April 3, 2012

Eat, Pray, Update Status: Pain, Suffering & Social Networking.

(Photo: Dani Vincek)

Technology fatigue and technology addiction have assumed epidemic proportions in American society.

We pass far too many unhealthy hours mesmerized by the Svengali-like pull of our laptops, televisions, iPhones, iPads, iPods and Kindles. Our glowing gadgets become constant companions at work, at school, for entertainment, to while away the boredom during spare moments. A great many times, they become a substitute for human interaction.

Drop in at any urban center during any given moment of the day. Notice a great proportion of its inhabitants busily talking or texting away, oblivious to their surroundings.

Wi-Fi is everywhere. Schools. Restaurants. Public parks. At 30,000 feet. ‘Don’t be caught in a dead zone,’ the television commercials warn, as if a little disconnection is a bad thing. We hear the twanging guitar music. A tumbleweed blows into the foreground. Somewhere, in the distance, pistols are being cocked for a duel. If we are lucky, a yeti roams into the foreground from a mountain up north.

We are still in the Wild Wild West phase of technology development. Everything is new, cutting edge, exciting. We are not yet fully aware of what the long term effects will be on our physical, mental, emotional and social health.

(Photo: everystockphoto)

Think about it. How do you feel after spending myriad hours in front of a flickering screen? Something feels wrong, right? Maybe you feel mentally fuzzy, perhaps even physically exhausted? Multiply this by days. Or weeks. Or months. And even years.

You get the picture. Technology exhausts our physical bodies in addition to our psychic bodies. This is not normal.

The flickering images on a computer or television screen affect the part of the brain that produces dopamine. Activities like playing video games or shopping on eBay can provide a powerful ‘fix.’

When we ‘play’ for a long time, blood flows away from our extremities, contributing to a feeling of fatigue.

One can get the same sort of ‘high’ from social networking sites, especially if one’s work or life circumstances do not provide an outlet for socializing on a regular basis.

Then, there are the repetitive strain injuries that result from spending excessive time at a desk for school or work: neck and shoulder stress, carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica, migraine headaches.

As yogis and yoginis, it is imperative that we recognize the role technology plays in our lives. We must embrace a ‘back to basics’ attitude. Over-dependence on technology is ruining our relationships, harming our health and our eroding basic, common sense.

I’m not saying an occasional Facebook break or Netflix movie is a bad thing. Social networking sites, when used properly, can have some positive benefits. It is great to reconnect with an old friend, for example, or correspond more frequently with loved ones who live far away and for whom visits are not always possible.

But they have a shadow side as well. Think you are a generally well-balanced person? Status updates can sometimes unlock a Pandora’s box of unpleasant emotions such as jealousy, anger or fear. I once read an article that said most people are neurologically wired to hold 150 people or so in their brains. Many of us have way more ‘friends’ than that. We’re on a TMI overload.

Part of maintaining good boundaries sometimes means releasing those relationships which become toxic to us. What happens when that ex-boyfriend or caustic classmate or neighbor who is always asking to borrow money keeps showing up in your Friend Request column like a Whac-A-Mole?

These sites can create a fake sense of intimacy or friendship between people when such a connection may not exist IRL ( in real life). I love the post-post modern world and the fact that this has become an actual acronym.

Are Facebook friends ‘real’ friends? Are social networks real networks?

Have you ever known an individual who frequently engaged you online but wouldn’t answer when you phone or knock on the door? IRL? What is he or she doing in there? Did I do something wrong? Do I have spinach in my teeth?

And we all seem to have that friend who is tech-addicted. The context is irrelevant. Dinner. A funeral. A meeting. In five minutes, she is texting with friends. Sharing cute kitten videos from Facebook. Updating her Facebook status with last night’s party pictures.

Eventually, you begin to feel like a third wheel. Slowly, you slink away. She does not notice. She posts on your Wall the next day: “Nice to see you, toots! Let’s do it again soon!”

Technology has cheapened the way we communicate with our nearest and dearest. This creates a sort of existential conundrum unknown to earlier generations of human beings.

Social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, encourage the kind over sharing which, (cough, cough) crosses the border into narcissism.

There is a distinct joy, I guess in the fact that all of our friends from different times in our lives are talking to each other on our page. But, they are not really talking to one another. Our dialogues are simulacrum of a conversation. Translation: We talk a lot, but say very little.

If ‘real’ face-to-face relationships—which possess qualities of trust, respect and love—have been the currency of human communication for thousands of years, Facebook is more like social masturbation.

