Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Smartphone Addicts Anonymous

You've seen them before: the zombie hordes of people walking down the street, not looking where they're going, staring into the glowing screens in their hands. The groups of friends sitting around the dinner table or standing in a bar, not talking to each other, staring into the glowing screens in their hands. The business meetings where colleagues barely pay attention to each other or to the subject of the meeting, absorbed in other business that's happening simultaneously on the glowing screens in their hands.

Full disclosure: I'm one of the zombies too (or at least a part-time zombie). I have a small device with a glowing screen that I carry with me everywhere I go. It connects me to my work. It connects me to my friends. It connects me to my family and my partner. It connects me to my teachers and sources of inspiration on the path. But it also, at times, disconnects me from all of these things and becomes an annoying distraction from the things that are truly important. As my friend Mario put it, "I would feel lost and isolated if it wasn't for my cellphone; but I've also felt lost and isolated because of my cellphone, if that makes any sense."

Mind-Altering Technology
Smartphones are a powerful, mind-altering technology that is transforming the way we interact, the way we work, and the way we live. We've become addicted to the constant buzz of activity and the never-ending flow of communication and information that streams invisibly through the air and into our pockets, our purses and our hands. Like Pavlov's dogs, we hear the ping or feel the vibration of an incoming stimulus, and we salivate. We reach instinctively to take in the stimulus, often acting on auto-pilot. We don't pause to think. Buzz buzz buzz, we react.

It doesn't matter where we are, or how inappropriate it is to be interacting with a glowing screen. The buzz comes, and we need that fix. It might come during a romantic dinner, and we are lured away from the beauty of the present moment because we have to check to see if that email was important. It might come during yoga class, and we are drawn away from our practice because someone commented on our Facebook post about going to yoga class. It might come while we are driving, and we are distracted just long enough by that text message that we run a red light and crash into another car.

These are not made-up examples. These things happen in real life, all the time. And they are fueling a growing backlash against our societal addiction to smartphones. There are laws now against texting while driving because too many people died or killed others while doing it. Even the number of people injuring themselves while walking and talking on their cell phones is soaring; one expert estimates it may be as high as 2 million people per year. There are pleas before every movie not to use your phone during the movie, because some people are so self-absorbed that it doesn't occur to them (without being told) that a glowing screen or a phone conversation in a silent, dark theater might actually bother the people around them. I've been to yoga classes where almost everyone in the room sits up from the final relaxation posture and reaches immediately to check their smartphone, without even standing up first. One yoga teacher I know makes a habit of going around the room and turning people's cell phones face-down (because they apparently don't think to do it themselves), so they don't actually stop in the middle of a yoga posture to see the photo of what their friend is eating for dinner.

Down the Rabbit-Hole
Like any other mind-altering technology, smartphones have their usefulness. I love mine. Actually, I recently got a new one and have been experiencing a renewed phase of immersion as I get to know the device's features. But I also struggle, like many people I know, to find the right balance. How do I use my smartphone in a way that is actually smart, a way that modifies my experience for the better? How do I avoid becoming lost in the trance of technology and information? How do I respond mindfully to the constant buzz buzz buzz that tugs at my attention and pulls me out of the present moment and into a glowing, virtual realm of stories and news and pictures and comments and videos? How do I avoid becoming a smartphone zombie? There are no easy answers.

One of my colleagues at work — a programmer, someone who works with technology for a living — carries an archaic flip-phone that isn't good for much more than phone calls. Pecking out a text message on it is so time-consuming that it becomes an unattractive proposition. She refuses to upgrade to a newer, smarter phone. Perhaps that is her way of fighting the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps she knows that once you go down that rabbit-hole, it's hard to find your footing again. It's a slippery slope. Once you start spending as much time photographing your afternoon cupcake with your smartphone, enhancing it with digital filters, and posting Instagram pics of it as you spend actually enjoying the cupcake, you know you have a smartphone problem. (And if you use hashtags like #cupcake and #booyah to describe your cupcake, God help you. You've gone all the way down the rabbit hole.)

Life Without Smartphones?
When I lived in the monastery, we were in a very remote, rugged place, an hour's drive away from the nearest cell phone signal. And I have to admit that, after the initial detox period, there was a tremendous feeling of liberation that came from having no cell phones around. No annoying chirps or musical ringtones to shatter the silence, no incessant little tug at your attention, no relentless stream of largely useless and pointless information, no buzzing in your pocket that calls you away from your meditation session and into the realm of other people's distractions. One thing you find out pretty quickly is that you can manufacture plenty of distractions to keep your mind occupied, all by yourself, without any assistance from a little glowing screen that follows you everywhere and feeds you a constant diet of sensory and intellectual stimuli.

