Whether we live in big cities, small towns or the countryside, we all face problems in our modern world. Most people would sum them up with the word “stress.” We want more and more, as more and more become instantly available – information, movies, TV stations, music, social media feeds, instant messages, online products, and more. They may on the surface seem to improve our lives, but they make them more complicated and stressful, especially when there are so many choices. We don’t want to miss something, like in the news, or an email or instant message. We are afraid of being left out. Even if we choose something, like a TV show, we are filled with doubt that maybe there is something better on to watch that we’ve missed.
We want to belong to society, to a group of friends; we want “likes” on whatever we post on social media, so that we feel we are accepted. We are not calm, and we are never satisfied with the number of “likes” we get or the information we read on the Internet. We feel excited with anticipation when our phone indicates we have received a message, or in checking our Facebook page to see if we have received more likes, or as a news junkie, looking once more at the news to see if something new has happened. We don’t want to miss anything, but it never satisfies and we want even more.
On the other hand, we feel overwhelmed by the situation around us and so we try to escape by looking at our mobile devices and listening to music while on the subway, or when walking around. We try to shut out the reality of what is around us and escape into our private virtual world. We also feel the compulsive need always to be entertained. On the one hand, we yearn for peace and quiet, and on the other we fear the vacuum of the absence of information, music, and so on. We are determined to be free of the stress of the external world, so we give it up and retreat into the virtual world of the Internet. But even there, we seek the company and approval of our so-called “friends” on social media, and we never feel secure. But, is retreating into our mobile devices the solution?
We need to recognize the unhappiness we experience when we are stuck in these habitual routines and identify its sources. We then need to develop the determination to be free of this unhappiness, based on knowing the methods to rid ourselves of its sources and being confident that they work. But we don’t want just to feel like nothing, like a zombie; we want to be happy. Happiness is not just the absence of unhappiness; it’s something in addition to the neutral, unfeeling state of being rid of unhappiness.
The Source of Unhappiness Is Our Own Minds
External objects and situations are not the source of the unhappiness, suffering and stress we experience; otherwise everyone who encounters them would experience them in the same way.
The source of our unhappiness is our own minds, with its attitudes and emotions, and our confused ways of handling the realities of modern life.
We have strong habits of self-destructive behavior, brought on by disturbing emotions and attitudes such as insecurity, attachment, aversion, fear, and so on. They lead us to act in a way that just brings more stress and problems, which, like a feedback loop, further strengthen our disturbing emotions and attitudes.
Disturbing emotions and attitudes are based on unawareness. Either we don’t know the effect of our behavior on ourselves and are not realistic about the situations we are in, or we have an incorrect understanding of them. For instance, we don’t know that having more “likes” will not make us feel more secure; just the opposite, we think it will. This brings longing desire for more “likes,” the insecurity of continually checking the amount we have, and the suffering of never being satisfied and having peace of mind. Or we naively think that escaping into the virtual world of a computer game will make whatever issues we have to face in life go away. All this unawareness and naivety, and the disturbing emotions they bring on, like attachment, reinforce our negative habits of self-destructive behavior and disturbing states of mind.
To deal with these syndromes, we need discriminating awareness of the situations we are in, for instance having a demanding job. We have to deal with it, that’s reality; and we can only do as best as we can. We need to accept this reality of our situation and the reality of our limitations, and stop projecting that the situation is some horrible monster and we are not good enough because we think we have to be perfect. Then we need concentration to keep mindful of the reality that we face, without overestimating it or underestimating it, and alertness to detect when we lose our focus on the facts. In addition, we need self-discipline, to refrain from acting out self-destructive habits.
We start with self-discipline, and begin with small things. When we feel stressed, our cortisol level (the stress hormone) is increased, so we seek some relief, for instance a cigarette or checking social media or surfing on the Internet for something interesting. We feel the excitement and happiness of anticipation that this will make us feel better, so our dopamine level (the hormone of anticipation of a reward) is increased. But after the cigarette or checking the Internet, it doesn’t satisfy, so our stress returns.
