Finding Grounding In a Virtual World

By Nancy Colier

The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Every day, when I wake up, I try to remember to ask myself: What is the most important thing? What is my heart’s longing? What parts of myself do I want to nourish and grow? What do I want to offer? In essence, What really matters?

Images courtesy of Pixabay

Every day I try to touch into what this astounding experience of being alive is really about. The contemplation of the most important thing keeps me connected to my most sincere and profound longings and my deeper wisdom. When I am grounded in what is most important, I am more discerning in my choices, less likely to be swayed off course by my small-minded aspects, and far more likely to finish the day feeling good.

As a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, and spiritual counselor, I spend my days talking with people about their lives, internal and external. While functioning successfully in the world, many of those I meet with report a sense of overwhelm, of being consumed by the distractions and chronic multitasking that technology makes possible and to some degree necessary. Whether we’re tinkering on social media, Googling old acquaintances, looking up facts on Wikipedia, or updating and learning new software, we are spending far too much of our time doing things that don’t really matter to us. At this moment in history, as a result of the new opportunities and demands that technology creates, we have forgotten not only what is most important but also that we need to ask ourselves that question. Why do so many people describe the feeling of being disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings? And, most importantly, how do we remember not to forget to ask, What really matters?

What is real and what is virtual are shifting as technology explodes into our daily lives. At the same time, we are transforming as a society and a species. What is the most important thing? seems like a question in transition. But is it really?

Because of my profession, I have a front-row seat from which to witness, investigate, and try to understand the metamorphosis that we human beings are undergoing. And I am not just a witness to but also an inhabitant of this brave new world, experiencing the effects of technology on myself, my children, my friends, my clients, and all others in my life. We are all facing new issues and difficulties as a result of our use of and reliance on technology. We are changing emotionally, relating to one another and ourselves in profoundly different ways than we did before the technology explosion. How we spend our time, what motivates us, what we want — all are on a radical course of transformation. In many cases, the adaptations that are occurring work well for technology. By the second, technology is growing and evolving into something we can’t live without. But is technology helping us humans to grow, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually? Or do we need to alter our relationship with technology so that we humans can also continue to evolve?

I observe more and more of my clients, as well as friends, family, and others, becoming dependent on their devices in order to feel complete, “calm,” and basically okay. Many people now need their devices and the ongoing infusion of entertainment, information, and communication that technology provides to keep themselves from feeling bored and agitated, which are now considered the normal sensations for a life that is “turned off.” What we expect from the present moment has changed: we are now accustomed to ongoing stimulation and feel anxious and lacking without it. There is a continual sense that we should be doing something, which then causes us to grab our smartphones to seek some relief from that anxiety. And while most people now check their smart-phones 150 times per day, or every six minutes, not enough of us consider our behavior around technology to be a real problem.

Over a relatively short span of time, our use of technology has exploded — smartphones, mobile devices, tablets, social and other media, emails, texting, apps, games, music, videos, photo sharing, and all the rest. Technology has become a persistent presence in our public and private worlds, day and night. The average person now spends more than eight hours a day on their phone and laptop, more time than they spend sleeping, and most have their phones turned on all the time, even in bed. And young adults are now sending an average of 110 texts per day. But perhaps more remarkable even than how much our use of technology is increasing is how we are relating to it. On that front, 46 percent of smartphone users now say that their devices are something they “couldn’t live without.”

With the assistance of technology, we now have the ability to know, do, watch, and learn almost anything. But by indulging that ability, we have created a state in which every nook and cranny of our internal and external space is filled with stuff to do, think about, watch, listen to, know, and learn. Our internal hard drives are jammed beyond capacity with thoughts, information, and new tasks. People I meet with, work with, live with, and everything else with consistently report a great longing for space, room to breathe, time with themselves, or, as we now call it, “bandwidth” — and yet such peace, quiet, and downtime are harder and harder to find or create. Our lives are filled with more possibilities than ever before to connect, consume, and discover — all good things — but in the face of these possibilities, we are also feeling less connected, less centered, and less satisfied. The digital age is an age of both too much and not enough.

How do we stay in touch with what is most important to us when we’re buried under hundreds of emails and texts and technological tasks each day? How do we stay in the present moment in a society that beckons us with relentless — and enticing — distractions? How do we maintain connection in our relationships when conversations are interrupted dozens of times and so many people are busy staring into their personal screens? Where do we find the silence and focus we need when there is almost nowhere left to escape from the chimes, bells, and vibrations that constantly invade our private spaces, when every activity is part of a larger multitasking operation? With what skills can we stay empowered and calm when we must continually figure out how to keep our technology running smoothly just so we can participate in the world? How do we hold onto a sense of tangible reality when so much of our life is virtual? And, most importantly, how do we stay grounded and connected to our deeper wisdom at this time in history, on this wild digital ride that the human race has embarked upon? How do we live peacefully with the excitement and madness and do it all without going mad ourselves?

