I asked myself this question recently and it resulted in an answer that raised my eyebrows. Consequently, I have been reassessing my own relationship to technology as well as the collective’s challenge with what I consider as a digital form of escapism. Before we relinquish our presence in order to indulge the impulse of checking, tapping, clicking, scrolling, or posting, we need to start asking ourselves: What is happening right here, right now, inside me and outside me? What’s arising that makes me want to distract myself?
For as long as humans have been on the planet, they have invented methods to escape the moment, devising all sorts of behaviors to check out and disappear from now. It seems we are wired to get out of experiences that we don’t want to be in. To some degree, it is an adaptive behavior: we move away from what feels bad and could potentially hurt us. And yet, some avoidant behaviors are not good for us and do not serve our growth or happiness. While they allow us to escape from what might feel momentarily uncomfortable, such behaviors keep us limited and stuck in habitual patterns that impede our greater well-being. What’s different now, in the age of technology, is profound and profoundly alarming: our method for escaping the present moment is shared, societal, and considered a reasonable way of living. The new way out of now is accepted as the new now and not a way out of anything. Being on technology all the time is the new norm. Part of the problem is that we do not believe we are using technology as an escape. We do this by singing technology’s praises: How can anything that offers so many learning opportunities and connects us with so many other people be considered a method of escape?
And yet, as is true with all addictions, such praise is also a justification so that we can continue using. Technology can be used for positive functions, and many exist, but we are also, and with increasing frequency, using it as we would any other addictive behavior or substance — to get away from what we don’t want to feel or what we fear we might experience. Out of all the escape strategies, all the anesthetizing agents that humanity has invented over time, technology may prove to be the most difficult one from which to wake up. To break free from our addictive use of technology, we must first realize and acknowledge to ourselves that we are using it as a means to escape the present moment and using it without awareness. In truth, we are not functioning at the level we think we are when we are chronically multitasking, and we are not taking care of our relationships with the care that we tell ourselves we are. So what can we do to recover? How can we become free and in control of our relationship with technology? How can we make conscious choices about how we use it and include it in our lives?
First, we need to be willing to acknowledge that something is not working in our relationship with technology. Then we need to notice and personally take responsibility for our use of technology. Awareness is a practice that we actively initiate by paying attention to how we are interacting with technology from moment to moment, starting now. We can do this only if we are willing to look honestly at our personal behavior and the consequences that stem from it. Self-awareness requires mindfulness, that is, the ability to pay attention without judgment to whatever is arising in our experience right now. Mindfulness is a skill we need to develop — one that we cannot omit from our digital wheelhouse. We can start practicing mindfulness by simply noticing the impulse to get on technology whenever it arises and use that awareness to become conscious of our desire to escape the moment. We can then pause in this desire to use.
We can learn to tolerate the feelings of craving, staying conscious and still, allowing it without reacting and without giving in to what our mind is telling us to do to satisfy it. Instead, we tune in to what the mind is whispering (or perhaps shouting) at us even as we remain still, without assuming that the mind’s suggestions and demands are in our best interest. We examine whether we — that is, the larger awareness in us that knows how technology can make us feel — in fact, agree with this aspect of mind and want to follow its direction. In the moment of wanting to click, scroll, tap, or post, ask yourself: What is happening right here, right now, inside me and outside me? What’s arising that makes me want to distract myself? Notice what comes in response to these questions, in feelings, words, and behavior. In the end, the liberation, peace, power, and confidence that come from breaking free from any addiction feels so much better than anything technology could ever offer us. It is profoundly empowering to know that we can trust ourselves, control our own behavior, and thus ultimately take care of ourselves. It is in our power to award the reins to our true master — our deeper wisdom, integrity, and intelligence. Whether we exercise this power will determine what kinds of lives we live in this digital world.