Last month I wrote about the hindrance of “sloth and torpor,” the dullness of body and mind that gets in the way of clear seeing, insight. This month, I’ve been more aware of the opposite of sloth and torpor, which shows up in the form of “restlessness and worry”, the fourth of the five hindrances. And I’ve been noticing it not just in myself, but in many people coming on retreat.
The first few days of a retreat often involve swinging from one extreme to the other: from sleepiness to restlessness and back again, over and over. That’s probably always been the case, right from the time of the Buddha. But these days, restlessness in particular is intensified by our addiction to all things electronic, which keep us in a state of perpetual stimulation and/or anticipation of stimulation. It’s getting harder and harder to unplug. So in response, some meditation centres are asking retreat participants to commit very specifically to “undertake the training to refrain from using electronic devices while on retreat” as a part of their commitment to Noble Silence.
When I first read this refinement of the traditional ethical precepts, I noticed a twinge of discomfort, followed by a pulse of self-judgement. But then I remembered an article I read a few years ago, about the neuroscience of internet searching. Apparently when we browse on-line, the effect on the brain is similar to other forms of substance addiction. The same opiates and dopamines are released as with nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and heroin use! I found this both reassuring and disturbing: reassuring, because it helped make sense of why leaving the devices alone can be so hard; but disturbing because well, it’s an addiction, and by definition, addictions aren’t healthy.
I haven’t been able to find the original scientific article, but I did find another article from The Atlantic which is perhaps even more disturbing. Apparently the neuroscience behind addictive internet use is not only well-known by technology companies, it is actively exploited by some of them.
As the author, Bill Davidow, says at the end, “I’m learning that to function effectively and happily in an increasingly virtual world, I have to commit a significant amount of time to living without it.”
All of this has made me more committed to re-establishing a practice I used to do regularly, of taking a “device-free” day at least once a month. I remember that although it sometimes took a surprising amount of organisation ahead of time, afterwards, there were obvious differences in the state of my nervous system and my heart-mind generally. I felt calmer, clearer, less reactive, even after just one day of no technology. I was surprised to feel how much slower time passed – but in a good way, a “breathing out” kind of way.
I was also surprised how pleasant it felt to give myself permission to just read a book, or just cook a meal, or just go for a walk, or just talk to a friend, without the usual background level of restlessness that multi-tasking stimulates. I felt more connected to myself, and more connected to others, too.
Last week, I saw a series of portraits by the photographer Eric Pickersgill that captured how common this technology-induced disconnection is. He photographed regular people in regular scenarios, but then digitally altered the pictures to remove their phones and tablets. The results are quite saddening, but perhaps again, might offer more motivation to put away the devices – for just a while!
If a full day of digital detox seems unworkable, try for even just a half-day, to go completely technology-free: no phones, tablets, computers, TV screens, screens of any kind. And if you do decide to experiment with this type of renunciation, let me know how it goes. Perhaps together we can create small refuges from restlessness, by putting down the devices for just a day or two. Best of luck!