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I have recently been hearing a lot of parents complaining about kids and social media addiction. Some of these kids have totally lost the plot, and can’t keep even the most basic routines and schedules. They stay awake all night glued to their gadgets, fall asleep during their Zoom classes and mess up their studies, eat meals at odd hours, and generally display a complete lack of discipline. This has been exacerbated by being Covid-era, stuck-at-home kids. One common thread that runs through these stories is the belief that the phone is an addiction and the kids need help.
The keyword is belief. Beliefs are powerful things. As the old saying goes, you can move mountains if you have the belief. We have all heard of sick people being cured by placebos (sugar made to look like medicine) They were simply told the placebos were an innovative new medicine or whatever. It works the other way too. A bite by a non-venomous snake can prove fatal if the victim believes the snake is poisonous.
In this article, I intend to illustrate how the reliance on beliefs rather than what we can perceive is the root of the problem. I will list a few of the beliefs that kids have these days, and the problems they face because of these beliefs. Finally, I will illustrate how my rejection of all beliefs liberated me, while my reliance on what I could perceive enhanced my life.
What do I mean by ‘perceive’ vs belief?
An example will illustrate what I mean.
I’m currently suffering from a bit of sinusitis. The belief is you can be cured with medical treatment or a course of antibiotics. For me, the reality is two surgeries didn’t work and medicines like a course of antibiotics are just a temporary cure. The ailment reappears as soon as I stop the antibiotic. The only option is observe what’s happening to my body and then treat myself.
So I observe my body closely, and here are some things I perceived about how sinusitis reacts with my body (it will differ from person to person).
Sinusitis seems to be triggered off by some foods, especially if it contains chemicals, or as an escalation from a common cold
The ailment basically starts as an air block. My observation is that a bit of phlegm clogs up the sinus, and air locked in there expands and that results is a headache.
This is usually easy to observe when you fly while having a sinus attack. The low pressure at high altitude causes the air locked in your head to expand much more than usual, and it can be acutely painful or lead to a sudden sneezing fit that opens out the sinuses.
The reverse happens when you go scuba diving. The high pressure under water causes the air in your blocked sinuses to compress, and the resulting vacuum in the blocked sinuses could end up rupturing the blood vessels. This can be extremely dangerous if you go deep, because if, on your way back up to the surface, you skip the stop for a few minutes to decompress the nitrogen in your blood, it may give you a fatal case of bends. Naturally, I had to risk it.
If I have a running nose and lie on my back, my sinus gets clogged. So I usually sleep on my tummy when I have a running nose.
Saltwater dissolves the mucus. So if I’m having a painful sinus headache, and need quick relief, I turn on YouTube, and search for ‘videos that make you cry.’ It’s not a cure but just a little relief.
If I put some cold balm on my forehead, and massage it with my fingers, it sometimes reduces the sinusitis.
Steam inhalation used to once work for clearing up my sinuses but it doesn't anymore.
Exercise sometimes clears out the air blocks in my sinuses.
Eating spicy food unclogs the sinuses but it often clogs back up twice as much
If sinuses get infected, having a couple of spoonfuls of a ginger-lime-honey concoction may kill the infection, and help me get a sound sleep.
So this is what I mean by ‘perceive.’ Using these observations, I can manage the illness without resorting to popping chemicals.
Here’s the clincher. Don’t believe a word I say below. Instead, try it out, observe what you experience, and decide for yourself.
But first, I want to start off with this apocryphal story that I was listening to this morning. This lady, a professor, buys a complex home appliance that has to be assembled. She takes it home, reads the instructions, and tries very hard to put all the parts together but fails. So she leaves all the parts in a heap and goes off to work. When she comes home in the evening, she finds to her surprise that the appliance has been assembled, and used. She calls her maid and asks her who fixed it, and the maid admits it was she. The lady is taken aback and asks her how she managed it. The maid replies, “When you don’t know how to read and write, you have to use your brains.”
Now let’s get back on topic.
The belief as an obstacle
I know this boy who claims to have an addiction to the Instagram app, and asked his tech-savvy Dad to find an Android app that will allow him to lock Instagram for a day, and not allow him to unlock it till that day is over.
So this is how the conversation goes.
First, he points out that his Android phone's built-in app isn’t of much use as he can simply unlock or delete the timer once he exceeds his preset limit.
Then he debates with his Dad about another ‘app-locking’ app, and if he can get around the app lock by deleting that app.
What that conversation tells me is the problem is not the addiction. It’s the kid’s belief that he’s an addict. This allows him to have a split personality. One part of him is trying to puts limits on time spent on social media. While the other part is calmly disabling the app that does this.
The reason the boy sees absolutely no conflict in this is another belief.
The belief that an individual can be further subdivided
This is a kind of an oxymoron because individual literally means that which cannot be further divided.
