Breaking the cell phone addiction

I have spent the last few days observing people in close proximity to me largely thanks to the #lockdown. One of the startling observations is how much time they spend on their cell phone. The cell phone has literally substituted the time we spend with ourselves – thinking, feeling, imagining and allowing the mind to drift aimlessly. As a person who values creativity, this is worrying. The birth of creativity is in time spent alone. This is when the diffused mode of the brain operates. What is the diffused mode? It is that mode when you aren’t doing anything specific – you are walking and allowing the mind is “spaced out”; when the mind is not occupied by any intense thought or an activity. This mode is extremely crucial for creativity. The opposite of the diffused mode is the focussed mode – where we are intense and using all the brain’s power to solve a problem. The focussed mode helps in analysing a problem or in gathering information. The diffused mode on the other hand helps make connections between seemingly unconnected pieces of information. It’s that “Aha” moment when something suddenly dawns on us. For the diffused mode to work well – we need to be away from our phones. We need to give space to our brains to relax and be.

The concern with cell phones is that each time you get a message or a like from facebook there is an irresistible urge to check it and respond. We have known for some time now that these interruptions release dopamine in the brain – a neurotransmitter, which is a part of a set of chemicals in the brain that help transmit electrical impulses between neurons. Dopamine is also released by taking drugs. This means that the effect of getting a small high from messages is akin to taking a mild drug. This in itself is not bad – dopamine is naturally released when we have deep meaningful connections, when we meditate or we get physical exercise. The key difference is the effort that goes into getting this dopamine. Checking your cell phone requires almost no mental effort at all. While exercise comes at an effort. The human mind is lazy and wants the easiest thing – and it leans towards the easiest dopamine reward system – the cell phone. Because the other things were rare or took too much effort, the need for effort moderated the dopamine releases. With the cell phone, there is simply no moderation. This has resulted in an unlimited supply of this chemical. Any overuse isn’t good for us. This dulls the brain and we lose the ability to do other things – form deep meaningful human connections, regulate and express our emotions in a moderate fashion and focus on tasks.

And this is evident in the behavior of people around me. The attention span has reduced considerably. I remember a time when grandparents would listen. No I didn’t say hear. I said listen. They would be 100% attentive in being with the other person – listening, assimilating and responding. How many people listen attentively today? We adopt the cell phone syndrome in listening to people. Someone says something – and there arises an impulse to react (think of the impulse to check the message). We have lost the ability to hold back – to deliberate on a thought before venting it out on the other.

I also notice people with cell phone addictions do not develop deep hobbies. Interests are short-lived. They read and they are invariably distracted. They pick up a music instrument – it is for a few days. Nothing truly brings joy. Things only bring distraction. And the lack of deep, meaningful hobbies is symptomatic for a distracted, dopamine overdosed mind. Why is this? This is because playing with the cell phone or watching TV is easy – you do not put in conscious energy into the activity. Whereas playing an instrument needs conscious effort. In playing an instrument, the direction of the energy is from inside us to an expression in the world of form. In case of your cell phone, the direction of energy is from the cell phone to you – you aren’t required to do anything. And this makes all the difference.

How can we start overcoming this? The first step is to recognize that we have a problem. The second step is behavioral – stop using your cell phone after 7 PM in the evening. Use the time to be with your family. During the day, minimize the number of times you check your messages. Better still see if you can reduce, if not eliminate your social media apps. These are behavioral changes, but we should also start addressing a much deeper aspect in ourselves – getting acquainted with who we are. Distractions are a means to, well – distract us from our thoughts, feelings and deep sense of who we are. Unless we start coming closer to ourselves, no amount of behavioral adjustments will really help. So why are people afraid of getting acquainted with themselves? Fear. As children they are perhaps not told that they are good and confident people. They have been instilled with the feeling that they are somehow inadequate. Feelings of inadequacy and fear makes us avoid ourselves. Ergo, cell phones and other distractions that keep you from facing yourself.

So how do you begin to know yourself? Look at your life and realize that you are going to die. We are all inexorably marching towards the grave. Having realized this – and not just an intellectual understanding, a fear starts to rise. This is important. Don’t run away at this stage. We shouldn’t distract ourselves with things. Face this boldly and accept the feeling of unease. Then slowly, you begin to differentiate between what is relevant and what is not. You start cutting out useless social interactions, unnecessary clutter in life. And look at it plainly, “What matters to me in life knowing that my time here is limited?”. This gives immense direction towards the path of self-discovery. Paradoxically, death brings life. Knowing this, we find in ourselves a sense of purpose in life. This is very different to the so called external purposes that new age self-help people come up with. This is not something you do in the external world, but realize who you are. What vibes within your innermost temple. If you had no external success in life (wealth and fame) would you still do it? That is your purpose. This is the beginning of knowing yourself. And in that journey, you will most certainly face a plethora of emotions that well up. Invite them all into your heart. Accept and move on.

So, let us wake up and start discovering ourselves. Let us start expressing ourselves into our hobbies and passions. Connect to yourself and not to your phone.

Somewhere in Cinque Terra. October 2019.

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