We cannot maintain a sense of meaning or wholeness in an entirely pixelated world. We become pixels ourselves — without a sense of where we are or even if we are. It is crucial that we stay grounded in some kind of permanence, not a personal permanence, but the permanence of the human journey. Ultimately, in order to stay anchored, we need more than just hashtags.
I check email more often than I should, and more often than I enjoy. I am not alone in this. I have clients and friends who check their email up to 100 times per day. Some, even more. Given the amount of pleasure that email actually delivers, it seems that the urge to check it is disproportionally high and out of sync with reality and well-being (and possibly sanity). Most of the emails I receive are junk and go straight into the trash. Some are reminders of tasks that I need to address or events/opportunities that I should know about (and buy tickets for) but don’t really want to know about. And the smallest percentage, a few here and there, are notes from friends, family, or colleagues that I am actually happy to receive. Because of the glaring disconnect between the experience of email and our relentless desire to check it, I started asking the following questions, “Why do we check email so often?” and “What are we really hoping to find in these little electronic Post-its?”
Email triggers a part of the brain that I call “lottery brain.” It is the part of the brain that produces the thought/hope/belief that miracles can happen, and specifically, to us — personally. To some degree, “lottery brain” is an adaptive part of us, as it inspires hope and a sense of possibility, as long as that hope is also supported by proactive agency in our behavior. When I asked people what they were secretly hoping to find in their email, what the lottery email would be, I was told everything from:
“An old sweetheart, the one who got away, saying that he/she needed to see me.”
“A family member/friend finally apologizing to me for what he/she did to me.”
“News that a windfall of money is owed to me.”
“A perfect job/professional offer from someone who happened to discover me.”
“An acknowledgment of a piece of work or good deed that I did.”
“A note expressing my importance in someone’s life.”
“A love letter from my husband.”
“A note of gratitude/expression of love from a child.”
There were others, but most fell into one of these general categories. Regardless of the answer, just asking the questions, “Who would we really want to hear from? What would we really hope for?” is a wonderful exercise and can help us understand ourselves better.
Lottery brain is susceptible to addictions. The fact that it doesn’t make sense — our checking something every 15 minutes that has never or rarely provided the result that we are hoping for — is irrelevant. It doesn’t need to make sense. In fact, its non-sense-making nature is part of its seduction. Miracles don’t make sense, and still they happen. Don’t they? Email is also addictive because it contains what I see as the four features of highly habitual/addictive behaviors:
1. Attention, specifically, attention is focused, but mindful presence is NOT necessary.
2. Distraction is readily offered. We are successfully pulled away from whatever we were (or were not) doing.
3. Hands. We use our hands in executing the task (which I surmise is related to the evolutionary importance of hands as a tool).
4. Delight is possible through the behavior (lottery mind). Its acronym makes for an ironic ADHD (which bears no relationship to attention deficit hyperactive disorder). Behaviors with these four features have a great capacity to hook us and hypnotize us into paying a lot of attention to something that doesn’t justify the time and energy invested.
If we were rats in a cage whose food only slid down the chute when we opened an email that made us feel better, would we keep checking, or move on to another task that delivered food more efficiently? Probably we would move on and start banging our paws or flitting our whiskers on some other surface. We keep at it because (in many cases) we are addicted, which means that we are not making wise or thoughtful decisions but rather are following a kind of primal urge, which has trumped the part of the mind that can choose whether to check or not to check.
In the grand scheme, does checking email really matter? Is email (or text) addiction even important enough to understand or try to tackle? I believe that the answer is an emphatic yes, and no less worthy of our attention than drug, alcohol, food, sex or any other addiction. Every addiction, no matter its lure, pulls us out of our lives and out of the present moment. Knowing that we can always check, we become more distracted and more dependent upon something external to escape whatever we don’t want to feel or do. We can’t or don’t stop doing something that no longer nourishes us, and that we don’t want to keep doing. Slowly, we start to lose or abandon other important parts of our life in order to be able to engage more fully in our addiction.
The first step in breaking any addiction is awareness. We can start by simply noticing the impulse to check when it arises, pausing before checking, and asking ourselves, “Why do we want to check in this moment?” “Is there an email we are expecting, needing or hoping for?” “Is there something we are feeling or doing that we want to get away from?” “Are we bored and looking for a place to put our attention?” Getting to know the beast is the first step in taming the beast. I know that I personally feel significantly better when I check less — less distracted, anxious and agitated, more grounded and present, with far more interesting ideas (that I can actually finish). And so, regardless of whether you feel yourself to be addicted to checking email (or text messages for that matter), I offer this inquiry as a step in the direction of feeling well. Investigating our impulses, whatever they might be and however often they might arise, is a path to becoming more self-aware, which is always a worthy pursuit, and the natural antidote to all addiction.
Every year, I attend the last church service of the year. At the end of December, the minister asks us to write down all the things we want for the coming year. We then draft a letter to ourselves that we will receive a year later (sent back to us by the church), in which we thank the universe for already having received all the things on our list. “Thank you for the new job that I love,” “Thank you for helping my family get along,” “Thank you for selling my home at the right price,” etc., etc. We write down what we want, decide that we are going to get it, and adopt the gratitude that comes with already having it.
Three weeks ago I received the letter I wrote on Dec. 29, 2011. As always, it is interesting to read what was important to me a year ago and of course, to see what came to fruition and what did not. This year, three and a half out of a list of 27 things came to pass. About 15 no longer mattered to me, and there were eight (and a half) things that I still want but have not yet been able to make happen. Probably the same numbers as if I had not written the letter, but an interesting and useful exercise nonetheless.
Last month, however, as I looked over my list, I was struck with a different kind of gratitude than the kind of usually feel when I read my letter from myself. This time, while I was of course grateful for what I did get and what did happen, I realized that I was, oddly, more grateful for what I did not get, and what had come as a result of not getting what I wanted.