I recently watched a woman almost run down by a taxi because she was so focused on her smartphone she didn’t notice she was standing in the middle of the street. Two men pulled her out of harm’s way at the last moment. When she made it to the other side of the street, she got right back to her device, as if nothing had just happened. She was not fazed by the event, at least not enough to interrupt her flow of texting or even to thank the two men who saved her life. Technology is a powerful tool for communication, and yet the way we are using it and the authority we are awarding it are also making it into a powerful impediment to our sense of presence and awareness.

We are succumbing to our more primitive tendencies toward unconsciousness, going under a kind of technological anesthesia, which renders us unaware of where we actually are physically and with whom we are sharing company. Technology is dazzling us into a form of entertaining sleep, and too many of us are not yet making conscious choices about whether we agree with what is happening and in fact want to disappear from our lives.

Technology offers the potential for everything we can imagine, but when we do make the effort to get quiet, we often discover that what we really want, “the most important thing,” is to experience a good life, one filled with contentment, love, meaning, and depth, a life filled with rich experiences and relationships — not more of everything virtually possible. Technology, as too many of us are now using it, is not leading us to a better life, not to a state of fundamental well-being.

In today’s world, our digitally marinated minds must decide what our hearts and spirits need in order to be well — and thus what nourishment we will draw from life. A digitally marinated mind, however, is not the right candidate for this task because the amped-up, teched-out mind is not only out of touch with the heart and spirit, it also has a radically different agenda and set of needs. When our technology-fueled mind is consulted as if it were a wise sage, it convinces us that the following falsehoods are true:

  • The more virtual friends and followers we acquire, the more connected and loved we will feel.
  • The more “likes” we get for our opinions and ideas, the more liked we will feel, and the more we will like ourselves.
  • The more we communicate, the less alone we will feel.
  • The more entertainment we consume, the less bored and empty we will feel.
  • The more information we amass, the more interesting life — and we — will become.
  • The easier we make our lives, the better they will be.
  • With enough virtual destinations to choose from, we will find somewhere that we want to be.
  • We must keep up with technology if we do not want to be left behind and miss out on life.

But as much as our world is in flux, what human beings need to feel grounded, connected, and satisfied has not changed. At a deeper level, the stuff and noise that our devices offer do not satisfy. For all of technology’s benefits, it is not our missing piece, not what will make our existences meaningful. We need to ground the monkey — that is, bring our monkey mind back into connection with our heart, our deepest truths, and what is truly important to us.

What do we need in order to be able to inhabit our lives peacefully and joyfully? Here are the leading contenders:

  • To be aware and present — to show up for our lives
  • To feel emotionally connected to ourselves and others
  • To feel cared about, valued, and known
  • To feel engaged in a life of meaning
  • To feel we have choice and control
  • To feel we are part of something larger than ourselves
  • To live an authentic life — a life that is in sync with who we truly are and what really matters to us

Waking Up

Humans and technology are now in an intimate relationship — sharing a bed, literally. Technology, because of its ease and mobility, accompanies us everywhere, like a limb, in a way that it never could before. Our smartphones come with us into the bedroom (90 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds sleep with their smartphones), onto the toilet, into the shower, to meals, weddings, funerals . . . everywhere we go, they go. The fact that we never have to be without our devices means that we never are without them, and we increasingly mistrust that we can be okay without them. Since we are now attached, we need to figure out a way to make this relationship a healthy one. Now more than ever, we need to cultivate mindfulness in our lives so that we can be guided by our own wisdom and intelligence and not be dragged around by the bright lights of technology, tossing virtual paper into virtual wastebaskets and popping virtual bubble wrap. We need the wisdom of mindfulness to put us back into our lives, so that we’re not lost somewhere else while our life is happening. After all, we are not virtual. We need more than a jack and a charger to stay connected to life.

It is alarming to see us choosing to use technology in ways that indulge a proclivity for unconsciousness. But what is even more alarming is that we have shifted our relationship with technology so that it is no longer just a tool that we control, something we set aside when it doesn’t help. We have crossed a threshold and are now surrendering our authority and experience to technology as if it were the master and we its slaves. Because technology can do something, we think it should — must do it, in fact — without considering whether we actually want it to or whether it even makes sense.

The scientist is delighted and proud when he discovers that by offering food as a reward for pushing a lever, she can get her rat, an otherwise mindless subject, to behave exactly as she wants. The scientist can control her subject, at least at first. But soon, what the scientist doesn’t know is that the rat is on to her game. “Look at the fool, I can get her to feed me whenever I want,” the rat squeaks to his other rat friends. So who’s in charge now, technology or humans? We have created a relationship with technology in which, more and more, we are the ones feeding it on demand, awarding it a life force and intelligence unto itself, while we continue to imagine that we are in control.

Every new scientific and technological innovation throughout history has led to massive changes in society, but this shift in who’s in charge is what makes this technological revolution profoundly different from any we’ve yet known. Ultimately, if we surrender all our authority to technology, as if it were an animate entity, it would not just change society; it would also change who we fundamentally are as human beings.

Excerpted from The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World, by Nancy Colier, published by Sounds True