Lessons from a Week Without Headphones

Abandon the comfort of your podcast for the discomfort of your thoughts.

Michael Shammas
May 26, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: Dickson Lee

“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” George Addair

Ask your therapist: You can transform your life by changing one habit — a so-called “keystone habit.”

Like entering a magic wardrobe, altering one habit transfers you from your habitual reality into a new one. Small tweaks can spur big changes. All that’s needed is to push past the fear that, though comfortable in the present, holds you back in the long run.

After that, inertia takes over.

Recently, I realized I’d strayed in multiple areas of life. The only way to rectify the damage would be to journey to the other side of fear by (1) forming healthful habits and (2) undoing unhealthful habits.

From the psychological research, I knew an all-out assault would fail, for “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So I didn’t rush into the wardrobe; no, I peered into it. I decided a fine start in dismantling my psyche’s fear-wall would be to tweak just one habit. What I eventually discovered upon entering that frightening wardrobe proved as different from my past reality as Narnia did to the Pevensie children.

The small tweak? No headphones for a week. The big realizations? Read on.

Why Headphones?

You might be wondering why I made my “keystone habit” about something as trivial as headphones. The simple answer is … Curiosity. I was curious about why I could once do certain things — like commuting without the stimulation of a phone call or podcast — that now provoke some degree of anxiety.

Interestingly, when I actually started introspecting, I realized that I’d lost much of my ability for questioning myself in the first place. Compared to my teenage self, it seems technology addiction has made it harder to sit still with my thoughts and to question them and to stare them in the face and to confront them.

Like alcoholics helplessly fumbling after another beer, we mindlessly fumble after another notification or email. We can’t help ourselves. It’s become a habit. And the hallmark of all true habits is that the habit — not us — is in the driver’s seat.

The Problem With Technology Addiction

Unfortunately, a too-ingrained habit can fast become addiction, interrupting our ability to live a well-lived life, teaching us to shirk challenges that yield long-term happiness for palliatives that bring short-term pleasure.

Worse, if used to escape problems, technology addiction stifles growth. Stories as old as the Odyssey and as new as Star Wars reveal that humans grow by confronting fear. Unfortunately, technology helps us avoid such confrontations. Screens help us screen out our environment; podcasts help us drown out our thoughts. Yet as with ideologues seeking the comfort of opinion over the discomfort of thought, this defense mechanism ultimately degrades not only our characters, but also our societies.

Once upon a time, people couldn’t block out their external and internal worlds during the daily slog to work, school, or the feudal manor. No readily-available stream of external stimuli existed. Headphones were the stuff of science fiction.

Perhaps because these people were forced to live in the present and to listen to their minds, they didn’t feel so awkward simply … being. Indeed, because they couldn’t escape troubling thoughts so easily, they were often forced to sit with them. This introspection was painful in the short-run, but it yielded lessons that spurred positive change. People realized that their anxieties were trying to tell them something; and — largely — they listened.

I wonder: Compared to our forebears, have we lost the capacity to … “be”? If so, is it because we’re frightened of what we might discover beyond the wardrobe door? Over the other side of fear?

Three Lessons

By squashing my habit of isolating myself behind headphones, I confirmed my suspicions about technology and learned two minor lessons as well as one major one.

I. Destructive, isolating habits narrow our worldviews.

Like many New Yorkers in this sometimes-lonely city, I’d been walking around Manhattan with headphones for ears for so long that I’d lost the ability to hear the most beautiful soundtrack of all. Life.

During my headphone-less week, I interacted with friends, strangers, even an Epictetus-reading hipster at a kava kava bar — all things that wouldn’t have happened were I hiding behind headphones.

There’s a well-known phenomenon in urban life where some feel lonely despite being surrounded by so many people, where — as Kurt Vonnegut wrote — some sense that “[t]here are too many of us and we are all too far apart.” Vonnegut penned that line before smartphones caused us to retreat into ersatz socializing — really, into ourselves — even further.

Vonnegut. Photo: Smithsonian

I learned that, taken to an extreme, technology separates even as it unites. It lets a commuter listen to a Frenchman’s YouTube musings on how to make the perfect crepe but lessens the chance that he’ll talk to, or even acknowledge, the human sitting right next to him. That’s understandable. Compared to the passivity of observing pancake-making Frenchmen, communal engagement seems terrifying. Indeed, compared to the obligation to speak and make eye contact with a live human, the relatively hassle-free, unilateral, utterly private experience of watching French pancake-man seems a godsend. Yet like any habituated escapism, it’s a false god. It prevents true connection, because it prevents deep connection.