To begin with, because of what the universe so kindly denied me, I was forced to grow in ways that I could have never imagined or wished for. I might have wished for the growth, but I never would have chosen the path by which the growth came. It was because of the things that I did not receive that I learned my most important lessons and was able to change and evolve. By not getting something that was on my list, I was pushed to find out why I felt I needed that particular thing, and the experience I believed that thing would bring to my life. In other words, I was able to discover what I was really craving. As a result of not getting what I wanted, I was able to address the emotional nourishment that I actually needed, and to provide for myself in ways that would not have been possible had I received the actual thing itself. In another example, by not getting what I wanted, I was able to realize that I really did not need it at all, that I was actually okay without it. This allowed me to let go of a long-held belief that I could not do without this particular thing. Consequently, I learned I was far stronger than I had thought — and indeed whole, with or without my desired things.
In addition to the lessons we get to learn, having to do without forces us into the lucky experience of absence. “Who would want more absence?” you might ask. The beauty of absence is that it provides us with the opportunity to meet ourselves. Doing without opens the door to discovering who we are under all the things we want. When the noise quiets, we can meet who’s listening in the silence — who’s there to get or not get. When we don’t get the things we want, ironically, we are offered the gift of experiencing our own presence, our human being-ness. In truth, we need nothing to be happy but we need something to be sad.
In the end, what we call “getting” so often does not come from getting in the way we think of it. We may not have gotten what we thought we wanted, but instead we got the opportunity to become a new person — a person we never would have become had we gotten what we wanted. We can’t want something we don’t know is possible, until it happens. So, too, not getting gives us the chance to meet ourselves, to discover who’s here under all the things we want.
The next time that we think about what we have received, let us investigate what is really true, beyond just our checklist of things. We are trained to be grateful for getting the things we want, but we can and need to become equally grateful for the things that we don’t get, and the wonderful and unexpected opportunities and gifts that those absences bestow upon us — the presents and presence that we could never have seen coming.
We talk a lot about self-care in this culture, but what does self-care really mean? For most people, self-care translates to getting a massage, taking a walk, eating lunch away from our desk, enjoying an ice cream cone, putting on our oxygen mask first. These are all valid self-caring activities, but a deeper level of self-care exists that is not about externally doing for ourselves, but rather, internally being with ourselves in a manner that is non-judgmental and loving. It is one thing to take ourselves out for lunch, but something else entirely and far more radical to honor and comfort our own feelings. This being variety of self-care is not only NOT encouraged in this culture, but also often, radically feared. We are afraid of what will happen to us—who we will become—if start caring for and about our own feelings, and being kind to ourselves. So what are we so afraid of? What is so threatening about developing a friendly relationship with ourselves?
When it comes to treating ourselves kindly, and making ourselves a priority, the first criticism we usually encounter is that of being selfish! How selfish of me to consider my own feelings when so many people are suffering! I don’t have it nearly as bad as them! The fear of being judged as selfish (by oneself and/or others) is what keeps many people from asking for help, even when they desperately want and need it.
We are afraid to care about ourselves. We believe that if we self-care, there won’t be any caring left over for others, as if caring were a finite commodity. If we take the time to pay attention to our own experience, we will become so self-involved that we will end up interested only in ourselves, so egotistical that we will stop wanting to ever be kind to anyone else. In this belief system, our caring for others is a façade of sorts, something we do to appear as if we are good. Underneath it, we believe that we are only interested in ourselves, and that this truth must be kept rigorously in check.
And yet, it is only when we feel well taken care of, when our feelings have been properly heard and addressed that we have adequate resources to offer others. When our own well is full, we can experience our genuine desire to help others. Relating to ourselves with kindness actually increases our compassion and makes us less selfish.
Furthermore, when we are able to empathize with our own suffering, we can geuinely empathize with the pain of others. When we reject our own feelings, we cannot be truly compassionate with others, certainly not to our fullest capacity, as a large part of our heart is closed off and inaccessible. This is not to say that we cannot be kind human beings without being kind to ourselves, but without the ability to relate lovingly with our own experience, we are severed from the real depth of our loving potential. It is as if we are living in a puddle when we have full access to the ocean.
When we know what loving attention actually feels like, and can receive it from our own self, then, we can genuinely offer it to and for another creature. What we bring to others then arises out of our own compassionate heart, which includes compassion for ourselves, as another living creature that is equally deserving of kindness.
A close second to the judgment of “selfish” is that of being “lazy.” We believe that, if we are kind to ourselves, we will end up laying on the couch and eating bon-bons. We believe that the only way to make ourselves do anything is to use force—to become our own dictators. The sense is that kindness toward ourselves will only lead to sloth. In this system our basic nature is understood to be lazy and uninspired. Since action is contrary to our basic nature, it must be imposed against our will and with aggression. The danger in honoring our own feelings is that nothing will ever get done.
The link between self-care and sloth is false. When we have a friendly relationship with ourselves, when we can listen kindly to our own experience and take our own side, we are far more likely to take action and risk the unknown. If we know that when we fall, a friend will be there to catch us, we are more willing to get off the couch and take the leap. On the other hand, if our relationship with ourselves is aggressive and critical, we remain afraid to take chances because of how we will be treated (by ourselves) if we fall short of expectations. The fear of our own aggression is what paralyzes our natural ability to act.
Compassion for others begins with and within ourselves, and is, at its most profound level, the act of tuning into our own experience and listening with kindness and curiosity. Am I okay? Am I well? These are the kinds of questions that replenish our spirit, and make us feel truly cared for. As a result, when we feel cared for—loved—the very best in us emerges, and our capacity to take care of others, and the world, blooms.