Here

 

As awe-inspiring as it is to take note of the capacities of the thinking that has created the technologies, we must also include the ways in which our creations have magnified and exacerbated the troublesome sides of the human brain. One example of this is the ordinary mind, and how often it believes that some where, some one, or some thing else, is better than here. More desirable than where we currently are, or are with.

As someone who has been watching her mind for decades through a combination of practices, including mindfulness and meditation, I daily, and sometimes even moment to moment, watch how my mind will tell me that there is another place to be; a more superior place to be than wherever I am. I see it when I am sitting in meditation thinking that when I am done, and getting to have breakfast, that will be better than where I am. I see it when I am doing errands and catch myself believing that when I get home, it will be more of where I most want to be. I see it mid-week when I start to feel that when the weekend is here, and I am done teaching, then I will finally be in the better place.

Only… What I regularly notice is that whenever I get to the some where else, or some thing else, or some one else, not only am I not necessarily better, there arises a whole new set of places, conditions, and circumstances I would rather have or be experiencing. I am even doing it now as I write, believing that when I am done with this section, that life will be better. That it is somehow more desirable for me to get on to the next thing instead of being exactly right here; where I am.

Enter the mobile devices. The ones that travel with us through all of our here and now’s. The very same ones that connect us to an infinite array of some other place, some other person, and some other thing to do. If we choose, this can happen in a virtually non-stop kind of way. And when we use the screens in this way, it feeds the distorted notion that there is not much value in being fully wherever we are; compounding our tendency to try and escape what is happening, or who we are with, or how we are feeling. With the devices, there is always a way out. There is always a way to pacify the part of the mind that needs to have another experience, feel another way, attain the happiness it seeks someplace else. Anywhere else. Except of course, for here.

But the truth is, no where is better than here.   

The Apocalypse Is Upon Us

 

My daughter recently sent me a photo that she had taken on her college campus. The image shows a big expanse of space with lots and lots of students in it. What was the most striking feature in the shot? Everyone is on their phone. Beneath the photo she wrote; “The Zombie Apocalypse Is Upon Us.”

This so heart-breakingly exemplifies my experience of late teaching at the college level. For the very first time in over a decade, I am beginning to wonder how long I will continue teaching. I am questioning what I do not because I am burnt out, or out of passion for what I teach, or lacking in creative ideas for lesson plans. I am not considering life out of academia because I am retiring, or because I am wanting to do something else. It is purely because I do not know how much longer I can teach to students who are so rarely in a position to learn. Based on recent conversations with other teachers at both the college and secondary level, I am not alone.

Regularly, students come to class exhausted, sick and hungry. Regularly, students show up expecting the information to be predigested and then down-loaded to them. Add to this the technologies. Right up to the moment that they step into class, they are on their phones. And then, it is the first thing they go to when class lets out. Many have told me that even when it is not with them in the room (as it cannot be in the class I teach) it is what they are thinking about nonetheless. Recently a student told me that she cannot wait to get out of class to rush back to her apartment so that she can be freely on her phone without interruption. She has noticed how much she is just dying to get back to catch up on what has happened, on what she has missed for the last hour or two; only to be left too often with an empty feeling and a wondering about why it is that she is doing this.

I am watching myself very, very closely now. I am asking myself to be aware of when it is that I am the hardest working person in the room. I am also watching them very, very closely to see if I can discern when it is that they cross over into some place where there is no coming back from. A place where the human call can no longer reach them. A place where they officially have become zombies, interested only in the call of their master; the screen.

Again and Again

 

I am about to teach my Wednesday night yoga class when I hear that a young man from our town has died of an overdose. He was 19 at the time of his death.

The news sits heavy on my chest as I teach. It begins to dawn on me who this boy was. My husband coached him in basketball. My two children went to grade school with him. As I am brought back to memories of my own children at that age, it is almost unbearable to imagine the fate of this young man through the memory of the boy that he was.

At some point, my mind turns to my 19 year old “boy.” Now enough of a young man to be living on his own in Nashville while he follows his dream of making it in the music world. Thinking of this world, and its proclivity to destroy lives through drugs and alcohol, I feel a hungry mother’s need to hear his voice. To be assured that he is OK. And while I don’t necessarily enjoy sharing this kind of news, I am yearning to connect with him through the feelings that have been stirred up through the news of this death.

Only. He has already “heard.” Seen actually.  “Someone posted it.” Days ago as a matter of fact. And here we are again. And again, and again, and again. With seemingly no end in sight to the ways that the technologies can disconnect us from the intimacies of our lives together, derailing us emotionally and relationally.

