Freedom from the Infinite Scroll

Cara Lai
December 31, 2023
Hands holding several cell phones

“I don’t have time,” I tell my friends, “to do anything anymore.” When I’m not taking care of the baby, I’m cleaning something. When I’m not working, I’m trying to catch up on sleep.  But I conveniently fail to remember the 45 minutes (or was it an hour and 45 minutes?) I spent on my phone today, reading reviews for electric toothbrush heads on Amazon, looking at old photos, and asking Google questions like “does Raffi have kids?” and “is it normal to pee every hour?” .

The truth of it is, I’m compulsive and hooked when it comes to technology. Maybe most of us are. And it’s understandable: our phones are used for just about everything these days. Getting around, socializing, staying informed, entertainment, banking, shopping— you name it, we have it at our fingertips. Because there’s so much available and so many things pulling our attention, we can’t even focus on one task at a time. We thought having this handy little gadget would free up more time, but instead it sucked us into rabbit holes of fail videos and Dr. Pimple Popper (I know you want to Google that one, and I dare you to) for hours on end. The time we used to spend staring out the window, petting the cat, giving our loved ones our full attention, or just doing nothing and being ok with it, has started to dwindle.

Most of the internet is designed to hook us. Our attention has been commodified. It’s being bought, sold, and profited off of, with questionable benefit to us. And what most of us don’t realize is that our attention is our power. Where we put our attention can set us free, or it can imprison us. This is actually something the Buddha taught. He said, “That which one frequently thinks about and ponders upon, that becomes the habit of the mind.” The Buddha taught that when we focus our attention on unhealthy thoughts—such as greed, hatred, and delusion—suffering becomes our default mode. And when we choose to focus on thoughts of well-being—generosity, kindness, and wisdom—freedom becomes the way we roll. 

This doesn’t mean you should never look at your phone again. I myself have enjoyed splendid binges of The Good Place and Stranger Things, especially while in the throes of chronic illness, being 9 months pregnant in 90 degree heat, and just general existential misery. Sometimes we need a place to get away from the relentlessness of the human experience. It’s not to say that technology is all bad—of course it’s not. It connects us, shares information and creativity, and is full of brilliant, helpful things (like Ten Percent Happier). The question is, when is it contributing to your highest happiness, and when is it hindering it? We won’t know unless we pay attention.

If we pay attention to our real-time experience while using our devices, we can immediately interrupt our default mode by simply becoming aware of what’s happening. How does your body feel when you’re comparing yourself to someone else on social media? How does it feel when you’re happy for someone? How does it feel when you’re reading the news or watching TikTok? 

Are you aware? What does your body feel like? Right now as you read this, can you feel your breath coming in and out? Can you feel your hand holding the phone? Can you take in the rest of the space that you’re in, around the screen? 

Notice what it feels like to not be on your phone, vs. what it feels like when you’re on it. Ask yourself, is this what I really want to be doing right now? The answer might be yes, and that’s ok. There’s no right answer. The point is to tune into what you’re feeling, and start to make the choice YOU want to make, instead of letting the internet make the choice for you.

But also… let’s be honest: we’ll probably find ourselves repeatedly choosing to get lost in technology rather than feel our breath or notice how something is making us feel, and there’s a reason for this. There was a reason we reached for the phone in the first place. There are things we’ve been purposely distracting ourselves from, and that we’d prefer to ignore, perhaps indefinitely. There’s often a lot we’re not wanting to feel right now, and we’d rather numb out on this device than face those feelings.

But I think (and the Buddha would probably back me up here) that real freedom would mean that there would be nothing to be afraid of feeling, and that all of it could be held in compassion and wisdom. So as we keep turning towards the whole truth of what’s happening while we reach for that little vibrating rectangle, we might start to find that a new kind of interest starts to build. What would I have to feel if I didn’t keep playing Candy Crush right now? Can I feel that feeling, even if just for a moment or two? Slowly, we’ll start to build some confidence that we can, in fact, face those feelings—that we do have what it takes to be with ourselves, to meet this life with compassion, and to be present for it.

When we stop running from ourselves, we can get more and more interested in the fullness of who we are. We might ask, what else could I be doing with my time and energy that would feel better, more alive? How can I give my gifts to the world? I bet if the Buddha were alive today, he would have loved watching cat videos, but he would have loved teaching people how to wake up even more than watching cat videos.

Cara Lai spent most of her life trying to figure out how to be happy, or at least avoid total misery, which landed her on a meditation cushion for the majority of her adulthood. Throughout many consciousness adventures including a few mind-bendingly long meditation retreats, she has explored the wilderness of the mind, chronic illness, and the importance of pleasure. She teaches teen and adult meditation retreats across the country.

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