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.

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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.

On Being Ill

Many years ago, I went out for a Chinese food lunch with my then meditation teacher and mentor, Russel Delman. I was carrying a journal with me that I wrote in religiously. Russel kindly asked me, “Why do you do that?” “What?” I said. “Write in a journal.” “Just to work out my thoughts,” I said. “Plus, I just like the act of writing.” “Ok,” Russel said, “But just be mindful that thoughts are like cobwebs, the more we engage with them, the more we get stuck.”

This sentiment has stayed with me, and I am now cautious with regards to indulging my thoughts. But I am a writer and the writer is always trying to make sense of their experiences through the act of writing. If it helps another person, great. If not, that is ok as well. Ultimately, the writer writes because they need to make sense of things.

With this in mind, I would like to try and make some sense of the experience that I have been going through over the past month. I presume that the fact that I have the energy to do this is a sign that my health is improving. But last Monday, I could not move from bed.

For the past month, I have been very ill. It is strange for me to write that sentence since I have always been very mindful of my health. I guess you could say that I am currently experiencing my first real “adult” illness. Didn’t think it would occur at the age of 46, but I have known people who have come down with even more serious illnesses at younger ages. This illness really did sneak up on me, from nowhere.

I was around people who had come down with the flu and then I caught it as well. It was an ominous flu, it lingered and seemed like it was settling in deep inside. It did not move through its stages in the way a flu normally does, and it seemed that I experienced more serious and painful symptoms than any other flu I had had in the past. I knew deep down that this was not going to be good, but I rested, took lots of supplements and did what I could to improve.

Just when I thought the flu had finally moved on I came down with an illness I had never considered. “Shingles? What the hell is that?” I said as my father told me over the phone that that was what it sounded like I had and that I need to get to a doctor right away.

Shingles. It is one of the most painful illnesses a person can get. Basically, what shingles is is a re-activation of the chickenpox virus that never leaves a person’s body after it goes away. Later in life, when a person gets too run down, the chickenpox virus gets reactivated in person’s body and manifests as shingles- a burning, blistering, inflammation of a person’s nerve endings. Of course, leave it to me to come down with a serious case of shingles. My entire chest and back where on fire for weeks. I never take Advil or anything like that. But over the past few weeks I have consumed large amounts of Advil- that is how bad the pain was.

I believe that it is the things that we worry about that never really happen to us. I had never even thought about shingles and now here I am, my world practically brought to a screeching halt by it. It’s kind of funny in a dark humor kind of way. I now feel like my health is returning, the pain is greatly lessening, and the massive rash is disappearing. But it is a slow moving illness that leaves a body in a weakened state sometimes for months.

I have been spending a lot of time in bed. Just resting and giving my body what it needs to heal from this illness. I never realized that a person could spend so much time in bed but I have been too weak to do much else. Pain tends to deplete the body of all its energy, like nothing else. But I have been reading, meditating, watering my garden when I can, sleeping and working when I can. Last week I was continually thinking about how the outside world is a world for the healthy and how that world was a world I was no longer a member of anymore. I felt sad a lot. Health really is a possession just like your car. It is the most important possession you have. When it is gone, there is nothing you will ever want back so badly that the wanting hurts.

There is a quote by Eckhart Tolle that has brought me a lot of relief throughout this process. I came upon the quote as I was re-reading one of his books one afternoon while confined to bed and feeling sorry for myself. I was frightened about what could happen. I was worried that I may have to go into the hospital. I was worried that I may not live through this. I did not know if I could survive the pain. Sometimes I presume the body just cannot tolerate a continual high level of never ending pain. I was very nervous about where this all would lead and looked to various philosophers, meditation and spiritual teachers for consolation.

I think this is the worst part of being ill. The uncertainty. Not knowing what is going to happen. Feeling very vulnerable, like you are no longer in charge, no longer able to function without help. Knowing there is very little you can do as new and upsetting symptoms keep arising. You can fight against it, but this just creates a continual feeling of impending doom and worry. Or you can just accept what is happening to you. I was at this crossroads when I read this quote from Eckhart Tolle:

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it….this will miraculously transform your whole life.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have repeated this to myself over the past few weeks. It has been so helpful. In each moment, accepting what I have been going through as if I had chosen it, has allowed me to make peace with the situation I am in. Rather than getting lost in self-pity, worrying about what could happen or being angry at myself for being in this situation (which happens when we get ill) I accepted what I was going through as If I had chosen it. And then there was nothing else for me to do but rest, go easy and just be with what I was experiencing. Such is life. I think it is at this point that I started to get better. If not physically, certainly psychologically. And mental health is so important when the body is battling illness, I have found.

 

I try to live my life mindfully. As a mindfulness teacher, I want to practice what I preach. But I am human. Prior to getting this illness, I got busy. I opened a new mindfulness meditation center, I was maintaining a full-time private practice as a psychotherapist, I was trying to write a novel and a graphic novel. I was also working hard at maintaining a marriage, other relationships, a home and taking care of four dogs. Like everyone else, I got caught up. I knew I was overwhelmed but I thought I was handling it. However, stress is a strange thing, we think we have it under control but we really don’t. Sometimes we realize this the hard way.

