Your Sanity is for Sale (Here’s How to Get it Back)

Your sanity is for sale, and, if you are like most people, it will be increasingly difficult to buy it back. The culprits responsible are the tech behemoths who analyze your every move and every public thought (please don’t think those privacy settings on Facebook make any difference) in order to keep you hooked on the screen. Before you dismiss the title of this blog as hyperbole and clickbait, let me explain why it is not.

Sanity is the ability to respond with reasonable and rational behavior to one’s inner and outer environment. Responding in such a manner is predicated upon having the ability at any given moment in time to make a decision to direct your mind towards that which is in your own highest good. If you are a social media user (most people reading this are), and you can’t relate to scrolling through your newsfeed mindlessly and without a clear intention, then you are probably in denial. So why would you be doing something that you have no intention to be doing?

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, recently did a TED Talk on this topic. Harris is now directing his time and attention to helping technology companies consciously and ethically shape human potential (that’s a potentially controversial subject for a different post). He has the inside scoop on what many of us intuit but which most of us do not fully grasp in terms of the severity of the situation. In the present paradigm, the success of any social media platform or search engine depends on its ability to keep your attention and to keep you coming back as frequently as possible.

Many of us are old enough to remember the “don’t touch that dial!” voice that would pop in at the beginning of the ad break on TV shows enthusiastically encouraging us to keep watching, and then midway through the ads, we would be told that the show would be “right back,” if we just stayed tuned. They knew they had a limited amount of time to feed us ads before we would need some encouragement to keep watching. In some ways, this is no different, but the personal data that is collected about you is being used to keep your attention in a far more insidious and manipulative way than it was during “Three’s Company.” Increasingly, it is like having an online avatar that knows you inside and out and can easily convince you to keep scrolling, liking and commenting by customizing the content you see in order to bypass your logical thinking and appeal directly to your emotions. But what emotions are they designed to appeal to? As Harris says in his TED Talk, content that makes you feel calm is a lot less compelling to your emotional mind than content that makes you feel outraged. Anyone feel like you are more frequently outraged these days than you were a few years ago? Let’s just say this, it’s not a coincidence. You are being played. Now, does that cause you outrage? Great, I grabbed your attention. Keep reading.

So what does this have to do with me and Zen Warrior Training®? The practice of Zen gives us a process by which to better understand the nature of the mind so as to not be a victim of its own unconscious thinking and patterns of behavior. This is an important skill to develop no matter what era you are living in, but particularly during times when you, me and the rest of the developed world are being preyed upon by outside influences vying for control over our attention. With a mindfulness practice, you can separate from your own thinking and behaviors and see your mental tendencies neutrally and objectively. You develop impulse control and find a peaceful centeredness that prevents you from getting caught in mental traps. The battle to be in charge of your own focus of attention and quality of mind is the most challenging battle of all, which is where the warrior part of Zen Warrior Training comes in. It takes consistent, dedicated practice to do so, which is why I predict that most people will not make it through this era of attention hijack with a high degree of self-control.

Physical addictions are fairly obvious; it’s pretty easy to see the devastating effects of alcoholism, drug use, etc. Much less obvious are the mental addictions, particularly when the excuse that we tell ourselves is that we are using social media to “stay informed” and maintain good relationships with friends. These cut to the very core of our emotional needs to feel informed and loved.

The good news is that this is a wakeup call. If we recognize how we are being manipulated and take action to deal with situation, we can see that this is simply a reminder of how important it is to build and maintain authentic relationships with people, speak from truth as opposed to from unbridled emotion, and perhaps make the world a safer, more peaceful place for all.