What is deep, private, personal, and meant to be life-stopping gets transmuted into what is shallow, public, impersonal, and just another piece of information in an endless news feed; nothing whatsoever available through this medium that would set this event apart from sexy pics, political rants, sports stories, cute sharings and narcissistic ramblings.

Inch by inch, or more to the point, post by post, the most precious, holy and noteworthy between us is being swallowed up in a technological sea of sharings so vast, continuous and muddied that it drowns out and obscures what more than anything else requires the respect of human conveyance in real time and on a human scale. And so, in the end, what will it matter that we can post every single detail about our lives immediately, while simultaneously not being known in the ways that matter most?

Wrong Places & Wrong Times

 

I am at a yoga retreat a couple of weeks ago; one that I have been very much looking forward to as a way of not only deepening my own practice, but as importantly, affording me an opportunity to connect with others over something that means a lot to me, in a time out of time sacred setting. So, to say that I was taken aback by the nearly constant presence of smart phones and tablets across the weekend would be a massive understatement.

It begins and ends with the smart phone that sat on my teacher’s mat before him as we practiced, and then wound up being fiddled with in his hands during teaching sessions. It continues with the participants who immediately reach for their phones as soon as the morning practice is over. It shows up at the lunch break as the devices replace the beautiful outdoor setting, conversations with others, and time spent alone in silence. It creeps in during our afternoon talks as the woman next to me checks her messages, and at one point watches a video.

Across the weekend, three of the women spend a good deal of their break time sitting on a couch together sending each other pictures and comments about the amazing time we are having together. On the night that there was talk about a fire gathering outside, nothing materializes as too many of our little group are actively involved with what is coming across their screens. And on the last day, as we are walking down the driveway heading out for a short and known walk, several people have a gasp response when they realize that they do not have their phones on them. Not to worry, the teacher has his.

What reveals itself here is that despite all that we believe can happen via the technologies, there is so very much more that is not happening and that is never being given a chance to happen. Things are being lost without the recognition that we are losing them. Things like the impromptu conversations that take you somewhere you could not get to on your own. Things like the quiet reflection of nature and what it might reveal to you, or in you. Things like the universal knowing that there is a time and a place for everything, and that if we allow the technologies domination over all of our spaces, our losses will be too vast for words, and ultimately, too enormous to live with.

Where are you allowing wrong place, wrong time scenarios in your life with the technologies?

Being Watched

 

“The only thing that Orwell failed to predict was that we would install the telescreens ourselves and that our biggest fear is that no one would be watching.”

 

Our children’s insecurities are mounting, magnified in part by their use of social media. They fish and maneuver for compliments and reassurances in the forms of “likes” and “followers.” They grow more and more comfortable spinning and marketing themselves. They remain ever-vigilant for feedback. They spend their precious days ruminating over getting their words just right, or their picture “flawless;” desperately needing others to see them as they most want to be seen.

I once read, “Men watch women and women watch themselves being watched.” This pierced me all the way through the first time I read it in ways that are not easy to articulate. Suffice to say, it spoke directly, acutely, and poignantly to my experience of growing up female in this culture.

I know what it is to watch myself being watched. To watch myself being watched through the eyes of a culture whose expectations, standards, images, accepted behaviors and social norms, of and for a woman, are degrading, disrespectful and dehumanizing. I know what it is to watch myself through the eyes of misogyny that is candy coated in layers of denials, justifications, and projections, and then rolled out as something I should want, even count myself lucky to be on the receiving end of.

For too many years, it left me unnaturally oriented to and even “at home” with being watched in all the wrong ways. It left me at home with being seen in ways that shattered my spirit, denigrated my sense of self, and sacrificed any ease or well-being I might have experienced in my female body. It taught me that my very existence, my right to be here, to be loved and appreciated, was conditional, always, upon what another saw in me. Men most especially. It felt to me like what they saw in me and wanted from me was who I was, and who I needed to be. Whether that was good for me or not. And whether what they saw was true or not.

It felt like all that it would take for me to be banished or reduced down to nothing, was one bad picture of me posted for all to see. A picture deemed so hideous in the eyes of another that it could only mean that that was the truth of me. Because of this, part of me could never, ever stop checking. Could never, ever stop posing and positioning myself in ways that I believed others would like. It felt as though my very existence depended on me knowing precisely what others wanted of me. I worked very, very hard to line up with this.

After I had been doing this long enough, all of the monitoring and the feedback that I had been receiving from outside of me, got installed inside of me. It felt necessary to my survival. I did not trust myself; only those watching me. I did not see myself as separate from being watched. To do this would have required me knowing that I was not what others saw. Since I did not possess that knowing, well, it was anybody’s game. Except mine. It is deeply disturbing to witness how much a woman will go against herself when she is wedded to watching herself being watched; bound by what they “see.”

