How to Keep Technology in Balance by Going Deep
Some years ago, my husband and I were teaching a course in the Swiss Alps overlooking Lake Lucerne. One day we were walking on a crowded street in the city of Lucerne, and our friend pointed out, “Notice how every last person crossing this street stays within the white lines.”It was kind of freaky. That all changed a few weeks later when we went to Italy, where pretty much everyone was jaywalking all the time.
For those carefree Italians, China has a response. Surveillance cameras in Beijing now use facial recognition to record who is stepping outside the white lines. You walk across the street the wrong way and voilà—a few weeks later a hefty fine arrives in the mail. This and other alarming high-tech surveillance devices were described in an article Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times called Warning! Everything Is Going Deep: ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’.
And it’s not just surveillance. According to Friedman, artificial intelligence (A.I.) is everywhere. We’re going in deep—into the powerful realm of voice recognition, facial recognition, and A.I. programs that are so smart they don’t even need humans to train them. On one hand, he writes, immersion in high tech makes complex tasks simpler: we love getting a ride with Uber, finding a new restaurant with GPS, or asking Alexa to play our favorite tunes. Cell phones keep us in touch and can be a lifesaver in an emergency. Skype and FaceTime allow grandparents to visit with their grandchildren.
But, as Friedman points out, sharks lurk in those deep waters. For many, cell phones are creating sleep deprivation and distracted driving. Your personal search habits have become advertising tools of search engines such as Google. Once I did a quick search for sandals on Amazon. Wow, a few minutes later, ads for sandals started popping up—and they trailed me long after I bought the sandals and summer had come and gone. Unwanted robocalls now make up 50 percent of all calls, elections are being manipulated by cyberbots, and personal data is increasingly insecure. Government regulation can’t keep up.
Not to mention the deeper questions. What is technology doing to our brains? Is tech taking over our lives? Are devices designed to make our lives simpler actually devouring our leisure time, preventing social interaction and making our thinking more shallow and scattered to boot? One thing we know for sure: if too many screens are affecting us adults, the effect on children and teens is much greater.
One Friday night not long ago, my husband and I stopped at a local restaurant after swimming. In a nearby booth sat four teenage girls, each staring at her cell phone. They hardly exchanged a word the whole time we were there. Teenage girls send more texts and direct messages than boys, estimated at 100+ texts a day, or 3000 a month. The average teen is absorbed in screens for 7 1/2 hours, 7 days a week. And the result is that teens are facing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression—which experts attribute to addiction to social media. Teens themselves describe screens as toxic and a source of anxiety.
The word “addiction” often is used to describe the problem adults and teens have in controlling the amount of technology in their lives—with blogs (like this one) abounding with advice for unplugging, detoxing and getting a grip on reality again. The trouble with Internet addiction is that it’s like clutter that keeps us lost in the mind, absorbed in content. Multitasking is in many ways a dysfunctional state that diminishes the joy of interaction, the abundance of being, the security that comes from being with each other without distractions. Two-dimensional, virtual reality can become more important than family and friends, productivity at work, and even the pleasure of eating. The very devices that offered us freedom are becoming autonomous in themselves, controlling our lives instead of serving us. It’s insanity.
Some people are managing the problem of too much technology by emphasizing human interaction and human experiences in their lives. Back in Italy, on the first day of spring in 1986, a McDonald’s opened next to the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Alarmed by the presence of this fast food restaurant, Carlo Petrini founded the International Slow Food Movement, and by now it’s a worldwide philosophy, teaching people to use traditional and regional cuisine—and natural farming methods. On its heels is the Slow Movement, teaching people to savor all their experiences, to put quality over quantity in every activity and every relationship, not just eating.
Savoring the joy of life is a profound way of living, and this is where Transcendental Meditation (TM) can help. Interestingly, TM at one time was called Transcendental Deep Meditation. I suppose that’s too many words, but it does make a good point, which is that Transcendental Meditation takes you deep. Your mind becomes settled and peaceful, like diving into the deep part of the ocean beyond the choppy waves on the surface—into the deepest part of yourself, where there are no waves.
It’s important to note that not all meditation practices provide this deep inner silence, this experience of going beyond the constant chatter of the “monkey mind,” beyond thought itself. Other meditations may focus on observing thoughts or the breath, but still involve the surface of the mind thinking about the surface processes of the mind.
The beauty of transcending is that it takes us into the deep—the deepest part of ourselves. Other meditations may have value but when we talk of the deep, transcending is key. Transcendental Meditation allows us to become familiar with that precious dimension of life that has been missing with all the screens and mind chatter: our deep inner Self.
One of the most famous sayings in Western civilization originated with the Oracle of Delphi, a woman living in ancient Greece. The oracle would make predictions for the future, using her intuition, which was probably more powerful than the algorithms of Google, Apple, or Netflix combined. Socrates consulted her, and as he entered the temple, etched above the entrance, were the words “Know thyself.” This, as it turns out, is the most profound advice to come out of any philosophy, East or West. This is the deep dimension of our lives that can be obscured with the allure of screens—but gets strengthened with meditation.
The purpose of the meditative experience is to increase our sense of who we are as a person, and then it becomes easy to make better choices by natural inclination. (After all, it’s when you’re tired, anxious and not centered in yourself that you reach for the Ben and Jerry’s.) People who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique report feeling fresh and rested, and the research shows a remarkable drop in anxiety levels and a significant boost of self-esteem. This growth of inner happiness is why TM practitioners find they can stop smoking or abusing alcohol or drugs. As shown in research, TM helps people free themselves of addictions of all kinds.
Meditation, however, offers much more than relief from harmful habits. Regular meditation gives space to one’s life, offering meaning and a sense of purpose. And what is the purpose? Awakening, savoring the joy of living and helping others to do the same. TM brings an inner balance that allows you to align your choices with your needs—to naturally choose what is beneficial and discard what isn’t.
Inner balance has a profound effect when it comes to artificial intelligence and the digital world. When you have balance in your life, you savor the sweetness of life in the moment, and you’re not looking for the next screenshot. Taking time for deep meditation makes you feel fresh and rested, and so without thinking about it, you make better choices about how to spend your free time.
And of course, that is going to be different for each person—it’s all about finding the right balance for yourself. For me, it feels normal to text my husband to buy scallions at the grocery store but over the top to send him dozens of texts a day. It feels normal to check email a few times in 24 hours, but not every two minutes. It feels good to keep current with today’s headlines but draining to take my cellphone to bed and flip through news apps until my eyeballs fall out. The point is, if my sense of Self is strong, I can enjoy the benefits of high tech without it taking over my life.
Transcendental Meditation provides the anchor, and that’s the thing that’s missing when you have too much high-tech in your life. TM gives us a wider perspective—so we can enjoy tech without becoming addicted. We can reap the benefits without being caught in a riptide and landing in water that’s too deep.
About the Author
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.