Throwing Out My Smartphone

I will try not to be too self-revealing here, but it is hard when writing. For me, this is the point of writing- to reveal the self that wants to stay hidden for fear of judgement. Writing for me is a way of getting beyond this fear and living a more authentic life.

So, here I go…..

I want to throw away my smartphone. I realize that most would think that doing something like this is nuts or reactionary, but I am beginning to feel like it would be an act of sanity.

Deep down I am starting to feel like this smartphone craze is not good for anyone, but who am I to say?

I realize that having a smartphone makes communicating with people who are not in my immediate proximity easier. I can do business without having to talk to a person on the phone. I can stay connected with family members that I don’t really want to talk with. I can be updated with the various things going on in the world. I can listen to whatever music I want at the push of a button.

There are certainly many conveniences of a smartphone, but there are also many conveniences of a microwave (both of which, and there is much literature online about this, can cause cancer). Doesn’t mean it’s good because it is convenient. My brain just can’t buy into the idea that convenience equals good.

Smartphones take up large chunks of our lives that could be spent doing much more meaningful things. For example, people spend much more time locked away in their bathrooms, on the toilet while also on their smartphones. I don’t think there are any studies on this but I am certain that the vast majority of people these days are spending much more time on a toilet than ever before. Toilet time has become scrolling and texting time. This destroys the Zen idea of doing one thing at a time and keeping a strong and mindful focus on the thing being doing.

Smartphones turn people into habitual multitaskers. Multitasking just means not doing anything well. When our minds are scattered because of all the various things that we need to check or attend to on our smartphones, we lose the ability to be able to do one thing well. We also lose the ability to tend to our lives in the present moment.

I used to be a prolific reader of mainly novels and philosophy texts. I could get through a three-hundred-page book in about a week and get a lot out of that book. Now I feel like it is a continual struggle. My attention is interrupted every ten minutes by this ominous pull to check my smartphone. This makes it harder for me to keep my attention on what I am reading. And reading with no attention is like running with no legs- it just ain’t much fun. So, I don’t finish as many books these days and I am just not comfortable with this.

The idea of trading substance (which, is what I feel like I am cultivating when I read, meditate, draw, write, listen to records, talk with people, etc.…) for the things that I am doing on my smartphone just does not feel like a wise choice. It is a kind of Faustian bargain. As fun as social media may be, all it is doing is turning us into a collective hive that channels or funnels information in the form of updates, tweets, “likes,” “re-posts,” and on and on. We are not doing anything of real substance. I suppose this is why it is appealing- it’s easy and requires very little effort. But it also makes us just like everyone else.

I understand that my smartphone has a very practical use but I find it difficult to keep the practical and the other superficial stuff separate. It is like a drunk hanging out at a bar and only having one beer. Eventually he or she will be drunk again.

It takes a superhero like quality these days to keep oneself from getting completely sucked into their smartphone. They may start out with the idea of using it in a disciplined way, but before long they are on it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They are sitting with friends and loved ones while on their smartphone. They are not cooking or exercising or meditating or reading as much anymore because they are on their smartphone. They are late to work or appointments because they are on their smartphone. Doing what? It’s mostly fluff. It’s mostly time spent doing nothing of value at all (except perpetuating the hive mind). Even the conversations we have with others through text are devoid of real meaning or substance.

Smartphones are really the greatest distraction humanity has ever seen. It is distraction in its purest from. And we all know how addictive pure distraction can be. Especially when it is in the palm of your hand.

I don’t want to live a shallow life, devoid of any real attention. It does not feel good. I want to do the things that mean something to me and not spend valuable time doing things that do not matter to me but doing them anyways because I can’t interrupt the ominous pull to check my smartphone. I am concerned for those in their twenties and early thirties who are on their smartphone, most of the time. Will they be fifty and look book at their youth and think, “What did I do? I failed to live my youth!” Similar to how a person may now feel who spent most of the 1980’s in front of a TV.

I want to throw out my smartphone. I really don’t want it around anymore. I managed to get rid of my television and that freed up a lot of time to do things that have more substance. It helped to return my attention span to a state of normalcy. But now I have this smartphone to contend with. If I get rid of it, I must return to talking with people on the phone and taking ten minutes to write a three-sentence text.

Seems worth it though. In exchange, I feel like I will get back quality time (and attention) that I cannot help but feel this smartphone is stealing from me.

Advertisements

“Watch Your Judgments!”