What is it doing to our children to grow up needing to be watched to feel as though they deserve to exist?

A Happy Family

I am at our local co-op when I run into the mother of one of my son’s friends. We catch up a bit, going back and forth about how the summer is going, and what we are both up to. When I let her know I am spending my time finishing a book on the downside of technology and kids, she lets me know about a trip she and her family recently took.

She tells me how she consciously chose a vacation spot where there was no Wi-Fi access. And she specifically required beforehand that everyone leave their phones at home, not bringing them on the trip. She admitted to being worried about how they would respond to this, as well as how long it would take for her two children to settle down into time together without their devices.

With a big smile, she told me that they had adjusted immediately! How they had talked and sung together as a family for the whole ride up, and how wonderful it had been to be with them without the distractions and the intrusions of the phones. She told me she had pondered creating some kind of a requirement after they got back around times for no cell phone use at home, but felt that it was probably too late now to impose such a thing as both kids would be going off to college in the fall, and were perhaps too old for that kind of thing now. For a moment she paused, appearing to be pondering something. She ended our conversation, speaking more to herself than to me, by saying; “We were a much happier family before the cell phones.”

What do you say to something like that? Everything this woman, or any of us for that matter, needs to proceed around technology and our families is contained in that one heart-wrenching revelation.

“Blow Back”

 

My son will turn nineteen in just over a month, and is leaving for Nashville to make his way in the music world soon thereafter. In preparation for this next phase of his life, and because as a graduated senior our house rules on no cell phone have been lifted, he has just purchased his first cell phone. As he sits before me on that first day, new phone in hand, he is both beaming and apprehensive.

We talk the next morning over breakfast and he indulges me (because of course he has heard it all before), as I go over the hit parade of things to most watch out for. I tell him that if he will hear me out, I will leave him to his own after this; except of course if it interferes with our relationship or house rules. I remind him of things like not on your body, not near your bed when you are sleeping, and never when driving. I remind him of things like never anything typed over a screen you wouldn’t say in person, along with my plea to not let this dumb down his exceptional social skills and his ability to meet interpersonal challenges head on and in person. I encourage him to protect his relationships, listen to his body, and always remain present noticing how he is using and why. The conversation is a good one. My rational mind is satisfied that the information I most want to convey has been said. I feel confident based on how he has been raised and who he is as a person, hoping that all of this will serve him well in the enormous challenge that stands before him.

Surprisingly so, I am even happy for him. I can see how he is ready to go off to make his way in the world of music, and that this device will help him do business as business is being done. I can see he has been given a childhood, a before, and a strong and discriminating foundation. I can see that he is watchful, creating boundaries, and at this point, is even a little wary of how this is going to change things for him.

And I can also see that in a matter of days his world has dramatically changed. Suddenly he is tied to something. Suddenly his mind is occupied by something. Quite extensively, from what I can see. Now there is this thing he has to check. Repeatedly. Now there is this thing that has to be charged, brought with him, and referenced before he can do anything else. It is striking to be on the outside of this. It is unsettling to watch how in a few short days, his mind has reset so profoundly to something outside of himself.

As the days have worn on a deep heaviness, more to the point, despair, has come over me as I see how much he suddenly needs this thing he has been more than OK without. I watch him now as this is the first thing he does every morning, and the last thing he does before going to bed at night. I see that his focus and his attention is with his phone now; a thing has become more interesting than us, or anything that is happening in our home. 

Instead of a weekend morning stretching before us with room to catch up after he has woken up, maybe share some food, or connect over something in the moment, the screen captivates him now. It feels like I have to schedule time to interact with him, or wait for a time when he is not looking down at the screen. And what used to just organically arise and develop between us is gone. This is more than awful. Seeing it close up with one of my children for the very first time, I see that it is far, far worse for all of us than I have ever imagined, heard about, or observed. It hits me so hard that I am left without adequate words to describe the devastation I am witnessing; not just for him, but for all of our children and the families they are unknowingly distancing themselves from.

And while I know he is in the early throes of it all, and hopefully it will settle out in a way that best serves him, I cannot help but see that this thing owns him now in a way he used to own himself. And while this may be exactly what he wants and needs, to have something that catalyzes and firms up his severance from us, I can’t help but notice that this little piece of metal is being used as an avoidance of what is too difficult for him to be with. 