We need to discriminate the disadvantages of believing our misconception that the cigarette will solve the problem, or the “likes” will solve the problem, or reading the latest news will solve the problem. Then we can develop the determination to be free. So we give up cigarettes, or we regulate when we check our email and messages, or how often we check the news or social media. We don’t act out when the compulsive impulse arises to have the cigarette or go to the Internet; we refrain.
Just as we need to go on a food diet to get rid of physical obesity, we need to go on an information diet to get rid of mental obesity.
We need to restrict our intake of information, messages, music, and so on, like we restrict our intake of food.
Refraining from old self-destructive habits will, at first, increase the cortisol level in our bodies and be stressful, since the old negative habits are so strong. It is like withdrawal from cigarettes or from the Internet and mobiles or from music. But the stress of withdrawal will eventually die down and we will experience a peaceful calmness of mind. If we replace the negative habits with positive ones – like realizing we are part of all humanity and we are all interrelated and so our welfare depends on everyone else – this will satisfy the need for feeling connected and bonded with others, which being part of an Internet social network doesn’t really do. So our oxytocin level (the bonding hormone) increases and we will experience more happiness and a sense of security.
Freeing Ourselves from Self-Destructive Habits
In short, once we develop the determination to be free, then to free ourselves of old negative habits, we need to train ourselves in self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness, the so-called “three trainings.” These three need to work together, but to develop them properly, we need to rid ourselves of the factors that hinder them:
- Regret hinders our self-discipline. For example, we regret that we didn’t check the Internet or instantly answer the message or email. A helpful strategy is to turn off the notification alarm or indicator on our computer or mobile device and only check at fixed periods, and only answer important ones as soon as we read them. We need the self-discipline to leave the others to when we’re less busy or for a certain time of the day regularly set aside for answering messages.
- Sleepiness, mental dullness and flightiness hinder our concentration. With any of them, we lose mindfulness of the fact that refraining from constantly checking our messages will make life less complicated.
- Indecisive wavering hinders our discriminating awareness. We waver back and forth about whether checking our messages at only fixed times was the right decision. Such doubts arise since it is difficult and stressful to refrain from checking. To deal with these doubts, we need to remind ourselves of the advantages of changing our habits.
There are other strategies we can also adopt to make our lives happier. When we are on a crowded subway, for instance, the more we focus just on ourselves and wanting to protect ourselves and escape into our mobile phone, the more closed we feel. Our energy is thus squeezed and we feel more tense. We’re not relaxed, because we feel threatened by danger. Even if we become quite absorbed in the game we are playing on the mobile or by the loud music we hear on our iPod, we have put up the walls around us and don’t want to be disturbed, so we’re defensive. On the other hand, if we view ourselves as part of the entire crowd of people in the subway, and develop concern and compassion for everyone in the same situation as we are, our hearts and minds are open. We can be alert to danger, but without the paranoia of focusing just on ourselves – we want everyone to be safe. We don’t try to drown out everyone else with music or a game and isolate ourselves from all others. Such tactics only increase our loneliness. If we feel instead that we are part of the larger group of everyone around us, we feel more secure, like an animal in a herd. To apply this strategy effectively, however, requires these three trainings in self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness.
Another strategy we can adopt is, when need a break from work, instead of surfing or checking our mobile, to stand up and walk around the room if we can. Deal with less stimulation, rather than more with the Internet or phone.
If, through determination to be free, we apply these methods of the three trainings to minimize the stress we have from self-destructive habits, we will be in a calmer state of mind to deal with the pressures of work, family, the economic situation, and so on. This will be especially effective in dealing with the complications of modern life coming from information addiction and escape into the Internet, social media, music and so on. That doesn’t mean we need to give up the Internet or throw away our mobile devices; but rather we need to develop better habits of how to use them in a beneficial and healthy way.