I know, I know. “Don’t talk to strangers!” But by retreating into headphones and screens and even books with such maniacal obsessiveness, are we creating strangers out of people who should really be neighbors? Are we rendering our physical neighborhoods into mere … hotels? Is home found on the Internet now?

The main thing I realized as I stood, headphone-less, in a city full of plugged-in people who were anywhere but the present, is that technology is fundamentally transforming the nature of human interaction, not only on the personal but also the political level. The ease with which technology allows us to sort ourselves, to self-isolate, is contributing to the polarization of American politics. We plug into our favorite podcasts, reinforcing biases and beliefs, while neglecting to speak with the person right beside us — who, God forbid, might be of a different economic or political class, yet who is probably a perfectly kind human being.

Technology allows us to avoid difficult engagement for easy validation. Why engage with your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner when flipping on a podcast and listening to someone rage about the evils of one group or other can be so much more validating?

II. Avoidance kills; confrontation builds.

In addition to missing out on the external environment, I’d been drowning out useful internal thoughts that were hinting at things that (1) were wrong with my life and (2) could be reversed. My defense mechanisms brought short-term comfort at the expense of growth. Indeed, as written in Dune, fear is a killer:

“I must not fear…. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I must face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me…. [For w]here the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

I used to enjoy going for walks with nothing but my thoughts, especially as a young child, which is no surprise because back then my thoughts were of happy things — present things. Thoughts beyond the here-and-now were, at most, about events later that day: (a) whether there’d be hummus for dinner, (b) how many stars remained uncollected in Mario 64, (c) and so on.

Obviously, less-than-happy thoughts sometimes intruded, but as a youngster this was a rarity. I liked my thoughts. I liked my environment. I didn’t need to escape either my inner or outer worlds.

Something changed after early adolesence. The thoughts grew less pleasant — less present — and more future-oriented, concerned with such anxiety-provoking stimuli as work, money, school, health, etc. Indeed, I began ruminating about anything but the present, latching onto my racing thoughts as if I were their passenger instead of their driver. To live in the present? What a waste of time!

Then came the iPhone, along with Facebook and YouTube and all the rest of it. The solution came with them: Whenever those thoughts intruded — especially the ones presenting a problem without an immediate solution — out came the iPhone. Out came Facebook.

That’s also when I became a headphone-junkie. I wasn’t one for music, but headphones — in 2008 and 2009, blurring out the excitement of the Obama-McCain contest — allowed a brief reprieve from my own life, comfortably broadcasting someone else’s.

III. Mindfulness is Powerful

I’m an adult (or so I’m told). Isn’t it time to regain the steering wheel from my destructive habits? Isn’t it time for you to do the same? Today, so many of us have forgotten how to control our thoughts that we’re addicted to short-term fixes: headphones, television, video games, drugs, and — a positive coping mechanism that can sometimes be taken to an extreme — friendship. Yet losing the headphones for a week reminded me that there’s another path: mindfulness.

Like all worthwhile destinations, arriving at a mindful self requires a difficult journey. Though many enroll in expensive mindfulness programs or use meditation apps like Headspace, mindfulness requires neither meditation nor money. To get started, envision your mind as a sea, and your thoughts as boats traveling across that sea. Eventually you’ll realize that, in the same way that the sea is not the boats, you are not your thoughts. The payoff — regaining the ability to sit with, and then to control, your thoughts — is worth it.

There are things you can see only when you slow down.

Not everyone abuses technology. But too many of us do — for the wrong reasons. By losing the headphones, I (1) met interesting people, (2) tackled mental challenges and (3) realized a healthy way to live with my thoughts instead of constantly pushing them away.

When I didn’t have an author, podcaster, or (worse) newscaster yapping into my ear, I was transported to a different place. Not spatially, you see, but temporally: Instead of being imprisoned in my mind — living in the past in regret or the future in anticipation — I was in the present.

And the present’s a great place. In fact, it’s the only place from which to observe this beautiful safari called life. We’re so busy staring at the guidebook that we can’t enjoy the trip.

Maybe your form of avoidance differs from my headphone-habit. Whatever it is, try something else for a week. Just a week! Stop living in the future or the past — look away from your guidebook, away from your phone — and be present for this grand safari called life. It’s a beautiful serendipity where anything can happen.

Who knows? Like me, you might even befriend a guy at a hipster kava kava bar.

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