This is the very same person, by the way, who just a short time ago maintained his music career, drove a car, and got together with friends; all without a cell phone. This is the same kid who would be gone all day, and more on weekends, not getting calls or an email until he got home, and who now suddenly can’t go more than a few minutes without checking to see what’s come in. This is the same kid who used to call anyone without hesitation, and who now texts instead. This is the same kid who would go off and read or play music and who now seems more interested in being available to his device. 

It has become the priority. And even though, by many standards, he is making excellent and well thought out attempts at drawing good lines around when he is using it and when not, still, he is different to be around; beholden to, tied to, and enslaved by something outside of himself. I write this as my attempt to make sense of something that has the capacity to drive me mad with grief, despair and frustration. I write this as a way of reaching out. My mother’s heart is broken and bleeding, for him, for them, and for us. 

I realize that one likely response to what I have just told you would be to say, well, of course this is happening, he was “deprived” all those years. If you had just let him have one all along this never would have happened. I do understand why it would be so much easier and far more reassuring to believe that this is happening because he didn’t get it earlier. Only, it’s not true. How do I know this? I know this because all I need to do is to look at the ones who started early, recognizing that they and their families are suffering the same fate as my son. Just sooner.

I know something deep in my bones. I bet you do too. That being, whether they get it early or late, they are succumbing to the technologies in ways that take them away from themselves, their families, and even the friends they remain ever “connected” to via the machines. If we could be willing to admit to what is happening we would put ourselves in a position to adequately guide and protect them. So, while it might be convenient to imagine that what I have described is nothing more than blow back brought on by “deprivation,” that would be a lie.

What if we were willing to both recognize and act on the fact that the screen technologies are an extremely seductive and addictive force? Perhaps more than anything we as people have ever had to contend with. What if we agreed to use as our starting point the recognition that the technologies are beyond our children, and should never, ever, be left up to them? How then might we proceed?

Inspiration From A Friend

 

Recently I asked a friend if she would talk to me about her decision to get her two girls a cell phone. Part of what prompted my request was a conversation we had, along with us both seeing Screenagers; a documentary which follows one family’s journey to getting their 12 year old a smartphone. Here is what she wrote:

I went back and read my journals, and the drafts of the contracts Mike and I drew up together, and remembered the dozens of conversations I had had with friends and family, and I thought, actually we did a lot of due diligence and deliberation around this. And still, it wasn’t enough. Maybe, though, it was never meant to be a one shot deal? Maybe there was no way to perfectly foresee what transformations we would undergo?

I have been really wrestling with this; what I can control and what is beyond me. So, when we got together with my brother and his kids over Easter, he and I agreed on a phone moratorium during the family holiday. We were both expecting a certain amount of unholy blowback, but were strengthened by our mutual resolve. And then, the blowback didn’t happen! The kids were completely fine about it, and didn’t do any of the addictive dry-drunk manipulation I was cynically expecting. We did puzzles, hung out, talked politics, and hiked. We had a lovely time.

The anticlimactic result of all my worry made me realize that a huge part of the problem is us. I think parents, myself included, make technology into this incredibly powerful force in our lives and shudder to think about what would happen if we tried to take it away. Even my brother expressed this sort of supernatural awe when we were talking about kids and phones and he said: “I don’t think it is enough to limit access to the I-phone. I feel like we need to drive a stake through its heart!” I too have this fantasy of incinerating them all in a big cleansing fire, freeing ourselves in some all-or-nothing, magical way from this infestation of Silicon Valley succubi. 

This black or white thinking has characterized my approach to technology up until now– either roll over and take it, or rage against the machine and ground everyone because I am convinced that it is destroying us. But you know what? Nothing is black or white. I can’t turn back time and undo everything. Some things are here to stay (at least for now): AIDS, CO2, overpopulation, mental illness, technology, addiction, capitalism. I am realizing that the cognitive distortion of “It’s evil incarnate and I am helpless before it’s insidious, invidious power!” is just not a helpful position for me to take. 

And so I meditated on all of this for a while. And I talked to Mike. And I looked at the phone contract we had made together 3 years ago. Then I called a family meeting and said we needed to revisit this because things have morphed considerably since our original agreement. I told the girls; “There is no blame or punishment here, because that is what living things do.They morph.They push the limits.They test the waters. And these objects are designed to make themselves indispensable and send little pellets of dopamine to our hungry brains every time they vibrate or ding.” 

I forbore going into all the research around the effects of technology on developing brains, although I was tempted. Instead, I kept it simple. I said, “we miss you.” I told them how I had noticed that when each of them had lost phone privileges recently how happy I had felt. Not because they were suffering, but because I didn’t feel like a second class citizen in my own house. Because I didn’t feel like some invisible string was always pulling them away from me and toward this infinite, horizonless, virtual feast; no pavlovian yank on their chain every time a text came through. No involuntary swivel of the eyeball.