I was sitting next to my meditation teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center one cold and rainy Monday night. His classes were often not that crowded, which was one reason I went to them. I would go to his meditations and talks once or twice a week to practice and study formal Zazen meditation. Everything was silent and calm. I could hear the rain coming down outside. And then he farted. Some people laughed. I noticed a feeling of revulsion and disgust arise in me for a moment, but then I let it go.

Often during his meditations, the teacher would yell out, “Watch your judgments!” “Watch your judgments!” Other times he would do things with the intention of creating strong judgments in us. He would make annoying noises by tapping the wood floor with various objects. He would yell out various things like, “Watch the breath!” or “Watch your mind!” He would even say things like, “Isn’t this boring?”

Some people found his teaching style too offensive and/or bothersome. Sometimes during his talks he would talk about offensive things. He swore a lot and he would sometimes drink whiskey during his classes. He continually pointed out that the more a person attached to judgments, the crazier they became. His teaching style was based in provoking strong judgments in his students, so that we could learn to not be as attached to all the judgments that came into our minds.

I found his teaching style helpful in dealing with my own judgmental mind. I also found him to be very entertaining, poetic and authentic in a world where people often hide behind masks.

The definition of mindfulness that I like is, “The awareness that arises, when we pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” By non-judgmentally, what is meant is not that we do not judge. The brain is a judging machine and judges all the time. To not judge is almost impossible for humans. By non-judgment what is meant is that we are aware of when we are judging. This makes a huge difference because when we are aware that we are judging we are not as defined by our judgments.

Why would we not want to be defined by our judgments? Because like my meditation teacher said, judgments make us crazy. Most of the judgments that we attach to during the day are negative and distorted perceptions of reality. When we judge we are only causing ourselves to become negative people. We end up separating ourselves from things and people as they are, and this often leads to a very unhappy, fearful and rigidified way of living.

When we can be aware of our judgments, but not be as defined or rigidified by them, we have a greater opportunity to live a freer, more mindful life because we are better able experience and accept things as they are.

What my meditation teacher meant by crazy, was living a life that was not able to be aware of and accepting of what is (this is similar to the idea of suffering, which is also the inability to accept reality as it is).

Whether it was him farting, yelling things out during meditations, drinking booze, talking about his love life or making annoying sounds during meditation- my meditation teacher’s instructions on learning how to watch judgments, rather than be defined by them, has been one of the most important teachings and practices I have come across in my life.

And I suppose I am a little less crazy as a result.

“Why Do You Do What You Do?”

It is a question that I do not ask myself enough, but the life coach I have been working with asks me this question often. She believes that if the answer to this question does not involve joy, pleasure or something similar, what you do is what is causing your unhappiness, lack of purpose, depression, anxiety, etc.

In America, I would say that the vast majority of people do what they do because they have to make a living. They are following someone else’s script of what success means and doing what most others are doing around them without any meaningful connection to why they do what they do.

We are not really taught how to follow our own intuition. Instead we are taught how to follow a path of success developed by others. But we often end up sacrificing what we really love to do.

Burnout is a condition that many working people suffer from. Burnout (and not addressing burnout) is responsible for so many illnesses. What many who are dealing with the stress of burnout forget is that instead of valuing people who can do a lot, it is important to encourage the valuing of people who are able to balance their lives. When there is a mismatch between effort and reward, one’s energy is what gets drained.

“Why do you do what you do?”

Is your behavior driven by joy or by obtaining a goal? Keep in mind that joy is exists in the pursuit much more than it does in the realization of the goal.

Through my work with a life coach (I often try and engage in work with a mental health professional of some sort, because it is important for me to stay on top of my own personal growth and well-being or else I will not) I have been made aware of some things which are easy to forget.

For example, ego-involvement versus task-involvement. Ego-involvement is when a person’s feelings of self-worth become hinged on their performance such that they do the activity to prove to themselves that they are good at the activity and thus worthy as individuals.

Task–involvement is when people are more involved with the task itself than with its own implications for a person’s feelings of worth.

This distinction is also related to the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is focused on outcomes that are separable from the activity (making money, status, recognition). Intrinsic motivation is self-determined activity; that is to say, that people engage in the activities freely, because it is already interesting and enjoyable for them.

It is extrinsic motivation that burns out one’s life, thus leading to the condition of burnout.

To get to a healthier place in our lives where we feel better and live with less stress, anxiety and depression it is important that (among other things) we find a way to make the shift from ego-involvement to task-involvement. Thus, regaining our intrinsic motivation.

