by H. Kimball Jones, MDiv, PhD, LMHC
We are living in a “digital age.” As I enter the 9th decade of my life, I am struck by just how much digital technology has transformed our lives. For more than half of my life there were no computers, no internet, no email, no cell phones, no cable TV, no streaming, no social media. How different things were!
There is no question that digital technology has made our lives easier. Email and text messaging are so much more efficient than snail mail and land lines. The internet has placed the entire globe within reach of our finger tips. Social media has given us wonderful tools with which to stay in touch with family and friends and network with colleagues.
A MIXED BLESSING
All of these technological advances, which would have seemed like science fiction to me as a child in the 1950’s, are wonderful. Yet I would argue that whether, in the long run, they prove to be more a blessing or a curse will depend largely on whether we learn to use them mindfully. While they have made our lives easier, they have also become harbingers of stress, especially in these anxious times when social media is dominated by content that reflects and magnifies a toxic divisiveness in our country.
Because of their convenience and seductive attractiveness, digital devices which promise to free us up have tended to enslave us, often increasing our stress. This was driven home to me recently, while I was riding on a bus on Riverside Drive. I was mesmerized by a beautiful sunset over the Hudson River. Yet as I looked at the other passengers, every one of them was engaged on their cell phones or iPads, totally oblivious to the beautiful scene outside the window. What a shame! It was as if they had been cut off from the world around them by their attachment to their digital devices.
I sometimes like to take pride in the fact that I do not have a cell phone and therefore am freer to enjoy the world around me. But who am I kidding? While I may not be seduced by a smart phone, I am enslaved by other digital devices. This became apparent to me on a recent vacation with my wife in Bermuda. As we settled into our room overlooking a beautiful bay and accessed the hotel Wi-Fi on our laptops, I discovered that my email was not working, and none of my efforts to fix this helped. I suddenly went into a kind of panic: “How am I going to be able to manage the next 8 days without access to email?” It seemed like a major crisis, yet proved to be a blessing in disguise. Once I accepted there would be no email for my stay in Bermuda, I let go. I relaxed. My first impulse each morning was not to check my laptop, but rather to look out at the beautiful bay and make plans for a relaxed vacation day. A major stressor had temporarily been removed from my life and I was much happier and at peace as a result.
I am a practicing Buddhist, and one of the central teachings of Buddhism which has been helpful to me is the importance of maintaining a healthy balance in our lives, finding a positive equilibrium between physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Buddhists do not see materialistic technology as inherently good or bad, but suggest that it can become destructive when it controls our lives, making us the slaves rather than masters of our possessions.
Digital technology can bring with it the danger of obsession and even addiction. This is true of phones, iPads, computers, smart TV’s, and all the many digital gadgets through which we view the world, communicate, and assimilate information. In my psychotherapy practice I have had several clients who struggle with addictions engendered by digital technology, including addiction to social media, online pornography, video games, endless video streaming, etc. (The list is endless!).
We face the danger of becoming overwhelmed and losing our ability to limit use of our devices. This can, among other things, impact open and effective communication with family, friends and colleagues (text messaging can be so much less effective for intimate encounters than face to face or even voice to voice communication). It can affect our discipline in structuring our time wisely, and tends to distract us from being aware and mentally present in our environment. This all can have the net effect of diminishing our self-esteem, creating stress, and undermining our ability to be the pro-active masters of our lives.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. So long as we are aware of these dangers, we have the option to limit our use of digital technology, to learn to see it as a helpful tool rather than an obsessive diversion. This requires both discipline and balance. It means perhaps learning to turn off the cell phone when in conversation or shared meals with friends or family, or maybe leaving the cell phone at home before taking that walk in the park. It may mean checking email, text messages, or social media much less often, or limiting the hours of “screen-time” in our lives – and spending more time in face-to-face interaction with our loved ones and other important people in our lives.
These things require discipline, and what Buddhism has taught me is that a daily spiritual practice, whether it be meditation, prayer or other spiritual discipline, can help us to become more mindful in all aspects of our lives, more emotionally and spiritually centered, and better equipped to achieve a healthier balance in how we use our time, energy and possessions. In the final analysis, it is important to our mental and spiritual health to learn how to use digital technology mindfully, especially in these anxious times in which we are living.
There are a few tickets left for PSI’s Annual Conference
To learn more about Mindfulness, register for our experiential day-long conference on Saturday, January 12, 2019 at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The conference, which will run from 10 am to 4 pm, is designed for mental health professionals and the general public who are interested in exploring the ways mindfulness can help us cope with precarious political and societal circumstances and events.
The conference will include a presentation, experiential exercise and Q&A with Dr. Mark Epstein. Following Dr. Epstein’s talk, there will be a panel discussion addressing different perspectives on mindfulness and small group discussions.
A light breakfast will be served in addition to lunch, during which attendees will be given an opportunity to socialize and network.
Five continuing Education Credits and Units (CECs, CEUs) are available to LMFTs, LMHCs, LCSWs, LMSWs, and CASACs.
PSI is happy to partner with the Interfaith Center of New York, Trinity Church Wall Street, and St. Bart’s to bring you the 2019 conference. Students and members of our partner organizations are eligible for discounted admission.