Now that I live back in New York City, smartphones surround me once again. And to be honest, I think having a smartphone makes living in a city like New York easier. This is not the monastery, and my obligations and activities are very different. I don't relish the idea of living here without one. But it's a double-edged sword.

My friend Mario was riding the tube in London recently, with another friend, and he looked around to realize that almost everyone else on the train was staring into the glowing screen in their hands. He was reminded of this scene from the film Wall-E, which seems alarmingly like the dystopian technological future into which we are all heading.

Getting a Grip on Your Smartphone
Lately I've been working with a couple of simple practices to help me develop a bit of mindfulness — and do some harm reduction — around my smartphone habits. Sometimes when my partner and I sit down to dinner, we put our phones face down on the table — or, better yet, leave them in the other room — and agree not to check them until we've finished our dinner together. Some people have adopted even more extreme measures: when you're out to dinner with a group, everyone stacks their phones in the middle of the table, and the first one to check their phone picks up the tab.

Another thing that I find helpful is something the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa recommended to his students when they watch TV: he told them to try, while watching TV, to maintain an awareness of the physical space between themselves and the TV set. I try to do this sometimes with my smartphone. Just to be aware of that two or three feet of space between me and the glowing screen in my hand helps me step back and frame the experience, rather than getting lost in it.

As with any addiction, the first step towards getting better is to admit that there's a problem. So let me be the first to say it.

My name is Dennis, and I'm a smartphone addict.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Get Over Yourself: Resisting the Tyranny of Ego

When I lived in the monastery, one of the most profound and challenging aspects of our training as monastics was the principle of choicelessness.

As humans, we ordinarily spend a vast amount of time — maybe even the majority of our time — fussing over our personal preferences about everything from our food to our clothing and appearance to the creature comforts of our home. A big chunk of this time goes into trying to get our way and impose our personal preferences on other people, and negotiating all the conflict that arises from clashing preferences. Our partner feels like eating sushi tonight and watching a certain TV show, but we feel like eating pasta and watching a different TV show.

Dropping the Habit
Like Goldilocks in the children's fable, we jump constantly from one experience to another, always searching for the one that's "just right" — the one that fulfills our personal preferences. We spend our lives trying to make ourselves comfortable by selecting and acquiring the objects that meet our criteria. But our preferences are fickle and quixotic, and things often don't live up to our expectations. The movie we so looked forward to — and coerced our friends into seeing with us — turns out to be dreadful, and we leave the theater feeling disappointed (and chastened by our friends). The pasta that pleased us yesterday bores us today. The shirt we loved when we bought it last season looks like a fright when we put it on now.

In the monastery we were encouraged to drop this self-defeating habit and to work, instead, with the discipline of choicelessness.

  • Forget about your appearance. Leave your fancy hair products behind. Shave your head like everyone else. Forget about jewelry and make-up and accessories and your favorite clothing — they're not allowed. Wear the simple robes that are given to you, which (surprise!) look like everyone else's. Stop trying to be "unique" and to "express yourself" with your appearance. That's just your ego.
  • Forget about your eating preferences. Eat the food that is prepared for you, and eat it only when it's placed in front of you at the appointed hour. If you don't like the food, you're cordially invited to keep your complaints to yourself. Or don't eat.
  • Forget about your creature comforts. Sleep in the bed that's offered to you. If you don't like your roommate's snoring, you're cordially invited to get over it. Try wearing earplugs.
  • Forget about sleeping in, or planning your day according to your mood. Wake up with the others and follow the schedule. Do your practices. Do your chores. Do your work. Don't like the schedule? You're cordially invited to get used to it.
  • Forget about escaping on Open Day into the movie of your choice. You can choose to watch the one movie that is provided on Friday night — which is selected by majority vote — or you can choose not to watch it. Don't like it? Leave the room. Go to bed early.

Life Does Not Revolve Around You
You learn very quickly in the monastery that life does not revolve around you and your personal preferences. As in the military, there's a structure and a program to be followed for pretty much everything. You either get with the program, and learn to be generally okay with it, or you make yourself miserable by struggling against it. That's your choice. Which one is more appealing?