As yourself that classical psychological question, “Why do you do what you do?” Then listen to the answer.

The Weight Of Obligations

At the end of a day working as a psychotherapist, I can’t help but wonder if unwanted obligations are not the main cause of so many physical and mental illnesses. On a typical day I will see between six and eight clients, most of whom have lives that are filled with things they have to attend to, but do not really want to do.

In America we tend to see this as the normal way life is. It is as natural as the sun coming up in the morning. We have all these obligations to tend to, things that we do not really want to do, but we do them anyways because in a sense we must.

For most Americans, work tends to be one of the main obligations that people would rather not spend their time tending to if they did not have to. Afterall, the definition of happiness is doing exactly what you want to be doing.

But as Americans we have been taught to remedy the unhappiness of doing what we have to do but do not really want to do by buying things. In fact, the more we are able to buy, the nicer the things we own, the more successful we are seen as being.

But I am not so sure that buying things really brings lasting happiness. Yesterday, I bought a really nice table my wife and I have wanted for some time. A few hours later we were arguing about a problem we have been having with one of our dogs. I couldn’t help but note that the happiness from buying the expensive table did not last long.

I realize that in America we see everyone working hard and then buying their way up the status ladder with the money they have earned. This is just what we do, it is how we have been taught to live and we don’t really question it, except maybe when we are in a hospital bed.

I wish that the things we bought from the money earned doing things we do not really want to be doing but are pretending like we really like doing, brought long-lasting happiness. I really do. But the truth is that this way of achieving happiness is like stacking more stuff in a garage that is already over-filled. You buy a car or a house and a dog or have a few kids and then you just have to spend more of your time doing things that you do not really want to be doing with your limited time.

Now that I own a home and have dogs and some nice things, I have to spend a lot of my time engaged in home care and dog care and organizing and paying for all the things I own. The time I spend doing the things I really want to be doing has grown exponentially shorter. If I complain about this, I feel guilty because I feel like I should be grateful for what I have. I remember having very little and I should be happy that I finally have a nice and comfortable lifestyle. But I sure spent a lot more time doing the things I liked to do when I was poor.

This is what I call a middle-class syndrome. Middle-class because day after day in my work as a psychotherapist I see people dealing with the anxiety, depression, chronic worry and stress that are symptoms of this particular syndrome.

Because happiness is having the ability to do whatever the hell it is you really want to do (and not just on the weekends), I often tell my clients that they must find balance.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of economic life in America that most people will have to work jobs that are not the ideal way that they would like to be spending their time. They will also have to do a lot of things outside their jobs that are not the ideal way they would like to be spending their time. It is just how we have set up economic life in America.

If a person goes an entire day without spending some time doing exactly what they want to be doing, this is a recipe for misery.

Everyday a person needs to try and take the power back by committing themselves to doing exactly what they want to do- even if it is on a lunch break. For me it is reading, writing, making art, meditating and listening to music. If I do not do a few of these things everyday, I will feel despair. If I neglect these things for too many days I will just start to feel like a hopeless robot going through the motions with no real purpose or interest driving my life.

If we want a shot at feeling good we must make the effort to balance out our daily lives by doing things that we want to do (and not just when we get in bed at the end of a day with a book). If this is for too long neglected the anger, stress and depression that we feel will manifest in a physical and/or mental illness.

I am not sure that there are too many people who get to do exactly what they want to do all the time. I am sure that even Donald Trump would rather not put on a suit somedays. Life in the current late-capitalist American economic system that we are living in, means spending a large majority of our time obligated to things that we do not really want to be doing.

Like I said, most see this as normal and do what they must without thinking much about it. This is what the powers system wants, a non-questioning, submissive, automaton.

But we are human beings and I believe that the point of being alive is to be able to enjoy your life as much as possible; to be able to do exactly what you want to do most of the time. I believe that we were designed to live this way and nothing we purchase is worth its exchange. It is just the current system that we are all living within that has messed this up by encouraging us to turn our lives into a never ending series of weighted obligations.

If you really want to do the things that you want to be doing in your everyday life, you are going to have to really try. Because after all, the person easiest to neglect is yourself.

Hell Is Other People?

