11/05/2015 03:29 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2016

Attention, Addiction, and Technology

Recently, I've noticed the growing popularity of the mindfulness movement. Mindful gardening, mindful eating (I've written on that subject myself), mindful driving (the bumper stickers are everywhere) and even mindful loving -- the subject seems to be all the rage, and I have to say, I find it ridiculous. Making mindfulness a goal makes just about as much sense as worshipping a screwdriver in an art gallery.

Mindfulness, like that screwdriver, is a tool. Indeed, it is a good and useful tool, and one that is very helpful -- if not absolutely necessary -- to raise consciousness and develop wisdom. Mindfulness is to the mind as a screwdriver is to a screw. In both cases, the tool enables turning and deepening. Beyond the limits of that metaphor, the screw serves the purpose of affixing or binding something, of making a repair or helping to build something new. Similarly, the mind can help us repair ourselves and create positive change in the world.

Putting the tool before job, romancing the means rather than the end, seems to be a trend in our modern American anti-culture. Mindfulness and meditation are no longer just tools; they are technologies. We have become so obsessed with technology -- particularly in its digital form -- we have forgotten the primacy of purpose, the importance of compassionate action taken with flesh and bone. Instead, we seem to seek only distraction from the challenges (and yes, the ugliness) of the real world, and to embrace instead a virtual world where we are queens and kings and constantly pleasured. Indeed it is as Marshall McLuhan proclaimed, the medium has become the message, and in this transformation, the substance, importance, and profundity of the message has been abandoned and lost.

The urge to distract ourselves from the pain and struggle of biological life probably arose in tandem with self-consciousness. Using alcohol, marijuana, kava kava, mushrooms, and other hallucinogens and anxiolytics has surely always been a hallmark of our species. Abuse of these substances, however, has always been a problem, a sometimes-tragic manifestation of the vulnerabilities of our nervous systems and the weaknesses in our genes. Taking advantage of people with addiction problems has always been a despicable human act.

Despicable and now ubiquitous. Drug pushers of all kinds prey upon those with a weakness for drugs of all classes, alcohol manufacturers advertise to alcoholics, and now, worst of all, the manufacturers of smartphones and other personal technologies (devices that researchers have determined are more addictive than sex or crack cocaine) tantalize buyers with an endless succession of new and largely needless technologies to which helpless addicts are utterly susceptible.

Not only do we buy and celebrate our addictions, we have built a gigantic financial edifice around them. Some millennials seem particularly susceptible. When these particular folks are not glued to their devices, some of them are creating companies that in turn create software (apps) for these devices. This could only happen in an anti-culture where institutionalized greed forces a turning of a blind eye to exploitation, a society wherein distraction and gratification have become the real purpose of technology. This problem is so all-pervasive that it has even entered the "spiritual" community. Earlier this year I attended a "Buddhist Geeks" conference and found very little Buddhism outside of a very commercial interpretation of the term, but a great deal of fascination with making money from high-tech meditation aids.

Personally, I am very fond of technology, in moderation. I research my books online when I'm not jetting off to visit exotic destinations. I drive a nice enough car, I enjoy movies on my TV screen, I live in a hot climate and am kept comfortable by air conditioning. My very life would long ago have been forfeit if not for medical technologies that saved me from chronic diseases and acute conditions. It is not technology that bothers me, any more than I am bothered by any other tool. When a screwdriver is used to stab someone in the eye rather than turn a piece of grooved metal, however, I begin to worry.

As a Taoist, what I see most here is a lack of balance. I see a lack of harmony. I see an unbridled and excessive turning away from nature in favor of human-built worlds that may be more comfortable and titillating, but are far less intricate, sublime, and ultimately rewarding. I see, too, the addictive power of our technology and the consequences that addiction has on the world we actually inhabit. Consider this blog post a plea for disciplined and judicious use of digital technology, particularly our personal devices. If we restore balance in their use, we can appreciate and commit to our world anew.

Out of the clutches of this addiction, we may be better able to embrace frugality, humility, and compassion--frugality as a way of conserving our resources, humility as a way of recognizing that we are neither the only (nor even the most important) intelligent species on this largely insignificant rock in a tiny solar system in a galactic backwater, and compassion as a guide to every decision we make, a guide that cannot be largely seen when our hands and eyes are seduced by glowing screens.