That may sound harsh, and in some ways it is. But when you actually embrace choicelessness as a practice, a form of spiritual training, it can open you up in unexpected ways. You start to see that the quick thrill of getting what you want pales next to the deeper sense of contentment that comes from accepting that which is, without complaint or struggle.

You've spent your whole life trying to get everything and everyone around you to align with your personal preferences. How's that working for you? Maybe, just maybe, it has caused more trouble than it's worth. So how about dropping all that and just letting things be as they are?

Sometimes a Burrito is Just a Burrito
You may still hate the burritos that are served every two weeks, like clockwork; you may still hate the film that was chosen by the group for movie night. You may hate the schedule, and feel a burning resentment at being coerced out of your warm bed and into the cold meditation hall at 6 a.m. for the first practice session of the day. But after a while you start to glimpse that your personal preferences are just that: they're just your personal preferences. You begin to see that you are enslaved to them, and they make you miserable because you take them so seriously and believe it's your job to satisfy them all the time. The less seriously you take them — that is, the more you stop whining and get with the program — the less miserable you make yourself and those around you. You begin to taste the freedom that comes from not blindly following your own patterns and urges.

Maybe you discover that the burrito is not the dramatic culinary insult that you have made it out to be. It's just food, after all, and you could actually do something completely contrary to habit, like choose to eat the burrito anyway, without throwing a temper tantrum because it's not what you like. In doing so, you may even experience a faint glimmer of gratitude that, unlike so many other people in the world, you have a burrito to eat in the first place. What's that, you say? A burrito isn't what you wanted? So what? Who said life was supposed to give you everything you want all the time?

Choicelessness in Everyday Life
You don't have to go to the extremes of shaving your head and living like a monk or a nun to work with the practice of choicelessness. You can experiment with it in your everyday life. Take one small opportunity each day to notice when your ego is trying to manipulate a situation to get your way — and when you notice that, just see if you can drop it. If there's a discussion between you and your partner or your friends about what to do on a Friday night, make a conscious decision to drop your personal agenda and just do what they want to do instead. Watch your ego kicking and screaming like a brat as you eat the burrito. Eat it anyway. It's food. What's the big deal? Notice, afterwards, how your whole world did not, in fact, come crashing down as your ego predicted it would.

The spiritual path is about learning to recognize and peel away the layers of our individual ego — with all its demands and distortions, its likes and dislikes — in order to uncover the egoless, undifferentiated Being that is our true nature. As long as we are caught up in the lifelong momentum of trying to satisfy our ego's preferences and keep ego happy, it will be hard to make much progress at peeling away those layers. The practice of choicelessness is a tool that helps us, moment by moment, drop down through the onion, one layer at a time.

It's a lifelong practice, and I'm not sure that anybody really gets it perfect. But the more you can drop your mind's struggles to acquire what you like and push away what you dislike, the more possible it becomes to glimpse the truth and to find a more abiding form of contentment.

Seng-ts'an, one of the forefathers of Zen Buddhism, put it like this:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinion for or against. The struggle of what one likes and what one dislikes is the disease of the mind.

You are cordially invited to get over yourself — starting right now.


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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Slay Your Own Dragons: Freeing Yourself from the Grip of Materialism

"We are living in a material world. And I am a material girl."

With that simple lyric, Madonna pretty much summed up modern society. But she was only pointing out the obvious: this is a world where materialism dominates. The phrase, "The one who dies with the most toys wins," is not just a sad joke but is actually many people's life philosophy. Madonna mocked materialism while simultaneously milking it all the way to the bank and becoming one of our society's wealthiest pop icons. Her song was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the materialism Madonna sang about goes much deeper than pop culture. It's rooted in the prevailing philosophical outlook of our times, which is scientific materialism. This outlook tells us, with a lot of very convincing studies and theories to back up the idea, that we are nothing but physical matter. Any experience of consciousness we have, whatever thoughts and emotions we feel, whatever inkling we have of some kind of spiritual dimension of our being, is only the byproduct of chemical reactions, material neurons firing in a material nervous system. Not surprisingly, this view encourages us to focus on maximizing our own material well-being and pleasure, since there is nothing else to live for.