I was once the quintessential “angry young man.” Alost everyone pissed me off. I wasn’t the type who screamed and yelled or became violent but when I got angry I would internalize it. I shut down and would stonewall the person I was angry at for days or weeks! Or I would withdrawal into myself and not talk with anyone. A few times a year the pressure would get released when someone did something that really upset me. Then my temper would just let lose. I never hurt another person physically, but anger in all its manifestations can be very damaging to oneself and others emotionally. For various reasons, other people created a kind of hell inside me.

The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people.” For a long time I believed this was true. But is this really? Yes, other people can be disappointing and difficult but do other people really have the power to create our inner hell? Or are we the ones who we let other people do this to us?

I am sure most people have said things like, “You are really stressing me out,” or “You make me so angry.” I know I have. But is this really true? Is it other people who are stressing us out or are we giving away all of our inner power to other people thus letting them stress us out?

Well, I think the answer is yes and no. It can be very challenging to be the kind of person who just remains unaffected by other people. To be that person who just doesn’t care and is able to remain completely relaxed and grounded in the face of adversity. It is possible to be this way (I thought Barack Obama was a great example of this when he was President) but it often requires a great mastery of the skill known as self-control.

 

The cool thing about mindfulness is that the more we practice, the more self-control we get. It is like an innate, positive side-effect of practicing mindfulness. What this means is that the more we practice mindfulness the better we get at responding to stressors rather than reacting to them. Make no mistake about it, there is a gigantic difference between reacting and responding. Reacting causes stress whereas responding cuts it in half. Reacting is habitual and automatic, responding requires awareness and conscious choice. The mind makes a great servant, but a terrible master, so the saying goes.

When we let other people stress us out or make us angry it is usually because we are reacting to that other person. They do something we don’t like, we get triggered and then instantly go into fight or flight mode. We fire right back or pull away. It is usually all downhill from here. In this situation, it is true that hell can be caused by other people. We tend to live in a culture that supports, reinforces and teaches this way of reactive behavior towards adversity.

But when we are able to be mindful, we gain the ability (or skill) to become more self-aware, to not react to every single trigger that goes off in us. When we are more self-aware we can notice that we have been triggered and then respond to the trigger, rather automatically reacting to it. We can notice that our bodies have become tense, that our mind is creating all kinds of negative thoughts, that our heart rate has gone up and we can also be aware of our impulse to react. But we don’t have to give in to this. We can just smile at it in the same way that we would smile at an old person walking slowly across the street. “I see you, but I am going to exercise compassion and not get all stressed out.”

Instead of reacting, we can focus on our breathing, feel our feet on the ground, notice the wave of heated emotions invading our chest and just let it go in the same way that we would watch a bird fly across the sky. We don’t have to give in to the negative thoughts and heated emotions. When we are able to act from a more grounded, self-aware, less automatic place- hell is no longer other people. We no longer let other people have this kind of control and power over us.

Ultimately we are the ones who determine whether we want hell to be other people or not. We are the ones who let other people get to us. We let other people stress us out more than we need to. Human beings are very resilient creatures. We can get bent out of shape, but we always have the ability to come back into shape quickly. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we gain the ability to come back into shape quickly after being bent out of shape. Gone are the days of hanging onto stress or anger for an entire day or days! Yeah we will get upset or stressed out because of other people. It is only natural for most of us. But we can be aware that this has happened and then let it go as quickly as possible. Return to the present moment and move on with our lives without carrying that heavy, stressful, emotionally damaging load.

There is great freedom (and health) in being able to respond to other people in this way.

What Your Stress Response Says About You

As a psychotherapist, I often hear people talk about how they just get so stressed out over the smallest stuff but they feel like they can’t control it. They know the stress is not good for them and that they should not get so stressed over such small things, but it just keeps happening anyways. “Something happens, blood pressure goes up and there is not much I can do about it. I just get so easily stressed out.” I hear this a lot.

This morning I watched an interesting lecture on depression given at Stanford University by Robert Sapolsky, who is an author and one of the world’s leading nueroendocronologists. In this lecture, which I will link to below if you are interested in watching it, Sapolsky explains how depression is a serious biological disease just like diabetes. In fact, Sapolsky states that depression is one of the most damaging diseases that a person can experience.

What I found really interesting about Sapolsky’s lecture was when he started talking about how depression as a state where someone cannot get out of bed, is not really what depression is. A more accurate biological manifestation of depression is a continual heightened stress response. This means that a defining characteristic of a person with depression is an continual activation of their stress response. Interesting, right? Like a machine gun going off all day, a person with depression is often experiencing an uncontrollable stress response to various things in their life that don’t warrant the kind of stressed out response they get. This gradually wears a person down over time and causes them to feel worn out, low energy, low drive and unable to get out of bed at times.