Let’s delve deeper into that ‘app lock’ timer. So the version of the kid setting a timer for Instagram is the good guy. The second version of him deleting the timer is the bad guy (the addict).
The good guy isn’t responsible for the bad guy’s behavior of deleting the timer. In fact, the good guy takes counseling sessions on how to tackle the bad guy and try to make the good guy wins the day. ‘Try’ being the operative word.
Today’s kids have many such avatars. Take the procrastinator for instance. This one can be very late for school, and emotionally blackmail his mother to drop him off, no matter what. Or he won’t submit his class assignments on time. From the kid’s perspective, it’s the procrastinator who is to blame so why should the good guy pay the price?
The problem is though this argument may work at home, his professor may not buy it, and may enforce dire consequences for the late assignments. This means that sooner or later, the kid’s world will come crashing down, and cause him a lot of grief.
When I was a kid, I was an individual, just one of me. So the buck always stopped with me. If I committed a mistake, I took responsibility for it, and paid the consequences if any, without protest. What’s more important, I took responsibility to ensure I didn’t make that mistake again.
With the divisible individual, the buck never stops with anyone.
Take my friend’s kid. He is perenially late, delays everyone, and passes the buck for being late to his procrastinator avatar. He refuses to face the consequences, and won’t even attempt to change his behavior (even down to turning off automatic voice reminders from Alexa set up by his Dad). What chance does this child have of not being late for every single thing in his life?
The changing face of addiction
When I was growing up, addiction meant drugs or booze. Mobile phones didn’t exist then but there is an analogy. I was a voracious reader and finished off every single book of fiction in the library. But if my Mom or Dad asked me to put down my book, there was no question of my not being able to put it down, or not being able to join the family for dinner or whatever.
So what changed?
With the coming of the internet, Indian kids, exposed to western concepts like social media addiction, are likely to mock a parent, saying, “You think social media addiction is not a real thing and all those suffering it are just making it up?”
The parents end up looking like real asses, don’t they?
But just pull back for a moment. If this addiction didn’t exist when we were kids, was there an alternate reality? Or did we have a different perspective?
Or is it just about new beliefs?
The belief that mental illness is omnipresent
I know I’m being politically incorrect, but I have to say mental illness is overhyped these days.
It’s not that we didn’t have insane people when we were kids, and it wasn’t a stigma either. I had an uncle who was off his rocker but harmless. He’d often drop in to visit us and we kids treated him respectfully like any other adult, till one day he disappeared to never be seen again.
Courtesy of the influence of western culture, it’s now common in India for a kid to say he is seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. In a way, this belief is related to the previous belief of there being other avatars of ourselves, for whose behavior we are not accountable.
I recall the flabbergasted look on my friend’s face when he once confronted his son about not keeping his word, and received the following reply.
I have literally no trust left in myself
The kid said it without the least bit of irony. Neither ‘I’ nor ‘myself’ took responsibility for the boy not keeping his word. It’s the ultimate get-out-of-jail card. I suspect this is partly why kids embrace the concept of mental illness.
Counselors do have an edge over parents in that there is no emotional baggage. This allows counselors to remove emotion from the equation and maintain a professional demeanor while tackling a kid’s prickly issues.
However, even a good counselor won’t make much headway if the kid simply doesn't keep his end of a mutually agreed deal. Children generally are good at finding excuses to make things not work. That tech-savvy friend set his home router to turn off automatically at midnight. But then the boy complained there’s no point if he can’t control his life himself, so the exasperated Dad found himself in a no-win situation and had to unblock whatever he blocked.
Going to a counselor is sometimes just more of the same. There is a honeymoon period when the kid does what the counselor asks him to do. But that won’t last. Eventually, the counselor will admit defeat, and then it becomes a neverending vicious circle of finding a ‘better’ counselor.
The belief that science and logic are supreme
Kids today use science and logic as support for their actions.
Take the above kid. He uses science to claim his lack of discipline is a mental illness that requires professional help. And why did the counselor get nowhere? Because the kid didn’t do what the counselor had asked him to do, which is a lack of discipline, which is a mental illness, which requires professional help… it’s just one big merry-go-round, no?
All that belief in science did was help the kid get on the merry-go-round and escape the consequences of his actions.
The belief that experience is conclusive
One favorite retort that most kids use to kill an argument with a parent is that they tried the parent’s alternative, and it didn’t work.
This is an easy one to refute, and it’s why I use the word ‘perceive’ and not ‘experience.’ This is a very important difference.
Suppose a kid decides he wants to learn how to ride a bicycle. He gets on a bike, falls off, and gets a bloody knee. Let’s say that kid concludes that he tried cycling, so based on this painful experience, he concludes it’s not working, and he’s giving up the attempt to learn cycling.
