09/25/2013 12:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Louis C.K. and the New Bawdy Mystic

What's that you say? British sex god/ubercomic Russell Brand's wickedly insightful takedown of corporate, pseudo-glamorous celebrity culture in last week's Guardian wasn't enough to make you cheer the fact that sly intelligence in popular culture isn't yet dead? No problem.

Behold, here comes Louis C.K., this generation's bawdy philosopher/guru masquerading as curmudgeon jackass comic, throwing his particular brand of often brilliant, deadpan observational wisdom all over the digital zeitgeist, explaining on Conan O'Brien's show, firstly, why he won't let his two young daughters have smartphones. Did you see?

But wait, before you look, that's not really the best part. Because C.K. then goes a great existential leap further and explicates why the damnable digital demons spell the end of humanity and the human soul, simultaneously, simply by their potent ability to help us avoid deep, honest personal moments. It's really quite fantastic. Watch the whole bit on YouTube, or read the transcript at Gawker. Like too few things on the Internet, it's entirely worth your six minutes.

Maybe you remember a few years back when C.K. also just happened to explode into viral fame on Conan's show, with his fantastic "everything's amazing and no one's happy" bit? This is the next level. This is C.K. maturing from befuddled observer of everyday absurdity, into a cheerfully indelicate Cassandra, the go-to font of dumbfounded, forehead-slapping insights into the awfulbeautiful chaos that is the human condition.


The essential questions: Do smartphones, perhaps more than any other device to date, short circuit kids (and millions of adults) from developing a fundamental sense of empathy and kindness? Of course they do. Do they, along with the Internet, encourage a sort of easy, heartless cruelty, given how they allow you to be as mean and stupid as you want, with almost zero shame or face-to-face, heart-to-heart emotional consequence? Absolutely.

Even further: Does this disconnect, this isolated sense of distance result in a cowardly, nasty, intellectually lazy culture populated by trolls and fools? Skim through the comments below this -- or just about any -- personality-driven column or article on the Internet, and see for yourself.

I know, I know, you've heard it before. And truly, C.K. is only half right: devices, even for kids, can occasionally be potent tools for progress and learning and, well, if not good per se, then at least some healthy curiosity about it. Sometimes.

But what's most astonishing, and what instantly vaults C.K. into that rarified status of wizened guru/everyday mystic, is his observation that our devices, particularly when coupled to the happy narcotic of social media, give us more power than ever to enact the worst self-abuse of all: to sever what it means to be simply human. Which is: to sit still and be truly alone, flooded to the core by deep sadness (or full happiness), and then to wail -- wholly and true and in complete, terrified isolation -- into the Void.

And I let [the sadness] come, and I just started to feel 'oh my God,' and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You're lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.

That, right there? That raw honesty coupled to a wizened understanding that real humanity lies in out ability to go fully into our experiences, our purest moments, without buffer or distraction, without texting or Facebooking or Instagramming, even if -- especially if -- those moments are uncomfortable or terrifying?

That's the real deal. That's a full-throated, honest-to-goodness spiritual teaching. Simple and straight to the core. And these days, they don't come around nearly enough.

Do you deny it? The moment we feel the slightest pangs of loneliness, longing, sadness, or even overwhelming joy at the profundity of a given moment, what do millions of us do? Reach for the phone. The camera. The validation. The junk food, TV, drug, "retail therapy," cocktail, the unhealthy and shallow diversion. In other words, we seek to immediately numb, to label or categorize, to do almost anything to avoid sitting still for a single moment, to feel the full weight of our emotions, dramas, existential angst. Why? Because it's terrifying in there. Or at least we think it is.

The thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die.

Here is where genius lies. Here is a superbly humanistic point to which nearly everyone can relate. Because if modern culture does one thing fantastically well, it's yank us out of stillness, out that place where, like C.K., we realize we are infinitely beautiful, deeply alone and thoroughly horrified, all at once. One of my dear friends and teachers, the fantastic Shaiva Tantra scholar and author Chris Wallis, sums up this particular bit of paradoxical wisdom this way: "Your secret sense that there is far more to you that has yet to be discovered, is true; your secret fear that you are nothing and no one, is also true. Realize that both are true simultaneously, and you are free."

Ah, but we are not so easily disabused of our delicious illusions. Our devices, after all, are shiny and perfect and contain all manner of useful miracle. It's sort of insane...

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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...