I told them that what we needed was some space between us and our compulsions, because in the end awareness is the best protection we have. Therefore, the phones would to be staying downstairs from here on out. All the time. Except maybe for an hour or so before bed time if they wanted to talk to someone privately in their room. I went on to say that they were not be used anymore until chores, home work, exercise, dinner, etc were completed. Further, the phones were not to be used during homework, because, contrary to everything our culture tells us, multitasking does not make us smarter, more efficient, or better. And, you know what, it seemed as if the girls were expecting this, even wanting me to say all this. When our talk was over, it was as if a spell had been broken.

Now, the devil is in the details. I am all too aware of how slippery a slope this is. The work is never really done. But that makes it like just about everything else in life. As long as we don’t delude ourselves that this is the final word on the subject, we will figure it out as we go. I think the realization here for me was that my vulnerability has real power, and that connection is recoverable. Saying what we want, what we long for, what we want to rebuild is speaking from strength. I don’t think I quite believed that before.

 

What Are We Really Choosing?

 

I once heard someone say that whatever is behind any choice that we make is, in fact, what we have signed ourselves up to receive more of. Regardless of what we wanted, or thought we were going to get. In other words, if you make a decision based on fear, you have just signed up for more fear in your world. If you make a choice based on scarcity, you have just signed up to learn the lesson of lack. If you choose and act based on trying to appear better or different than you actually are in order to fit in, you have just signed up to learn about deceit and alienation.

Look at your life. Closely. How many times a day do you make choices that are not coming from what you really want, but are instead based on you trying to protect the downside? Or you trying to keep something from happening. How many times a day do you make choices that come out of reactivity, overwhelm, stress and busyness only to be met with more of the same? How often do you choose based out of denial, avoidance and disconnection? Have you ever linked up your motivations and mind states to the results that you are getting?

In the yogic tradition that I hail from, it is never about what you do. Instead, it is always about why you do what you do. This is the exact opposite of what we, and our children, are creating through social media where the “what” something looks like reigns supreme and above all else. Under the auspices of “connection,” what I would define as a mutual and reciprocal coming together for the benefit of both parties, more times than not, our use has more to do with spinning, glamorizing and inflating the self. Instead of a give and take in our interactions with others, there is a kind of side by side marketing of ourselves to each other and how it is that we want to be known.

What if we could really see that that every time we try and get people to see us through untruthful ways, we have just signed up for a falseness between us. And that every time we try to get a greater sense of belonging by garnering more likes and followers through misrepresentation, exaggeration and obsessive preoccupation with the wrong things, we have just signed up for an experience of isolation, fragmentation and dissatisfaction.

The technologies push and magnify our social buttons; our deep-seated and innate needs as human beings to be seen and to belong. For there to be any chance of the technologies benefiting us in this domain, we must become aware of the “whys” of the “whats” that we are engaging in. Further, we must recognize that our children are not yet capable of this distinction.

Freedom

 

When my children were around two and four, we had had a long stretch of rainy, cold weather on Cape Cod where we were living at the time. After several days of this, we were all so sick and tired of being together in the house that we were all feeling the strain with one another. And so, even though I had no plan, I piled everyone into the car and went for a drive. Somehow we made our way to the beach even though it was most decidedly not a beach day. But like they say, necessity (and a mother’s desperation) is the mother of all invention.

We got out and made our way onto the sand. Because I had not planned on coming to the beach, I had no food, no towels, no toys and no friends. This was something I had never done before, nor even considered, typically arriving at the beach with enough supplies for an army.

Hours later I had to drag them off the beach. From out of their own minds and bodies, and in collaboration with their surroundings, came exploration, companionship, curiosity, creativity and more. Everything they needed was inside of them; aided and brought forth by what was outside of them. It was a pivotal realization for me as a mother to witness just how little they needed, and just how big they could create out of virtually “nothing.”

We are harboring an undermining belief when it comes to our children. We believe that they require entertainment 24/7. We believe that they need lots and lots of externals to be satisfied. We think they need screens and gadgets to do it for them, believing they must be continually wowed, stimulated and done for in their play and interactions. All of this derails their own creativity, natural movement, and imagination, the forerunners of intellectual, social and emotional capacities.

This mentality is robbing our children of the joys that naturally arise in a childhood that is free from too many externals, done fors and distractions. And along the way, we are forgetting that the less they need to be OK, the better, happier and more imaginative they will ultimately be.