Balancing Our Technologies

Maintaining presence and empathy in a world of smartphones.

Posted Jun 23, 2019

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We're living in a world where it's easy to be overtaken by the technologies we hold in our hands. Often, it seems, they hold us, instead of us holding them.

I confess I too am guilty of obsessively checking my phone for the next email or Facebook post, for waking up and immediately going over to my phone as if I were checking on it like a baby in a cradle. How are we faring in this "brave new world," and how we might find a better balance? 

Let's be clear before we unpack this. Technology is a gift.

The ways we are able to connect through FaceTime, Facebook, Twitter, email, and all our other platforms is nothing short of a technological miracle. Some days, especially for Xennials like myself, it is breathtaking to think that the everyday things we are doing—regularly using GPS to find our travel routes, monitoring our homes from a distance with a digital remote control, taking pictures with drones, asking Siri and Alexa for elaborate advice on everyday questions—is happening on a level only seen in James Bond or The Jetsons. Many of us take this for granted—who can even remember what it was like not to have smartphones?—but it is quite remarkable to think that only a short time ago, none of this would have been imaginable.

With every technology, of course, there is a possible shadow side, from the potential destruction of fire and the atom bomb, to name a few technologies of the more distant and recent past, to more currently the capacity to hack an entire company or assassinate a person's character with the stroke of a few keys. In sum, there are ways in which technology, when not used responsibly or consciously, can be regressive and destructive and serve to distance us from our most cherished forms of humanity. 

One of the more prevalent, insidious, and troubling things I see most in myself and in my clients today is the quickness with which we can be addicted to our smartphones. Endlessly scrolling our Facebook/Instagram/Twitter feeds, we can easily move into a hypnotic trance, gazing into the screens of our phones as if into the eyes of a lover. We are seduced into believing that we can multitask between the virtual and real worlds, when, in fact, we are becoming zombies, half-listening and losing eye and heart contact to what is most important—a true presence with the ones we love. With these technologies, our human propensity for dissociation is magnified, and we are all swept up in what the Buddhists call "our monkey mind," that turbulent state where we have lost touch with the true ground of being.

These technologies encourage us to multitask; they provide us with the false premise that we are built, like them, to do so. Recent research, however, demonstrates that we are highly inefficient when multitasking and that we are not neurologically designed to operate as such. Thousands of years of insights from the great wisdom traditions also converge on the fact that our greatest technology is coming back to a central focus, of going inward to a moral and meditative center from which we can fully meet the world.

Smartphones easily have the capacity to become our mistresses, the object we go to in order to satisfy and fulfill our fantasies so that we don’t have to contend with the complexities and challenges of connecting in reality. We are all susceptible to being swept away by our smartphones like a siren song, and while it is normal, we still need to consciously work on making space to maintain proper balance.

We can do this by periodically "checking our phones," like our coats, at the door to make sure we are truly present with the ones we love. We also need to be mindful of how our phones can, at times, serve as an escapist crutch, moving us away from engaging not only with the difficult moments in our relationships but also with the simple, yet profound, moments of just being with our partners.

Our phones easily interfere with what Martin Buber called “I-Thou” moments, when we are profoundly communing with the ones we love and losing track of ourselves in what feels like an eternity. This is so important, because this is the space in which true connection occurs.

Smartphones dominate us with what the Greeks called Chronos, the objective and ever-slipping-away sense of time, the need to continually "go, go, go!" This moves us away from Kairos, the moments in which we lose ourselves and forget all sense of objective time, and profoundly dip into a space of transcendent communion.

Two of the greatest technologies we have as human beings are the capacity for self-reflection and the capacity for empathy. The former allows us to review what is happening in both our present, past, and future simultaneously and allows for a sophisticated juggling of the multiple selves that we each comprise. Our empathy affords us the unique ability to imagine ourselves in the heart, minds, and shoes of those we love, and even those we despise, as a way of bridging the gap between our separateness. These technologies require patience, practice, discipline, and above all, love. 

They do not happen on their own, but rather take time to develop, cultivate, and refine in a lifelong pursuit of profound connection with oneself, others, and the world. They culminate in a voice that reaches out to the larger culture in an attempt at making music out of the din, art of the seeming chaos, and meaning out of seemingly endless contradictions.

The problem with our current technologies is that they can easily interfere with these "old" technologies and serve to detune us as instruments. They move us further away from others and ourselves if not used responsibly and consciously. So what can we do?

First, we need to be aware of and recognize how we are relating to both the old and new technologies. Are we being taken, like a siren song, into the numbing and dissociative space with our technologies, or are we using them as a springboard for vitalizing and creative connection?

It's helpful to make sure to get the proper balance of our technology diet. With respect to the new technologies, if we are using Facebook or scrolling on our phones, are we also balancing this out with enough deep reading of online material, with engaging podcasts, or with being involved in writing or connecting with other groups of individuals that bring us closer together?

Second, are we doing enough to balance the new technologies with our old technologies by taking a walk in nature, writing in a journal, talking face-to-face with a friend, reading, writing, doing some creative activity, or just taking the time to meditate?

This process, as Jack Kornfield says of meditation, takes "a barrel of effort, and an ocean of patience," but it is worth every bit of the investment, for it returns us to who we are and who we can be, and brings us closer to those around us whom we love.

In short, having a mindful, conscious, and balanced connection to these technologies allows us to make sure that our greatest instrument, our psyche, is well-tuned. It is only then that we can make beautiful music for ourselves and for the world.