One thing I have continually been thinking about during this illness is that I do not want to go back to the person I was before this illness. “If I make it out of this, I will not go back to being that guy. I have had enough of him. Who I will be instead I do not know, but I don’t want to be that guy anymore.” This is what I have been telling myself. So, I have been reading a lot about Zen. I have been meditating regularly. I have been moving a lot slower and I have basically renounced the future and chosen to live my life as fully as possible in this moment. It feels as if I have been gradually training the past twenty years for this moment. As of now, this is the main activity or practice that means the most to me- just being present, calm and aware in this moment of life. Not writing novels. Not making money. Not what other people need or think. Not what I do not like about my life. Not all the things I have to get done. Not the person I want to be. Just being present and free in this moment is what is most important to me now.

In Zen Buddhism, there is this idea of transience. Basically, the belief is that everything is transient because everything is always changing. Nothing remains the same from moment to moment. As a result, when a person experiences pleasure, there is also pain inherent in the pleasure since soon it will change into that. When we experience illness, there is health in the illness since soon it will change into that. “When the sun sets it is also rising. When the sun rises, it is also setting.” Within every experience there is also the opposite experience since everything is transient (always changing). From a Zen perspective, the idea is to just be concentrated on what is in this moment. Don’t attach to any of it because it will be the opposite experience soon enough.

This is basically how I have been living my life right now. I was not living my life like this before. As mindful as I thought I was being, I was caught up in a lot of my emotions and thoughts. I was getting upset. I was very attached to my negative emotions, not really realizing the transient nature of all things. I am not going to punish myself for this since I realize that the things we teach and help others with are often the very thing that we ourselves need the most. If this wasn’t true, we would not be able to really help others because we would not be able to relate.

I still feel very weak and have unpleasant shooting and burning pains every now and then but it is nothing like before. I don’t know how much this illness has weakened my body and I don’t know what will happen to me as a result of this illness in the future. This uncertainty creates some feelings of apprehension but it creates more of a commitment to being concentrated on the activity of being fully present in this moment. I am grateful to this illness for this.

I often heard people talk about how illness was a great teacher. I have even known people who have said that they would never want to go back to their lives before cancer. I confess to not really understanding when people would say this. But now I get it. Like I said, I don’t want to go back to that guy I was before the illness. He was a good guy but he was not really doing what he needed to do to exist in a state of calm and well-being. What was I thinking? I thought I was a meditator and mindfulness teacher? How did this happen? Some bad habits die hard and we often require a serious illness to make us more aware of what really matters.

Before I got ill, I read this passage in a book of essays by Henry Miller. It said something like if we refuse to become aware on our own, life will open the flood gates on us and shock us into awareness. Makes me shiver as I write this because it was a kind of ominous prognostication of things to come. When I read that passage I remember thinking that I really needed to get my shit together. I needed to get things under control because I was taking on too much responsibility and stressing out about so many different things. But I always put it off for another day and then the flood gates opened on me.

None Of This Is As Real As You Currently Think

This seems to be the most difficult concept for humans to grasp- that none of this is as real as you think.

Sooner than later the life you are living right now and everything going on in it will be the distant past.

Will not exist anymore.

Your life will eventually be a life that was once lived a long time ago.

You are not immortal.

Everything vanishes.

Including you.

Trying to forget about this does not help anyone.

It especially does not help you.

I was made very aware of this while reading Jack Kerouac’s book “Desolation Angels” this morning.

In it he describes an entire world, so full of life.

All these people.

All these lives living in 1950’s San Francisco.

Kerouac masterfully portrays this vibrant and thriving world that was so alive at one time but does not exist anymore.

All these characters that he describes.

All these families, friends, problems and achievements- all of it gone now.

And I am reminded that the same thing will happen to you and I.

Our lives, which feel so important and real right now, will be the distant past soon enough.

And then there will be people in some future time reading about this time in which we lived, thinking that it all seemed so alive at one time but now it too is gone.

It is so important to not get too caught up in things.

Our lives depend on it.

We get so stuck on various day-to-day problems and worries.

We forget.

We treat our lives as if it were something that will last forever.

We treat life as if it were continual tasks to be accomplished.

How misguided we are.

We forget that we too (and everyone else) are mortal.

All of this will disappear.

All the more reason to try and be present with it while it is still here.

I too get caught up sometimes and forget.

I treat my life as if it was this thing that will be around forever.

Sometimes it makes me sad that I do this.

I sometimes do not appreciate the passing moment and I create problems that would not exist if I could stay aware of the transitory nature of everything.

The mind often tricks us into thinking that everything is so real.

So important.

But if everything is just going to be a distant memory before we know it, how important are we really?

Why get so caught up in our preoccupations?

Why take ourselves so seriously?

What happens when we stop forgetting that we and everyone we know are quickly passing lived lives, is that we appreciate the moments we do have much more.

We stop trying to make life something that it is not and appreciate what is here now.

A feeling of gratitude and release from pressure and stress arises.

We can settle down and appreciate our time and the people and things around us before it is all gone.

We can do the things we want to do more.

Knowing that it is all just going to pass, gives us the freedom and courage to live the kind of lives we want to live right now.

Without this realization we are just wasting something very valuable.

Valuable only because it can never be gotten back.