Awaken to “The Power of Off”
Gracie (detail) by Aleah Klay
Scary as it is to admit, I once walked by my own children at the end of a workday, offering them just a quick nod on my way to get to my email, and it wasn’t as if I was expecting a note from the president.
I am not alone in this. For me, this experience, both acted out and witnessed by me, was a turning point. I suddenly woke up, perhaps by grace or some other force, and was in touch with what’s most important to me, my deepest longing, which is not email but loving relationships with my children and other human beings.
Perhaps it was a subtle expression in my daughter’s clear blue (and confused) eyes that awakened my deeper wisdom. But whatever force of love and awareness startled me into a larger consciousness, I am deeply grateful for its assistance. Thankfully, I was listening. In that moment, I dropped out of my mind, which wanted to connect to the Internet, and reconnected with my heart, which wanted to connect with my children.
I realized that my behavior was not OK with me. I wasn’t comfortable with who I had become around technology. I was disappointed in how I was allowing my mind to turn my computer into a priority above my own children, putting my screen before what was happening in my actual here and now. My deeper wisdom woke me up and told me that I did not agree with what my conditioned mind was telling me was important.
Although I awakened to my real truth in that moment, I still sometimes relapse in my behavior around technology. The difference now is that when it happens, my unconsciousness is short-lived; I wake up the power of off much more quickly than before, feeling clearer and more resolved to live in a way that serves my deeper truth. And I judge myself less too, since I also recognize that wanting to go unconscious and distract myself is a natural part of the human condition, one for which technology is a great enabler. If I get involved with judging myself, it just adds another layer to the real problem and stalls the process of waking up. For most of us, awareness doesn’t happen in one fell swoop.
We wake up a little bit at a time, a moment here and there, with naps in between. We keep waking up until we are awake most of the time and finally even able to be aware of when we are not aware.
Many people, however, have not yet achieved awareness around technology. The average person now spends 13 hours per week checking and interacting with email. Given the amount of real-life pleasure that email actually delivers, it seems that the urge to check it is disproportionally high and fundamentally out of sync with reality and common sense.
Most of the emails I receive are junk and go straight into the trash.
Some are reminders of tasks that I need to address or events and opportunities that I should know about (and buy tickets for) but don’t really want to know about. And the smallest percentage, a few here and there, are notes from friends, family, or colleagues, messages that I am actually happy to receive. It took a while for me to see the glaring disconnect between my real experience of email and my relentless desire to check it, and when I finally did see, I had to wonder, Why do we check email so often, and what are we really hoping to find in these little electronic Post-its?
If we were rats in a cage whose food slid down the chute only when we opened an email that made us feel better, would we keep checking, or would we move on to another task that delivered food more efficiently? Probably we would move on and start banging our paws or flicking our rat whiskers on some other surface. We keep checking, not because we derive great pleasure from email, but because in many cases we are addicted. We are not making wise or thoughtful decisions but rather following a kind of primal urge, which has trumped the part of the mind that can thoughtfully discern whether to check or not to check.
Every addiction, no matter its lure, pulls us out of the present moment—and technology is no different. Technology addiction is no less deserving of our concern than addiction to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or any other substance or behavior. We can’t stop doing something that no longer nourishes us and that very often we don’t even want to keep doing. Knowing that we can always check, we become more distracted and more dependent on something external to escape whatever we don’t want to feel or do. Some people start to abandon other, more important parts of their lives in order to engage more fully in their addiction. What’s certain is that the more we check, the more enslaved we become. The next time you feel the urge to check, try asking yourself these two questions before checking: What would be the ideal email I could receive right now? What experience would such an email offer me? Pause for a full two minutes, paying close attention to what happens in your body and your mind. Notice whether your desire to check changes in any aspect. In this way, rather than disappearing into addiction, you can use your email craving to become more self-aware and present.
Email Triggers “Lottery Brain”
When I ask people what they are secretly hoping to find in their email—what the lottery-winning email would be—the replies run the gamut:
- “An old sweetheart, the one who got away, saying that she needs to see me.”
- “A family member [or friend] finally apologizing for something he did.”
- “News that a windfall of money is owed to me.”
- “A perfect job [or professional offer] from someone who happened to discover me.”
- “An acknowledgment of a piece of work [or good deed] that I did.”
- “A note expressing my importance in someone’s life.”
- “A love letter from my partner.”
- “A note of gratitude [or an expression of love] from my child.”
The fact that it doesn’t make sense—our checking something every five to 10 minutes that has never or rarely provided the result we are hoping for—is irrelevant. It doesn’t need to make sense. In fact, its non-sense-making nature is part of its seduction.
Adapted from The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World, by Nancy Colier, published this month by Sounds True.