This outlook tricks us into thinking that we can make ourselves permanently and securely happy if we just line up the right material circumstances. Get our bodies in shape, make lots of money, surround ourselves with nice things and pleasurable experiences, live in the right house and wear the right clothing and accessories, hang out with the right people and consume the right food and drink, get the right surgeries….the list could go on. And there is nothing wrong with having any of those things. But if we believe that material objects or experiences are the key to sustainable contentment, we are setting ourselves up for failure. No matter how much good stuff we have, as human beings we are wired to want more, and we are also wired to fear losing what we already have. We feel attached to our pretty things, but our pretty things don't last. Therefore, we suffer. "Mo' money, mo' problems," as another pop song wisely observes.

More Than Skin Deep
But materialism rules our minds and causes us to suffer in even deeper, more insidious ways—ways that are more subtle, harder to see. We also become attached to our ideas and points of view, and we harden them into ideologies that give us a more solid sense of identity and control over our lives. But our ideologies—our "isms"—end up putting us in a box, and anything that doesn't fit in our little box of ideas, anything we disagree with, becomes our enemy. Look at the front page of the newspaper and you can see where this leads us. Our world is locked in a maelstrom of warring ideologies and conflicting belief systems. And everyone thinks they are right.

For those of us attempting to walk on a spiritual path in life, there is a third kind of materialism—which is perhaps the most insidious kind of all. The pioneering Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa coined a term for this: he called it "spiritual materialism." We fall into the trap of spiritual materialism when we begin to use our spiritual practice to build up our ego—our spirituality becomes a project for building a bigger, better, happier, more secure "me."

Authentic spiritual practice, on the other hand, makes us less self-centered, less interested in making "me" happy and satisfying the demands of the ego—and more open and compassionate towards others. Genuine spirituality is actually rooted in having seen through the game of ego and the whole project of "me," and no longer quite believing in the stories that ego constantly tells about itself. From a Buddhist point of view, what we regard as "me"—the ego—is illusory, like a mirage. It appears to be there, but it's only a trick of perception. And it's as changeable and unreliable as the weather. We use the crutches of material comforts and ideologies and beliefs to prop up this illusory ego and convince ourselves that it's solid and real.

When Ego Hijacks the Spiritual Journey
Unfortunately, the ego can also hijack our spiritual practices and use them to further ensnare us in a web of illusions. We can become attached to religious forms and rituals—which are, after all, only tools—and confuse religion for spirituality. We can play dress-up and present ourselves to the world as a very "spiritual person," someone who floats through the room in white clothing and prayer beads, whispering words of wisdom while inwardly judging and looking down on others as being less "spiritual" than we are. We can get lost in the ego's craving for "bliss" and convince ourselves that our yoga and meditation practices should just make us feel good, and that everything is supposed to be "love and light" all the time. We can walk away from anything on the spiritual path that challenges us or makes our ego feel uncomfortable. If we take this easy way out, then we merely skim along on the surface of spiritual inquiry, never going beneath to discover the deeper and darker layers of our psyche—our shadow, our dark passengers—which also call for our attention and our care.

In the Gnostic gospels, Jesus warned: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

If we engage deeply enough and authentically enough with the spiritual path—regardless of which tradition we are practicing—we are bound to discover truths about reality that insult our ego. Even without a spiritual path, life itself is bound to deal us blows that humble us and bring pain. And by turning our attention within, we are bound to get in touch with aspects of ourselves that are unsavory and would be more comfortably left unexamined. Yet it is precisely these things that will set us free when we bring them into the light of compassionate awareness.

"Learning to look deeply to see into the true nature of things," wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, "having direct contact with reality and not just describing reality in terms of notions and concepts, is the practice."

The authentic spiritual path is not a walk in the woods. Or, rather, it is, but those woods are not all dappled sunlight and chirping birds and warm breezes. The woods that make up our lives also include dark and haunted passages, swampy bogs with poisonous airs where the unwanted, unseen parts of ourselves lurk like ghostly villains in a fairy tale. To live our lives fully, to awaken and have direct contact with reality and not just describe it in terms of our concepts, we must leave the comfortable, ivy-covered stone walls of our ego's protective castle and journey out into the uncharted and unknown reaches of our actual experience. The journeying may not all be pleasant. But wherever we go, whatever we find—it all belongs to us, and we must come to know it. It is the kingdom to which we are the heirs, and we must pass through every square inch of it, bogs and ghosts and all. We must go out and slay our own dragons. No one else can do it for us.

Or, we could just remain in our castle of materialism—bathed in luxury, our notions and concepts and ideologies unchallenged, floating on a blissful cloud of so-called spirituality—and pretend there isn't anything scary outside the walls of the castle. That's definitely an option. But for how long?