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.

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.

Why Can’t We Stop Ourselves?

 

You know, it is one thing to know all the reasons why something is happening, and it is quite another thing to actually experience it. That is why, in this day and age, when we have more information and more “reasons” than we can possibly make use of, there is nothing like a direct experience. There is nothing like watching yourself go through something. There is nothing like an embodied experience where all of you is present and included in what is happening serving as the platform that sees through the rationalizations, denials, intellectualizations, and justifications of the conditioned and habituated mind.

I flew down to visit my mother this past week and had three experiences with the screen technologies that still leaves me stunned and uneasy. On the flight down, I sat in front of the standard issue little screen embedded in the back of the chair in front of me. Looking around and seeing that every single screen was going makes it seem like they can only be in the “on” position. No choice. So, when I traveled last and discovered that despite there being no “off” position, if I dimmed the brightness all the way down, it felt like nothing short of a miracle when the screen finally went blank. Such relief washed over me.  I figured, well that’s that. Only, as it turned out, that was not that for this time because beside me and in front of me as far as I could see, the screens were on all around me. And for some reason I could not stop tuning into them. Even though my thoughts were trying to be on my own thoughts, or on my own breath, or what I was reading, my eyes kept finding their way back. It was as though I could not, not look.

When I got to my mother’s house, even though I do not watch TV and have not had TV for many years and actually never, ever think about it, suddenly with one in the bedroom with me, I thought about it quite a lot. I kept wondering what might be on. One night I even ended the day a little earlier so that I could have time to watch something. And even though on the first night of my arriving I was totally exhausted, and really just wanted to sleep, I turned it on. After passing through about 500 hundred channels and still finding nothing on, I settled for a movie I had seen before. A movie, by the way, that now was being interrupted with an obscene amount of commercials and that had scenes that had been deleted out. And even though I could feel the exhaustion, and was so annoyed with the experience I was having, I kept going.

Later in the week, while at the movies with my mother, a particularly disturbing trailer came on. I turned my eyes so as to not take in what I most definitely did not want to ingest, and I will tell you, it took all of my will power not to look back. I felt like the mythological character who goes into the underworld and who upon being released is told do not look back. Under any circumstances. And then does, because she just can’t stop herself. Even though she knows it will be really, really bad for her. And it is. She is turned to stone.

I know the research that talks about how when there is a screen around everyone’s attention goes right there. I know about the links made between dopamine, the feel good chemical, and our need to respond to anything and at any time that comes out of a screen. But I will tell you, when you are watching yourself committed and wanting something else, and still finding it virtually impossible to do anything else, that is a most disturbing and potent piece of information. And while it could be easy or tempting to reduce these experiences down to some personal failing on my part, I think I won’t. I think I will be with what I know to be true; this is beyond me.

“Everybody Changes”

 

My son was at a Super Bowl party on Sunday night with school friends. How great is that? Guy friends hanging out. All together. Or not. It seems that throughout the game, and especially during the historic comeback by the Patriots, many of the guys were busy “snapchatting” about their experience. For them, it was more exciting and hip,(not to mention emotionally “safer”) to be sending out messages via their phones about what a great night they were having then it was to actually be there and have a great night. These days, our children are learning to be more excited by, and interested in, orchestrating false and hyped-up versions of their lives. They are more enlivened at the prospect of playacting about how amazing it all is as soon as the cameras started rolling.The moments of our children’s lives are being drained away and reduced down to little more than times manufactured; as times captured by a screen, as opposed to actually living those times.

Afterwards, my son observed that “everybody changes” as soon as the phones come out and the videos start flowing. This so speaks to what we are all up against. We as people already struggle enough with all of the ways that we will shift ourselves when we feel observed or are trying to fit in. No age suffers this more than teenagers. Now, though, with the assistance of the technologies, our children can fabricate and spin themselves and their lives in ways unprecedented until now. They can build representations of themselves based on illusions, scripts, and made-up representations of what is happening or how they want it to look.They use the devices to try and get others to see them the way they want to be seen.

This taps into such a vulnerable place in all of us; that part of us that wants to control how others see us. The technologies are exploiting and magnifying the false notion that by presenting things a certain way, via the screens, we can manage and influence how others see us, and therefore, feel about us. In the meantime, the realities of the fears and insecurities we all experience around this, and that must get addressed if we are to feel secure in ourselves and in our relationships, gets paved over. So yes, the devices afford a momentary fix to the discomforts of how we are seen, but ultimately creates a dangerous false sense of security that some parts of us, way down deep, is absolutely aware of and uneasy with, despite how great we present ourselves to others.

It is exhausting our children for them to be living as if they need to be bigger than life. It is soul-sucking to have to smile broader and convey more excitement than you are actually feeling. They are growing up believing that life is supposed to be a reality TV show/rock video that they are starring in. And we all know far too well exactly what happens to those among us who lack the capacity for living the ordinary, unobserved, non-staged, hum-drum moments of life. How will they manage if they switch their feelings off and on based on whether or not they are being watched? How will they know the truth of their experience separate from the pretending, the mask, the camera ready face they so quickly take off and on?

