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When Internet Life Feels Futile
The limits of intellectual pursuit, a life update, and/or non-conceptual awareness
After many years of considering myself a “deep thinker,” I’ve come to a point where I’m over it. Finally. Perhaps my decades-long meditation practice has accomplished part of its goal. Maybe I’ve been humbled enough by psychedelics to know that trying to think my way through existence is a perverted attempt to control reality. Or it’s possible that I’ve been slowly kicking one drug and person and idea after another. It makes sense to save your addiction to thought for last—when you’ve laid a foundation of recovery, and you’ve finally had enough of it. No one builds statues of critics.
There’s a reason that when people die by suicide, they either shoot themselves in the head or tie a rope around their neck. As David Foster Wallace warned students in his now infamous graduation speech: the mind is a good servant, but a terrible master. If you had a mind like mine, you’d probably want to numb it too. To try anything to quiet the noise. Sometimes, without training and proper guidance, the velocity of thoughts becomes a nightmare.
A month ago, just before our Nature Care retreat began, my body knew I’d reached the limit of my intellectualism. I was not feeling ripe with possibilities in the way that I normally do, leaving me exhausted. It was a weariness that extended beyond mere thought. I’m not alone in feeling like our entire online world, where I earn most of my livelihood, has become a clusterfuck of nonsense. Even more so than it already was.
I’ve been sitting in nondual meditation for an hour in the mornings, which I say not as a flex, but rather as a reflection of where I’m at. In order to meet the world, I’ve needed more time to rest, to remember that which is so easy to forget. I set the intention to practice non-conceptual awareness for my time facilitating our addiction immersion. To put it as simply as possible, non-conceptual awareness is when you separate awareness from thinking, which the Buddhists considered to be the sixth sense. Then, without the overlay of labels and judgments, you can directly experience the Deep Now as it is.
The benefit of “stepping back” in this way is that you very quickly see that thoughts and emotions are not the center of who you are. Rather, you reside in an awake awareness that can be experienced as inherent with everything, retiring the meaning-making mind that veils the radiance of existence.
Our retreat went exceptionally well. Facilitating three weeks of addiction work with five ayahuasca ceremonies demanded much of me, but this go-round, I feel far more resourced than I did this time last year. In spiritual circles, some would describe my work on the retreat as “holding space.” But I’ve always felt that turn of phrase is, at best, ironically inaccurate, and at worst, woefully ignorant. Yes, you can cultivate focus within yourself to be present and attuned to people’s needs. But when you practice non-conceptual awareness, you do not hold space—you are space. The root of the Sanskrit word śūnyatā—or emptiness—is svi, which means “ripe with possibilities.” Awareness that doesn’t rely on thought feels like living in a flow state where space moves through you—yet you can still call upon thought when needed. Said another way, in what is my favorite Buddhist definition of emptiness: there’s an invisible life force within a seed that makes it capable of growing into a towering tree. Yes, yes, more of that awareness. Please, please.
As a former technologist, I am still struggling to find ripe possibilities within our digital realms—no matter how hard I embrace the perspective that everything in our universe can either be a tool or a crutch. For a hot second, I was excited about Substack Notes, which is essentially a Twitter clone. But as quickly as the inspiration came, I felt the motivation to spend time there drain from my veins, knowing that more exposure to a bunch of writers wouldn’t square with the spacious awareness that wants to become my new operating system. It’s still unclear how this new way of being, along with my commitment to combatting addiction on a collective scale, fits into an addictive attention economy. If the Buddha were alive today, would he be sharing memes and TikTok reels to spread a message that transcends the medium? I don’t know; no one builds statues of critics.
I have the dozen-or-so newsletters I read religiously, many of them penned by writers I admire who have become close friends—thanks to my online presence. But as far as the rest of the newsletters go, I’ve been unsubscribing and auto-deleting. I just don’t have it in me. I can no longer drown in unpolished mind-chatter starved of wisdom, yet served right on time, whatever the arbitrary marketing cadence may be. Fortunately, I’ve found solace in my beloved authors—Ken Wilber, Loch Kelly, Adyashanti, and Ursula Le Guin have been my refuge of late. They serve as a poignant reminder that the burden of resolving our existential crises does not rest upon my shoulders. Rather, I can only make my art and live from awareness, the eternal watcher that some yogis call The Eye of God.
There’s a sweet sadness in the air, a lingering depression that I can feel is not just mine. Despite whatever progress Steven Pinker can cite—progress that is, on some levels, undeniable—many people are struggling right now. I know this because most of my work is of the therapeutic and spiritual variety, where I am granted a portal into people’s inner worlds. This labor, for me, unfolds intuitively. Concepts fade and raw instinct takes center stage. In return, I’m often bestowed with immeasurable gratification.
Yet I’ve been reading and writing online for many years now, and at no point have I ever felt so dejected. It pains me that many of the newsletter essays I read feel futile, like I just wasted six minutes of my time and will take nothing from the experience. The newsletter function delivers essays right to my doorstep like a newspaper, and if I’m not careful, these emails can quickly morph into tasks that feel as if they must be done.
Part of my grief is the understanding that there are readers who feel similarly about receiving my newsletters—essays that I sometimes wonder if I spend too much time on, because, Art. Folks might quickly skim my tomes, absorb none of the concepts I tell myself are so damn important, and press “delete” while feeling a slight sense of agitation. The ADHD brain of our times—self-diagnosed, digitally-induced. It’s a feeling I know all too well. In this realm of transient connections, I find some solace in the belief that words have the power to touch even the most distracted hearts, silently leaving footprints of awareness that may linger long after the notifications have faded.
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