While working on this story about Digital Detox Week -- a campaign proposed by the anticonsumerist activists at Adbusters.org urging us to "cut back on digital stimulation as much as you can" from April 19 to April 26 -- I was motivated to ponder the effects on human bodies and minds of switching off the iPhone, iPod, Internet and all the rest. Personally, I'm not even as plugged-in as most Americans. I don't have a cellphone and still use a Walkman. But as it is incredibly hard to tear my eyes away from the Web, the idea of going technology-free for a week makes me shudder.
One of the experts I interviewed for that story is Buddhist teacher James Baraz, who coordinates week-long silent -- and tech-free -- retreats at Spirit Rock, the meditation center he cofounded in Marin County, California. Baraz, who created the Awakening Joy course in 2003 and coauthored this year's accompanying book of the same name, describes himself as "someone who's just fallen in love wth my droid, my smartphone," and admits checking his email more frequently than he'd like. He described for me the experience of ditching electronic devices for a week.
"When you go on a retreat, you dont miss those things at all. In fact, it's an amazing relief to realize not only that you don't need them, but when you go inside yourself there's a whole rich world to explore. Suddenly you're connecting with yourself instead of looking outward for stimulation or happiness. Getting in touch with the quiet place inside recharges you, rejuvenates you, and helps you connect with life on a whole different level. Basically, you're making friends with yourself."
Unplugging from the tech world "is like a detox. That's what I call it. In the civilized world, we're used to running on outside stimulation."
And that stimulation, he points out, is relentless. Thousands of advertisements assail us every day.
"It's brought to a high art, this fanning of our addictive nature, this looking outside of ourselves for the next thing that's gonna do it for us," Baraz says. "It takes a radical shift to unplug from that."
When he asks retreat participants what really brings them happiness, they tell him it's playing with their kids or their pets, spending time with loved ones or being outdoors.
"Of all the things they name, none of them have anything to do with using electronic devices or acquiring objects. I've never come across somebody who says, 'What makes me really joyful is plugging in my computer,'" Baraz says.
True, but computers and other devices often facilitate those things that do bring us true happiness. Emailing my best friends creates much more fun, immediate, and meaningful connections than exchanging letters via snail-mail -- and none of us have much free time to spend on the phone. Online listings tell me where to find those free concerts and festivals where -- again -- true happiness lies. In that sense, by going tech-free, we're potentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater.