My name is Jim and I’m an internet addict. There. I said it.
That’s the first step in a 12 Step program. Admitting you have a problem. Which is great, except for one thing. How do you admit you have a problem if you don’t really know you have a problem?
Until last week, I didn’t realize I had a problem. Like most people, I’ve joked about it. I used to refer to my Blackberry as a “crackberry” in jest. I’ve checked email far too frequently on my iPhone. But if you would have said I had a problem, I would’ve merely laughed — pretended to have my hand shaking as I went through the withdrawal of not checking my phone.
I’m not laughing anymore.
As some of you might know, for the past two years, I go “off the grid” for 10 full days. I go for 10 days living like a monk, getting up at 4:00 am, going to bed at 9:00 pm and in between spending the time in total silence — not saying a word. For about 10 hours per day, I meditate, using an old traditional technique from Burma where you try to focus on the present moment and stop the chattering of your mind.
It’s clearly not for everyone. I found it challenging, but enormously rewarding. Last year, I had some amazing experiences, but if truth be told, I spent a great deal of time grappling with the pain of putting a 56 year old body through the rigours of sitting for that long every day. I’m not a neophyte. I meditate daily – have for years. But as I discovered, there’s a big difference between 1 and 10 hours.
This year, I was in much better form. Still, going from my 1 hour a day to 10 hours was a challenge, but not as intense. No, what was realy intense for me was withdrawal. Yes. Withdrawal. Without the physical issues to distract me, I was free to notice the true depth of my withdrawal symptons. I dreamt – day and night – of messages in various formats, of browsing the internet, of texting. God forbid, I was writing blog posts in my head to describe everything I went through.
It took me days to process the withdrawal symptoms, but this time, in the absence of physical challenges, I recognized them for what they were. I was struck by the similarity to quitting smoking. It’s been more than 10 years now since I quit, but I’ll never forget the silent hell of beating nicotine addiction. This was eerily familiar.
But once I had processed the withdrawal symptoms, I was able to enage with what was happening around me. I got back to the wonderment of “just going” — not going somewhere, but just being in the moment I was in. And it struck me. How many times in my over-revved days was I craving a moment to just sit and think? As I walked along the footpath in the woods and saw the increadible beauty around me, I experienced what poet Wendell Berry called “the peace of the wild things”. What more could I want?
I come into the peace of the wild things, who do not tax themselves with the forethought of grief.
Wendell Berry – Peace of the Wild Things
Apparently, I wanted more stimulation. I wanted to get back to the tones, the messages, the snippets of data — that constant flow of stimulus. Not that it would make me happier. In fact, just before I went on my retreat this year I did a workshop at CMA Ontario on consulting. In this workshop I do a section on understanding the demands on the average white collar worker. I ask, as I do – how many of the workshop participants feel they are working harder than they did a few years ago? How many feel that work encroaches into their personal time? How many feel pressured to check and answer emails at night? Only one person said that they didn’t check or respond to work emails at night. Ever. I watched everyone in the room turn to this person and if the collective sigh didn’t tell the story, the look of envy on their faces did.
We know what is happening to us. We crave something different. But what do we do when we get it?
When I had the perfect chance, on an idyllic set of days in silence and beauty that rivalled anything that Thoreau wrote so eloquently about — when I had the chance for that experience what did I do? I fantasized about my phone, my computer — my plugged in state.
I read an article several years ago about a child that had been discovered by authorities after having been locked in a box for years. A horrible abuse certainly, but the worst was the ending. After having been freed, people wanted to do something for this poor child and they asked what it was that she wanted. Her answer? “I want to go back in the box.”
That was me, at least on at an unconscious level. In my conscious mind, I could live the fantasy that I wanted freedom. That’s one reason why I have a regular meditation practice. That’s why I came to this retreat. But now that I had the chance, when I was finally free, for all the world, it seemed like my mind just wanted to go “back in the box.
That’s when the realization really hit me. I’m an addict. I had to admit it to myself. I guess that’s step one.
That became my realization and my practice for most of that retreat, not by resenting my thought process, but by gently nudging my mind. I have learned to focus on the positive. I remembered the words of Gill Frontsdale, a noted meditation teacher, who said that every time your mind wanders, its a chance to experience the joy of coming back to the present moment. That became my silent rallying cry — “welcome back to the present moment” I would say to myself. And I’d smile.
It worked. I won’t bore you with my epiphanies, but once I let go, among many other things, I experienced the world as it was in that moment. I saw what Thoreau and Berry must have seen and it was breathtaking.
As I counted my blessings and not my followers or my inbox messages, I saw the world more clearly than I have in some time.
When you do see the world clearly, even for just a brief moment, you realize that we spend so much of our time working, but as we do we are resenting and sometimes even fearing this stream of stimulation. I can’t be the only one whose felt that adrenalin rush when they read an email subject, or felt annoyance or even anger at a word or phrase. We crave peace but when we get it we get the jitters. When we aren’t interupted, we interupt ourselves to look at the phone and to check our messages again and again. If there’s nothing, we wonder why we haven’t gotten a message. We find out the truth — what we really crave is the chattering world that these devices bring us.
When we finally get the heaven sent moment of peace and freedom, we want to go “back in the box”.
That was my realization. It was also that first step. My name is Jim, and I’m addicted to the stimulation of electronic communication.
I’m not a luddite. I know that this world needs technology. I live and work in technology. But my job is help people get the benefits of technology, not to build dependence on it. If a doctor was addicted to prescription medicine, how could she counsel patients to use medicine wisely? If I’m addicted technology, how can I help my clients use it for the betterment of their lives?
Something has to change. For me? I won’t wait till my next 10 day retreat. I’m going to reintroduce the idea of the “sabbath” – I’m going to find a regular time when I step away from technology and check for the return of addiction. I won’t be joking about it. I’m deadly serious.
Someone said to me the other day that once you have kids, “the days are long, but the years are short.” I think that applies to our work lives as well. My kids are grown, but I feel my life is speeding by at an incredible pace.
Life is too bloody short and precious. I found my way out of that box. I’m not going back.