We live at a frantic pace with a multitude of commitments and things to do. Our planners are filled with appointments, our to-do lists are crammed with tasks, and every minute of our day is committed to some activity. We are continually expected to do more with less at work. We rush about incessantly to fulfill our responsibilities at home. We strive unceasingly to honor commitments, and maintain our status, in our social circles. We are constantly moving, constantly doing.
Modern technology can connect us with anyone at any time, and they with us. The internet, e-mail, and cell phones ensure that we are available “24/7.” There is hardly a public place that you can visit, including a rest room, without hearing the ring of a cell phone or one side of someone else’s conversation.
We occupy what little time we have for leisure with meaningless diversions. Waves of information and pseudo-information are available on our computers and mobile devices. Entertainment media can engage us at any hour of the day. We can readily escape reality with the help of chemical stimulants.
We are besieged with endless stimuli. All of the technological advances that better our quality of life also provide more options to keep us otherwise occupied and distracted. The options available to help us avoid ourselves are seemingly limitless.
Our world is so full of distractions, diversions, and interruptions that we have become a multitude of unconscious individuals whose lives have become an endless series of involuntary reflexes. We live fragmented lives, multitasking every aspect of our being. Although material success can be achieved in this way, there always seems to be an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, a murky discontent.
Aside from meeting the ever-increasing requirements of modern life, we endeavor to keep ourselves busy because we tend to equate being alone with loneliness, and aloneness with boredom. We distract ourselves from solitude to avoid thinking. We go to great lengths to avoid ourselves.
Society places little value on silence and inactivity and, as a result of complying with this assessment, we develop a fear of being alone with our thoughts. We direct our focus outward. Even unconsciously, we are so uncomfortable with silence and inactivity that our minds fill the gaps with incessant mental chatter. Just as we instinctively fear the unknown of the dark externally, so we also fear the darkness within because of the thoughts that may be waiting to harm us.
We are uncomfortable when left alone because we have forgotten how, or are reluctant, to reflect upon our lives. Lao Tzu warned us of becoming “beggars who look outside for a treasure that is hidden within.” We need to be truly alone and fully present with ourselves to assess our life situation – our accomplishments and aspirations – and our plans for the future. Instead, we routinely squander the opportunities and eventually lose touch with ourselves.
To break free from the habit of mindlessness, to discover the source of any underlying dissatisfaction, we must suspend automaticity and make a commitment to ourselves. We need to clear a slot in our planners, turn off our technology, tune out the media, and purposely ignore distractions. By deliberately taking a break from the hectic pace of modern life, disengaging from autopilot, we can reflect inwardly to determine what we expect from our lives, and how to meet those expectations.
Few of us are accustomed to making time to engage in quiet reflection because we have become quite comfortable avoiding ourselves. But inside our own minds is the only place where we will find the answers that we need. Going inside, sometimes deep inside, is necessary to figure out what’s important to us, to figure out the path that we should be exploring.
It is not always a nice, pleasant place to visit. The journey of self-realization and self-assessment is fraught with stumbling blocks and detours. But genuine progress is only possible by working inside. Focusing outside, we adopt the beliefs and opinions of others, we accomplish the goals that others set for us, and we attain things that others regard as important. Turning within allows us to discover our own truths, to create our own map.
If we stop succumbing to constantly-available diversions, reintroduce ourselves to the stranger inside that we may hardly recognize, become reacquainted with who we are and who we want to be, then we will begin to truly know ourselves, to accept ourselves. We will befriend ourselves. Then real change is possible.