“The unexamined life is not worth living.” That saying, which Plato attributed to Socrates, succinctly expresses the basic value underlying psychotherapy and most other forms of personal exploration – the idea that self-knowledge is a fundamental value in human life.
All methods of self-understanding, from western psychotherapy to Eastern paths of spiritual self-inquiry, teach that we have to spend time alone with ourselves in order to attain greater awareness. But most of us don’t want to know ourselves. What we really want is to feel good. We spend an amazing amount of time immersed in mood-altering and mind-numbing entertainments, habits, and distractions whose purpose is to increase comfort and to medicate anxiety and other negative emotions. What all these activities have in common is that they tend to diminish self awareness. They’re really about hiding from inner experience. The most obvious mind-altering distractions are alcohol and drugs, but there are many others, such as:
- Food: overeating in search of comfort
- Sex: avoiding painful feelings through compulsive sexual behavior
- Television: watching hours of TV every day
- Computer: spending hours every day on social media, surfing the net, etc.
- Workaholism: constantly working to exhaustion; inability to rest or take time off
- Exercise: compulsively exercising as a way of avoiding emotional pain
- Adrenaline: addiction to the rush of frequent and compulsive risk-taking
- Shopping: seeking comfort in acquiring things
- Religion: addiction to spiritual ideas and practices to get away from feelings of fear and uncertainty
- Cleaning: constantly cleaning to avoid anxiety or discomfort
- Rage: avoiding fear or feelings of powerlessness through inappropriate anger
- Caffeine: staying buzzed all day on high octane coffee to diminish awareness of unhappiness or depression
Modern technology provides us with an unprecedented number of opportunities for diversion and self soothing, but the sad irony is that they’ve also made us the most restless generation that has ever existed. Millions of us are completely incapable of simply being alone and quiet with ourselves. This shows up most clearly in sleep problems. Today, in our already sleep deprived culture, millions suffer from chronic insomnia. It’s estimated that in 1900, the average American got about 10 hours of sleep per day, probably because people didn’t have much to do after dark. Not any more. When I explore insomnia with patients, I usually find that they’re in the habit of immersing themselves in media stimulation right up until they go to bed. They watch the late news or late night talk shows, listen to music, play computer games, hang out on social media – or several of these at once. Then, in a hyper-stimulated state, they turn off the lights, climb into bed, and discover that they’re too wired to go to sleep. An obvious solution would be just to turn off all media at least a half hour before bed, but many people find that advice impossible to follow, because the absence of stimulation makes them too uncomfortable.
I believe that our collective need for more intense distracting stimuli is progressing, exactly the way that addictions progress. Many people can’t watch a film from the ‘40’s or ‘50’s, for instance, because they seem to move at a snail’s pace compared to the roller coaster rides of current popular movies. More and more of the people I talk with are in such a restless, jumpy state that they give me the impression they’ve been at a heavy metal concert for the past twenty years.
Anyone interested in pursuing a path of personal growth and greater awareness must first stop running from their inner experience, and that requires that they confront the distractions that obstruct their paths. It isn’t necessary to get rid of all distractions, but it’s important to have some time free of them. Spending time in nature is one easy way to return to more natural rhythms; regular hikes or a wilderness backpacking trip can do much to cool down an overactive nervous system. Some people find it useful to practice periodic “media fasts” from all electronic stimuli.
Self knowledge confers subtle satisfactions: greater freedom from self-deception, confusion and anxiety; calm self-acceptance; comfort in one’s own skin; independence of thought and action. But this maturity comes only to those who can examine their discomforts and anxieties instead of running from them.