 

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

Poster In Louis’ Class at PVPA

 

 

A Tiny God

 

My childhood home had an enormous pine tree that grew in one corner of our backyard. It towered over the rose bushes, the fence, the bird house on a pole, our garage, and other trees. It felt to my little girl self as tall as a mountain. Amongst the shelter of its lower branches I felt safe. And known. The great pine and the ground beneath it was sacred to me, though that was not a word I knew or would have used back then. Over the years fallen needles had accumulated to build layers and layers of softness and comfort. When you walked under this magnificent tree, the ground was literally different than anything else you would walk on. It felt otherworldly to me. The layers of built up and decaying needles made it easy for a small girl to dig into the earth to bury things in her life that had died. It was here that I would come when our home and the ways of the world would overwhelm me. I felt held here. I felt heard here.

I never talked about my experiences in this place with anyone. There were no words for it. It was different than church where someone told me what to want and to feel and to pray for and to be ashamed of. In this place, there were no rules, obligations, expectations or have-to’s. Just a yearning revealed, recognized and met; one that I did not even consciously know I had. This experience was beyond the world. It was a way of being seen though there were no eyes. It was a place where I felt something way down deep that I did not feel anywhere else. At the time I thought it was the tree, which is why when it became infested and there was talk of needing to cut it down, I felt cleaved down the middle. I did not know then that while yes, something did exist there in that place, it was also in me. And while in the times to come that place would lie dormant and forgotten within me for many years, when the time was right, it was as though a seed that had been planted and forgotten suddenly found its way into its day in the sun.

The technologies consume our children’s hearts, bodies and minds while asking nothing of them and returning nothing to them by way of their spirits. To be so engaged and enthralled with something that requires so little of you is not the recipe for a strong moral character. It is instead the makings of a spiritual brat. Our children are being warped and drained spiritually at a very tender age. When they are young, a felt sense of the Great Mystery of Life is not something that has to be taught. They are it. Sadly enough though, what they come in embodying can be unlearned, which is what happens when we make the biggest and most meaningful thing in our children’s lives come from a machine. As Father Gregory Boyle writes, “God can get tiny, if we’re not careful.”

If there was ever an argument for avoiding and limiting screens in childhood this could be The One. Spirit sick and soul hungry children make for very unbalanced and unhappy grown-ups, no matter what their facility with technology is.

 

 

Virtually and Perpetually Distracted

I read this week that the video game Pokeman Go had 45 million players in its first 12 days, and that among a host of problems related to the scavenger hunt nature of the game in the real world, was that 110,000 distracted driving-related incidents had been reported in the first 10 days. I am left wondering so very many things. Things like what would it be like to garner 45 million people’s time and energies to devote to….?  Fill in the blank. Things like, are we so out of our minds with the siren’s call of the technologies that we would jeopardize innocent lives on the road? Things like, why do we have plenty of time for this, but often so little for what really matters most?

If there was one question that I could ask All of Eternity, it would be; “Why is it so hard to remember who we are and what it most important?” Why does it seem easier to forget than to remember? Why does it seem so “natural” to get distracted and to lose track of really important things like self-care, self-love, the health of the planet and the importance of each other? And why is that even when we want to do things differently, it can be so hard to change?

Almost 30 years ago I had the worst birthday of my life. It was my 25th. What made it so awful was that I became utterly unnerved and unhinged that a quarter of a century had gone by and that I had been asleep at the wheel. I hadn’t done anything worth mentioning. I hadn’t a clue about how precious and short-lived Life really is. After this difficult revelation, I made some changes. Some things stayed the same. Maybe even most things stayed the same. It was hard for me to line up in my own mind why it was that I saw the need to change, and that I wanted to change, but still found it so difficult to do so. It was just so easy to get distracted. It was just so easy to forget. For a,long time I beat myself up about not doing better, believing it to be some failing on my part that I could not just get to where it was I most wanted to be.

I see things differently now. Sure, there is lots and lots of research about how and why people change, and why they don’t. My sense, though, is that there is more at play than we usually recognize around what creates change. Something that is beyond the obvious of A+B=C. Something that is beyond a human hypothesis. Something that is beyond will and intention. Maybe it is built into us for some reason beyond our knowing to struggle like this. Maybe it is so the Universe gets to create through us. Maybe it is about choice at some level far deeper than most of us go. Maybe it is to learn forgiveness, or to ask for help. Maybe it has to do with some evolutionary shift that will occur in its own time no matter what we do. And maybe there is no reason at all.

Through all of this unknown around how it is that we remember to pay attention to our precious lives and how to keep shifting towards the expression of our truest nature, I know one thing for sure: The technologies are exploiting our weaknesses in ways too numerous to mention. By this I mean, all of the daily ways we use our devices to miss our lives, our health and one another. All of the ways that we do not know how to say no despite what it is doing to us. All of the ways that we can squander away our time here, living as if what we do does not matter, or does not amount to any more than chasing down digital creatures in the real world. If on our own we struggle with being here and with what is most precious, how will we fare with something that magnifies our tendencies to forget?