Zen Master Man Gong (滿空: 1871–1946) famously said, “Human beings suffer because they don’t realize that when they get a good thing, they also get a bad thing.” If you obtain something very valuable, you live with the fear of losing it; if you find a wonderful situation, you suffer when that situation changes; when you obtain some great pleasure, you increase your suffering when the pleasure changes. Very simple.
These amazing messaging apps that provide so much incredible convenience and usefulness for our lives, have also vastly exploded our experience of distraction. We swim in a swirling mind which is sucked into them and divided away from our just-now experience, sometimes from the very moment that we open our eyes in the morning to shut off the ringing alarm. Yet, people willingly pay the increasingly nefarious tax of an edgy distractedness in order to have this truly fascinating and useful tool for sharing our experience with others, trading information, sending pictures and voices and videos back-and-forth all day, etc. They are, from beginning to end, extraordinary drivers of the dopaminergic reflex-mechanisms, with real-world implications of life-and-death dimensions. The following graph shows how this insidious power literally kills people:
What happened in 2009/2010 is one of the most significant and disruptive events in human history: the introduction of the smartphone. Ever since that date, pedestrian fatalities have skyrocketed as these new armies of messaging-zombies became the norm on our streets and sidewalks. One needs to be extra-vigilant even on sidewalks, as texting bicyclists and torpedo-scooters whiz by the ears at speed, their “drivers” increasingly texting or conversing digitally as they fly by.
In order to teach in this world, I have become connected with ever-increasing numbers of people, many of whom I have never met nor will ever meet. Just a quick lookup through the social media portals where our Zen community posts its announcements, and I can be zinged by any number of messages, bearing an unbelievable variety of questions, complaints, sufferings, and concerns. I find the messaging apps that I use (WhatsApp, Telegram, FB Messenger, and now Instagram, etc.) provide — even when I am most vigilant — a constant stream of incoming matters that cry out for attention.
The thing is, the main apps don’t have an “off” switch that would give you a selective quiet while you protect your focus for other tasks. While FB Messenger and Insta can be fairly avoided, the “base” apps that require knowledge of my phone number — and therefore be of “some” relative intimacy to me — do not have a general switch-off. You can ignore the app for a while, but then when you return, there is merely an accumulation of work — rather than just a drip-drip-drip — that needs attention.
This leaves me with only the alternative to “block” the more stressful or distracting incoming, so as to remain available for the people who need to have constant and constructive connection due to some ongoing project or work-matter. (I wish it was not called “block”, because this is such an aggressive verb, and can only be interpreted by the other party as an aggressive rejection. But for someone, like me, for whom a healthy solitude is the very oxygen that gives life, sanity, and whatever small amount of clarity I can maintain every day — and it seems increasingly smaller and more “challenged”, this clarity — not having an “off-switch” for the entire app leaves no other option than to regulate individual cases. And this is, in itself, sort of an act of aggression — or at least it must seem to be.
So be it. Merely allowing anyone’s uncooked thought or emotion to arrive directly in my pocket, no matter the time nor the place, is itself an act of self-harming, in my experience. If selective “blocking” preserves even a spoonful more sanity in my already overloaded stream of daily concerns and deadlines, that would be a blessing worth whatever misunderstanding might arise.