Thank you for clicking on this. However, I need to tell you that, while I know these words are “published” on this public forum, readers are not my main reason for doing this. To be clear, for me, your purpose is to help me collect my thoughts and more clearly understand something I have been thinking about. Having a potential audience adds a layer of focus that might not be there if I were just keeping a diary.
I’m assuming you had a reason for clicking on this. Perhaps you are in a waiting place — airport, medical office, bus stop — and, instead of interacting or observing your environment and the people residing in it, you are scrolling around through the infinite online rummage sale — trillions of words blowing about in the desert of the internet.
Consequently, I doubt you have a serious interest in what you are reading. My developing understanding of this online world is that if you are considering reading this it is more likely than not that your mind is seeking dissociation from the reality around you. You are basically practicing the opposite of mindfulness.
The mind is flighty; it is easily distracted and is as inconstant as a flitting gnat. That is why mindfulness practices must always start with a connection to physical reality; what is happening around you right here and right now. And the most effective way to center your mind is to focus on your breathing. This is because your body is much more solid than your mind and breathing grounds your flighty mind in something real; real flesh and blood. Mindful breathing is an excellent method to redirect your awareness to your place in physical reality.
The mind is embedded in the body; there is no escaping this reality. When I was suffering from the worst sinus headache I had ever experienced my mind was totally absorbed in the pain; it was totally dominated by what my body was experiencing. There was no escape. It was profound and convincing proof that my mind and body are inseparable. The mind cannot exist without the body; it is totally dependent upon the condition of the body. Damage to the physical cells in your body — especially your physical brain — can cause your mind to cease to function. The body can exist without the mind, as a visit to an Alzheimer’s ward can demonstrate, but to be fully human requires a functional body that can support your very hungry brain; your brain is an organ that consumes one fifth of your total daily energy. Your mind cannot exist without your physical body and brain.
I am coming to realize that the online “world” is the opposite of mindful. For most of the 200,000 years of our evolution our lifestyle was characterized by a high degree of physical and emotional intimacy. Our tribal survival units were profoundly connected with the reality of the natural world. Our minds were exquisite tools for surviving and thriving. By all accounts these tribal survival units were resilient and astoundingly successful; humans expanded and managed to populate every corner of the globe, from the Arctic Ocean to the jungles of equatorial islands.
But the past 10,000 years have been even more remarkable. We have built a technological civilization that is unprecedented in the evolutionary history of life on earth. Those of you who are still reading this are probably safe, secure and no longer subject to the harsh elements our tribal ancestors faced. You have the luxury of taking extended flights from your physical reality.
Your mind is a remarkable instrument, but it is double edged. It can come completely unglued from physical reality, from the fact that it is inseparable from the body. You can convince yourself that drinking a fifth of bourbon a day is a perfectly fine, healthy way of life. But the reality of your body will eventually puncture your delusions — even if the lies your mind is telling you could put you on your deathbed before you finally realize that.
Before we made the transition to agriculture and civilization our minds were fully occupied with living in physical reality, in the present time. They were tools for survival; we could point to things and communicate to each other about them; we could learn to avoid dangers without having to actually experience those dangers ourselves; we could plan hunts and organize to efficiently gather resources from our environment.
At some point we discovered that our minds could tell stories. They could enhance our standing in the tribe; we could even deceive each other about our personal virtues. We could even deceive ourselves. We could come to believe in magic, in demons, in a world inhabited by supernatural beings. But our minds’ abilities to create stories and ideas that didn’t correspond to physical reality were still subjected to the harsh limits of surviving a cold winter.
The change to a more settled lifestyle, larger populations, and a greater division of labor took some of the physical limits away from the boundaries of our minds’ creations. It allowed some of us to become scribes and singers and philosophers and oligarchs. Agriculture and civilization made it possible for people to accumulate more possessions, which led to a focus on material wealth, to what could be extracted from the physical world and used to insulate us from the vagaries and catastrophes of surviving in pre-civilized times. It generated a sense of alienation from the natural world and from other people.
We have moved into alienating times; especially for those of us who have comfortable lives safely insulated from the realities of tribal survival. But it happened too fast. We are tribal hunter-gatherers maladapted to life in modern civilization. We can sit, isolated, in our comfortable living rooms and let our inconstant minds drift into ever more dissociated states. We can use real money to buy fake online money to purchase fake online assets for online gaming and transfer those fake assets to tik-tok “influencers” who mimic NPC’s from those online games and then cash in those fake assets to earn real money which they then use to buy food which their bodies and brains need to continue to function in their dissociated states. We can buy specially designed “gaming chairs” that allow us to play video games for 16 to 20 hours a day while “napping” in those chairs the rest of the time.
And, yes, online social media allows us to connect with people all over the world, like I am with you who are reading this. But it also unleashes our minds to create ever greater distance and disconnection from reality. We can see what other people are doing, but we don’t really know them; they become disconnected creations of our minds and we read projected personalities into their words as we briefly connect with them while scrolling through the vast online rummage sale of random thoughts; daily encountering masses of idiots full of sound and fury with no significance to us except as diversions for our easily distracted minds.
Many people who study our minds have realized that our claims to rationality are actually quite flimsy. Plato likened our situation to a charioteer with two steeds; a noble horse and a “spirited”one. There was, in this analogy, a powerful part of ourselves that did not take easily to discipline and was a challenge to rein in. Others, more recently, have postulated that our hard-wired evolutionary minds are like elephants who ramble around while our rational mind is like a rider atop the elephant that makes post hoc justifications for why we are moving in a certain direction.
Others talk about “system 1” and “system 2.” “System 1” being the knee-jerk immediate fight/flight/freeze response that has great survival benefits from acting quickly but which often overreacts to stimulus. “System 2” is the slower acting, reasoning part of the mind that pauses and looks at the “snake” in the road and realizes it is only a piece of vine. However, if it weren’t for the knee-jerk response of “system 1,” the one time it really was a snake the slower “system 2” reasoned response might have gotten us killed.
So what are we doing these days with our dissociated, distracted minds. What are you doing with your mind? You and I, we are in quite a pickle. Like a herd of drunken elephants we have pursued our evolutionary advantages and stampeded into a distracting world that is profoundly confusing. Us elephants seem quite bewildered; we can’t really come to terms with how things have come so unglued.
We “rational” elephant riders can point to impressive successes. Humans are triumphant masters of the planet; covering the surface of the earth with our reproductively successful offspring and our marvelously ingenious technologies. All other creatures cower before us. We can hunt them down, bulldoze their habitat and dam their rivers for our own sustenance and enjoyment. There is, of course, an underside to this, as Aldo Leopold said, our technological innovations are “improvements in the pump, but not the well.”
The elephant herd brays and thunders, consuming voraciously and spreading dung everywhere; oceans fill with plastic, millions of square miles of landfills reach the end of their “trash receiving life,” non-renewable resources require more and more non-renewable fossil fueled energy to extract and, of course, the atmosphere and oceans warm dangerously. These things are not secrets.
Perhaps the reality of the situation is so disconcerting that we are compelled to seek dissociation from it, like an addict seeks dissociation from their messed up life. It is a dissociation from reality that is not sustainable. It will not last.