The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Every day, when I wake up,

The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World

The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing," said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Every day, when I wake up, I try to remember to ask myself: What is the most important thing? What is my heart's longing? What parts of myself do I want to nourish and grow? What do I want to offer? In essence, What really matters?

As a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, and spiritual counselor, many of those I meet with these days describe feeling "twired," both tired and wired, overwhelmed and consumed by the distractions and chronic multitasking that personal technology creates. Whether we're tinkering on social media, Googling old acquaintances, looking up facts on Wikipedia, or updating and learning new software, we are spending far too much of our time doing things that don't really matter to us. At this moment in history, as a result of the new opportunities and demands that technology creates, we have forgotten not only what is most important but also that we need to ask ourselves that question. Why do so many people describe the feeling of being disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished as human beings? And, most importantly, how do we remember to ask, What really matters?

I observe more and more of my clients, as well as friends, family, and others, becoming dependent on their devices in order to feel complete, calm, and basically okay. Many people now need their devices and the ongoing infusion of entertainment, information, and communication that technology provides to keep themselves from feeling bored and agitated, which are now considered the normal sensations for a life that is "turned off." What we expect from the present moment has changed: we are now accustomed to ongoing stimulation and feel anxious and lacking without it. There is a continual sense that we should be doing something, which then causes us to grab our smartphones to seek some relief from that anxiety. And while most people now check their smartphones 180 times per day, or every five to six minutes, not enough of us consider our behavior around technology to be a real problem.

I recently watched a woman almost run down by a taxi because she was so focused on her smartphone she didn't notice she was standing in the middle of the street. Two men pulled her out of harm's way at the last moment. When she made it to the other side of the street, she got right back to her device, as if nothing had just happened. She was not fazed by the event, at least not enough to interrupt her flow of texting or even to thank the two men who saved her life. Technology is a powerful tool for communication, and yet the way we are using it and the authority we are awarding it are also making it into a powerful
impediment to our sense of presence and awareness.

We are succumbing to our more primitive tendencies toward unconsciousness, going under a kind of technological anesthesia, which renders us unaware of where we actually are physically and with whom we are sharing company. Technology is dazzling us into a form of entertaining sleep, and too many of us are not yet making conscious choices about whether we agree with what is happening and in fact want to disappear from our lives.

With the assistance of technology, we now have the ability to know, do, watch, and learn almost anything. But by indulging that ability, we have created a state in which every nook and cranny of our internal and external space is filled with stuff to do, think about, watch, listen to, know, and learn. Our internal hard drives are jammed beyond capacity with thoughts, information, and new tasks. People report a great longing for space, room to breathe, time with themselves, or, as we now call it, "bandwidth" — and yet such peace, quiet, and downtime are harder and harder to find or create. Our lives are filled with more possibilities than ever before to connect, consume, and discover — all good things — but in the face of these possibilities, we are also feeling less connected, less centered, and less satisfied. The digital age is an age of both too much and not enough.

How do we stay in touch with what is most important to us when we're buried under hundreds of emails and texts and technological tasks each day? How do we stay in the present moment in a society that beckons us with relentless — and enticing — distractions? How do we maintain connection in our relationships when conversations are interrupted dozens of times and so many people are busy staring into their personal screens? Where do we find the silence and focus we need when there is almost nowhere left to escape from the chimes, bells, and vibrations that constantly invade our private spaces, when every activity
is part of a larger multitasking operation? With what skills can we stay empowered and calm when we must continually figure out how to keep our technology running smoothly just so we can participate in the world? And, most importantly, how do we stay grounded and connected to our deeper wisdom at this time in history, on this wild digital ride that the human race has embarked upon? How do we live peacefully with the excitement and madness and do it all without going mad ourselves?

Humans and technology are now in an intimate relationship — sharing a bed, literally. Technology, because of its ease and mobility, accompanies us everywhere, like a limb, in a way that it never could before. Our smartphones come with us into the bedroom (90 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds sleep with their smartphones), onto the toilet, into the shower, to meals, weddings, funerals . . . everywhere we go, they go. The fact that we never have to be without our devices means that we never are without them, and we increasingly mistrust that we can be okay without them. Since we are now attached, we need to figure out a way to make this relationship a healthy one. Now more than ever, we need to cultivate mindfulness in our lives so that we can be guided by our own wisdom and intelligence and not be dragged around by the bright lights of technology, tossing virtual paper into virtual wastebaskets and popping virtual bubble wrap. We need the wisdom of mindfulness to put us back into our lives, so that we're not lost somewhere else while our life is happening. After all, we are not virtual. We need more than a jack and a charger to stay connected to life.

At this time in history, we need to start using technology in a way that promotes true well-being, to live from our wisdom rather than our impulses, to take responsibility for own consciousness at a time when our society is undergoing an epidemic of unconsciousness, to nurture depth even as shallowness threatens to become the norm. In fact, we can choose to reclaim control of our lives, to find our way back to here, not the concept of the present moment, but the direct experience of it. If we choose the path of consciousness, we will indeed remember the "most important thing."

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, and veteran meditator. She is the author of Inviting a Monkey to Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment (Hohm Press, 2012). She lives in New York City. For more, visit

Author: Nancy Colier
Publisher: Sounds True, 2016
ISBN: 1622037952, 9781622037957
Length: 256 pages

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