But kids never make such conclusions. Why? Because they are smart enough to perceive they did something wrong and that is why they fell. So they keep trying and trying, till they perceive or become aware of what they are doing wrong, and then miraculously, they discover in a moment of pure exhilaration that they are sailing along on two wheels.
Somewhere along the way while growing up, our kids forgot about perceiving and trying and trying again, and the exhilaration of learning. Instead, they became hung up on experience and conclusions. When I was a kid, we didn’t have time to get bored as there was always something new to learn. Today’s kids see everything on their tiny screens and conclude they know all that is to be known, and sulk around with a depressed look of boredom. In fact, the next big pandemic could be a mental one. There was this stat I heard that says in 2020, Japanese suicides outnumbered Covid deaths!
Perceiving is life and exhilaration. Concluding is death and boredom.
Discarding beliefs and embracing perception
Unlike the kids of today who are trapped in their belief systems, I spent a good part of my teen years enjoying the exhilarating experience of disproving beliefs by stuck-in-the-mud adults, especially those in the healthcare business. The key to my success was becoming more aware of how my body works.
The belief that migraine headaches need to be controlled by drugs
As a kid, I suffered terribly from painfully debilitating migraine headaches. During those attacks, I would often sleep for 24 hours or more without even surfacing for food as the very idea of food was nauseating. The medicines the doctors gave were usually useless. I would just lie still under the blanket trying to will the hammer inside my head to stop smashing my brains into a quivering pulp.
In my late teens, I began ignoring what the doctors were saying, and instead observed what was going on in my head. Over time, I became aware of how to calm my mind down so those hammers in my head didn’t start their excruciating thudding. Eventually, I managed to permanently banish the migraines from life, and I did it myself without using any medicines. That was the greatest victory in my war against beliefs. Read the full story here.
The belief that I needed an operation to cure a bladder stone
Like most kids, I was quite prone to doing stupid stuff when I was young. I used to cycle to school in Kerala, which is a coastal state in tropical India with an extremely humid climate. I didn’t like sitting in sweaty clammy clothes at school and came up with this brilliant brainwave of cutting down on my water consumption in order to reduce my sweating. The end result was my urine became concentrated, and eventually crystallized into an exceedingly painful bladder stone condition. My doctor said I would need surgery to get rid of the stone because it was too big to pass out through my urinary tract.
Of course, I had to question his belief. If too little water created that stone, too much water would dissolve it. So I decided to try it out and observe the result. So I drank and peed, and drank and peed, and… Eventually, the stone began to break apart, and finally, the last huge chunk was flushed out of my system, in what was the most horribly painful moment in my young life. What was also flushed down that toilet was the belief that I needed surgery to cure a bladder stone. Seeing the bemused look on the doctor’s face as he stared at the X-ray where the stone had disappeared was a high point in my life. Read the full story here.
The belief that sinus headaches can be cured by treatment
I have already talked about this earlier in this post. Though I did lose quite a few battles in my medical adventures, most times I did end up winning the war. I suffered my first attack of sinusitis in my teens and underwent two different surgical procedures in operation theatres under full anaesthesia. One was to correct a ‘deviated septum,’ and the second time to clear out ‘nasal polyps.’ It was complete rubbish, of course. Neither of the two procedures did me any good. In fact, they increased the incidence of the attacks, and I’m having one as I type this. But here’s the thing. I haven’t popped a single pill or taken any medicine of any sort to treat sinusitis for over a decade.
All I did was question the current beliefs about sinusitis, and focus on becoming aware of how my sinuses react in different conditions. For instance, I have observed how if I sleep on my back when I have a running nose, I’m liable to wake up with clogged sinuses. So I try to sleep on my tummy when I have a cold though this sometimes means stumbling out of bed several times at night to spit out phlegm that collects in my mouth. I eventually figured out several other simple body hacks that enabled me to get the ailment under control, without any medication whatsoever.
Think about it. Two trips to the operation theatre because of my belief that those clueless doctors knew what they were doing. Hell, they probably just did it for the money! Read the full story here.
The belief that the drug ‘paracetamol’ has no side effects
I was nearly killed by this belief. When I was in my teens, there used to be a drug called Panadol (whose chief ingredient was the chemical, paracetamol). This drug used to be heavily advertised on Indian national TV as being a painkiller with no side effects (we only had a few TV channels in those days). It was a blatant lie of course but I didn’t know it. As I suffered from constant sinusitis headaches, I used to take a pill or two every now and then to dull the headaches and allow me to function.
After a few years, I observed that when I popped a tablet, my entire plumbing would freeze to a halt. I asked a doctor if paracetamol truly had no side effects. He shook his head and said long-term usage could destroy my kidneys. I had been popping that pill for quite a few years, and though I stopped, I don’t know how badly my kidneys were damaged, all because I was naive enough to believe a drug company’s story.
The belief that ‘short sight’ needs regular correction
This one involves my daughter.