We often think of depression as a depressed or heavy state. I found it fascinating that depression can manifest as an over-active, hyper-stimulated state. A person who is always getting upset or stressed out over the simplest things (like dishes not be done, being late, closet not organized, someone cutting them off in traffic or saying something they don’t like, etc, etc…) is actually experiencing a major symptom of depression.

I am interested in this because as a mindfulness teacher and practitioner one of my main interests in mindfulness is its ability to help us get much more skilled when it comes to dealing with our stress response. Instead of our stress response to various little things causing our entire day to be ruined because we get so upset or stressed out, mindfulness helps us to respond positively to our stress response by noticing that it has kicked in and then being able to let it go. This is often called self-regulation.

Since an elevated and often uncontrollable stress response is a main characteristic of depression, I find this lecture encouraging since it validates what I already know- that regular mindfulness practice is an effective intervention for depression (and anxiety). Practicing mindfulness also encourages a person to take a more active role in their mental and physical health rather than engaging in learned helplessness, which causes the depressed state to spiral downwards.

 

You can watch the lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc

Notes From The Present Moment

Here I sit, in front of my digital typewriter. It is a Saturday morning and the sun is hanging bright in the blue sky. I just finished watering my garden. I wanted to drench the plants, trees, flowers and grass in water before the afternoon summer heat consumes them. As I was watering I noticed a snap of Autumn in the air but as quickly as a snap comes, it went away.

There were butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds that I presume showed up in my garden to grab a drink of water from the hose. They flew through and around the water like children at play in a park. I noticed the warm sensation of my feet making contact with the grass and the rays from the sun soaking themselves into my skin. My breathing was slow and shallow and I noticed that my mind would continually wander off thinking about a hundred different things and I would continually bring my mind back to the awareness of just being present in the garden.

I feel grateful for mindfulness practice because without the skill of being able to be present more than I am not, I imagine my life would be filled with anxiety and dread. I don’t care much for thinking about the future nor do I really tend to the past. But my mind will travel to these foreign places without my say so and I am grateful that I have the awareness, trust and the ability to bring my mind back into the present moment.

Make no mistake about it, a person needs a lot of trust to be present. Most people are too filled with anxiety to be present. They feel like if they are present their lives will somehow fall apart or not be worth living. They will not get done what they need to or maybe they feel like they will have nothing to do. This is a myth that is simply not true. The opposite is actually true- the more present we are the better we tend to things. I am grateful that I know this to be a fact through my years of practice. I never thought about the possibility of having a beautiful garden at some point in my future. I don’t think about if I will continue to have this garden. All I know and care about is that it is here now.

It is only this moment which is real, everything else is just a fiction created by our minds. A fiction only because it is not what is happening now. Most tend to live a life in fictional places. Maybe this is why so many people do not like reading fiction- because they already spend so much of their lives in fiction. I don’t know. But I do know that if we spend too much time in fictions, we neglect things now. If I can be present while watering my garden, I will do a much more thorough job. Over time, my garden will be much healthier because I tended to it with presence rather than rushing through and possibly not giving the plants, flowers, grass and trees the water and attention they need.

The sound of an ambulance siren just raced past my house. Whenever I hear an ambulance or fire engine siren, I always think that there is someone in great need out there who is probably very relieved to be hearing that sound. I used to be aggravated by the loud sound of sirens but that was selfish of me to be frustrated by a sound that is bringing with it the help that someone needs.

For me, the sound of a siren is a continual reminder of the fragility of all life. It helps me not take things so seriously. At any moment, at any time the siren could be coming for one of us. After being ill for the past month, I became very aware of that fine line between being able to be independent and suddenly needing help. Whenever I hear a siren, I am not only grateful that it is not coming for me, but I am reminded of the importance of living in the present moment because who knows when it will be.

In meditation retreat centers, singing bowls are used throughout the day to remind a person to gently guide their attention back into the present moment. Since I live close to a busy street where ambulances and fire engines often pass through, I use the sound of the sirens in the same way I would use the sound of singing bowls when on meditation retreat. I gently bring my attention back into the present moment. I notice my breathing moving in and out. I become aware of sensations in my body. I notice smells and sounds that I am hearing. I lean into the present moment. And then I am just here, present in my life without trying to gain anything. No future, no past, no need to get something more. Just this moment.

This is how you earn a life.