We inflict our ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ with a one-sided and self-gratificatory flow of information, the particular minutiae of our day. Somehow, we hope our ‘friends’ will be interested and will bestow upon us the post-post modern equivalent of a pat on the back: plenty of ‘likes’ and witty repartee.

Does everybody in our ‘social network’ really want to see a picture of my morning oatmeal? Or a play-by-play account of my trip to the bar last night? Or another rant on the political hijinks of Rick Santorum? And on and on?

No. Non. Nicht. Nyet.

Whereas once we sent handwritten letters or stayed up late into the night talking with a long-lost friend, we now communicate in brief fleeting soundbites, grasping and desperate: a text message in between appointments, Facebook chat during a bored moment at work.

We are all busy with everything under the sun that we will allow our closest relationships to erode. Everybody does it, our culture tells us. This makes me sad.

A brother will post on his sister’s Facebook wall rather than meeting her for lunch. A best friend will comment on his friend’s wall rather than getting together to shoot some hoops. Somehow, we fool ourselves into thinking this is good enough. And we wonder why the rates of anxiety and depression among young people, who seem to possess every material comfort they could desire, have skyrocketed.

We ever-so-finely craft our social persona these days, as if from a pull-down menu: employment, education, relationship status, residence. But we are not our job, our fancy degrees, our status as one-half of a couple or our zip code.

The Universe, in all of its ever-changing glory, has not created us to be a sum of parts.

Remember Golum in the Lord of the Rings series? Remember his search to control the ring, his ‘pretty’? The ring could be thought of as representing an externally constructed ego. And this is what we do on social networks.

We construct ourselves to our own liking, tightly and carefully control access to it. Our profiles become like bright and shiny baubles. We are now encouraged to group people into different circles. I like to compare this to the Tibetan Buddhist version of hell with different realms for different beings. I think we’re in Hungry Ghost hell now, hungry and thirsty for something, but looking in all the wrong places.

The danger of the digital age is that we fear some sort of existential annihilation, should we choose not to participate. The danger, of course, is manufactured, its siren song difficult to resist.

Case in point: Before I left the house today, I loaded up my shoulder bag with laptop, Droid phone, Ipod and Zune. And I realized it. I wasn’t, after all, preparing to trek across the Kalahari desert during the dry season. And my bag was going to pull my shoulder out.

Yogis and yoginis, there is a better way forward.

When dealing with technology and social networks, it is necessary to imply the niyama of svadyaya or self-study. Step outside of yourself for a moment. Study your reactions to the situation. Strive to know yourself. How do you feel about being constantly plugged in, wired in. Do you feel a sense of ease?

(Photo: everystockphoto)

I feel tired, trapped. Realistically, I want to scribble my stories on notebook paper like I did when I was sixteen, or scribble them on the walls of caves like my distant, distant ancestors did when they were sixteen.

I laugh when I contemplate our ancient ancestor, the caveman, leaving the house for an afternoon jaunt. Does he carry with him half a dozen electronic gadgets and their corresponding cords and cables all coiled in a pretty pile like a snarl of sleeping serpents?

Does he text his wife “waiting 4 saber-toothed tiger now”? Does he check into Foursquare to let all of his friends know where he is? (‘Mammoth Patch’ in case you’d like to know). Does he update his Facebook status with “Danielus Neanderthalus is waiting for the mammoth now. Can’t wait for five o’clock!!” No.

Humanity has survived for a long time without all of this crap. (And, I predict, when the Armageddon comes, those poor bastards checking their friends’ Twitter feeds to find out what is going on are going to be in for one hell of a rude awakening.)

Is there a yogic prescription for the existential conundrum of technology and suffering? In the words of the immortal Ice-T, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” (Although I may take it a bit out of context.)

Mindfulness meditation can help us to slow down our thought processes. We gain respect for both positive and negative feelings before feeling compelled to either drown them out by burying them with gadgets.

Metta, or Lovingkindness meditation, can be a valuable antidote as well. Other beings, whether we realize it or not, are afflicted by suffering as well.

I also enjoy practicing heart-openers such Cobra, Upward Dog, Fish, Camel and Purvottanasana. They stretch the front of the body, often held in a concave position when using technology, and encourage the anahata chakra to stay open to people and possibilities when trekking through social networks. Spinal twists can also be invaluable when one has been working on a computer for an extended period of time.

Nadi Shodona, or alternate nostril breathing, can restore balance to the nervous system and help quell feelings of anger or impatience (like when you’re trying to schedule something on e-mail and can’t get a response and think it just might be easier to run across town, like people did 200 years ago).

Finally, try one of the best remedies: some good, old-fashioned fresh air.



Editor: Andrea B.


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