When she was nine, we realized she wasn’t able to read what the teachers were writing on the blackboard at school. So I took her to an ophthalmologist who tested her eyes and recommended glasses. He asked us to have her eyes checked every year. I politely agreed but had no intention of doing this.
You see when I was a kid, I too was diagnosed with short sight. It started with a prescription of -0.5, but every year, they increased it to compensate for my deteriorating vision, till I was -5.5 by the fifth year. When the doctor suggested another correction, I refused. Even though I was just 14 years old at the time, I realized that there was something odd about the belief of annually correcting my vision. I was old enough to perceive that the moment they increased the lens power, my vision deteriorated further. But if I adjusted my vision to somehow manage with my existing glasses, my vision stopped deteriorating. I did have to compensate by sometimes sitting on the front bench at school to read what was on the blackboard, asking people to read distant signboards for me, and also exercising my eyes to strengthen it. But it worked, and my eyes stopped deteriorating. The ophthalmologist brushed off my ‘discovery’ saying our eyesight stabilizes in the late teens (which I wasn’t).
Anyway, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let my daughter’s vision be compromised by this belief. We never went back to the ophthalmologist. I explained to my daughter my experience and she bought my theory. However kids tend to break their glasses, so every now and then we would visit the local optician. He had a machine to check her eyesight but I politely declined. He was appalled to learn that I didn’t have her vision checked and corrected every year, and disapproved strongly of my actions.
My daughter’s vision stabilized with just that one initial correction, and we never went through the eye-ruining cycle of increasing the prescription power and watching her eyesight deteriorate further.
It would be nice to end this little episode by saying my daughter became a disbeliever like me. Sadly, it didn’t take. She’s as stuck up on beliefs like the rest of her generation weaned as they are on the internet with its never-ending flow of beliefs. But as the old proverb goes, the seed can’t fall far from the tree. Give her time, and I think she will be fine.
I can go on with more stories but I think my point is clear.
Don’t believe anything anyone tells you about anything. Instead, work on improving what you perceive. Start becoming more aware of even small everyday things that you usually miss, like your heartbeat. Test out the beliefs for yourself. If you perceive them to be true, go ahead and apply them in your life.
Some years later, I became a big fan of an Indian online guru, who verbalized this thought in a pithy style that I wish I had thought of.
I know what I know. I don’t know what I don’t know.
Here’s his attempt to explain the ‘I don’t know’ part to a bunch of puzzled, social media influencers on a hot humid day in California.
If you don’t believe as I do, I will kill you
Beliefs are an issue, not just for parents, but affects every aspect of our lives. When pushed to its logical end, it threatens human existence itself.
Some of these beliefs can be easily disproved. When I was a kid, my mother told me that if I got my head wet in the rain, I would catch a cold. Of course, I ran out into the rain to prove it was not so. But not all beliefs are as harmless.
Why was ISIS chopping off the heads of innocent villagers? Simply, because the villagers didn’t believe what ISIS believed in. This has been going on since time immemorial. The Mughals invaded India, and slaughtered thousands of Hindu non-believers. Then there’s Genghis Khan, the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler’s Jewish death camps, and now China and the Uyghur genocide.
I was watching the US news a couple of days ago. There was this white man who drove off on his station wagon with a cop hanging onto its bonnet for dear life. Not a single shot was fired. No tasers, nothing. Whereas a 13-year old black kid, Adam Toledo, is shot dead by a white policeman while he’s in the act of raising both his hands in the universal gesture of surrender. The defense is the kid had a gun and it was a split-second decision. But there are just too many cases for this explanation. Like a handcuffed George Floyd lying on the road while a cop kneels on him ignoring his pleas that he can’t breathe. Why does this happen? Simply because whites believe blacks are dangerous. This belief naturally puts cops in a ‘Kill before you are killed’ mode.
The madness is now spreading. Trump tried to avoid taking the blame for mishandling the pandemic by saying ‘Chyna’ deliberately used the virus to kill thousands of Americans. So the belief becomes anyone with oriental-looking eyes is Chinese, and must be beaten up and chased out of the US.
Hell, we don’t even believe in heaven
One of the good things about being a Hindu is ours is the only religion that accepts atheism, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, and millions of Indian gods under one roof. We don’t really believe in heaven, and instead seek to attain moksha, or freedom from the painful and neverending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
In fact, we don’t go by beliefs at all. We go by perception. Our goal is to perceive the eternal truth of the oneness of the universe. If you think that sounds like mumbo jumbo, we agree. We don’t expect you to believe it, but instead want you to experience it for yourself by meditation or whatever other means. If you manage to do this, we say you are an enlightened being. All in all, living without any beliefs is an immensely liberating way to live.
If the rest of the world can follow India’s lead of having no beliefs, I think the world would become a better place.