Last week I taught a class. Google has a program called ‘g2g,’ or Googlers to Googlers, where you can teach courses on anything of your liking, from data analysis to juggling.
The class I teach is called ‘Personal Branding,’ where 30 Googlers come for a 2.5 hour session to introspect on their values, beliefs, talents, and passions, then craft a ‘personal brand statement’ (shameless promotion: if you’re a Googler reading this, sign up ASAP!).
I love teaching this class, and spent the better part of Wednesday poring over my notes, testing the setup of the classroom, and practicing a mock session to get accustomed to the spatial setup. By the time Thursday morning arrived, I was ready. As the Googlers streamed in and class began, I quickly hit my zone. ‘Flow,’ as author Martin Seligman calls it, the state where you are totally engaged in the activity at hand, unknowing to the passing time.
This blissful state continued for an hour, until it was time for the group to dive into their first exercise. I set the timer for seven minutes, put on the ‘cool jazz for warm nights’ Songza station, and let them get to it.
I stood at the front of the room, and not five seconds passed before I instinctively grabbed my phone. A quick check of work email indicated nothing urgent, and certainly nothing I could take action on in seven minutes from the four inch screen. Next I moved on to Facebook (no new news), then to Instagram (more food, more cats), then back to work email.
Earlier in the week I was in tears laughing over Louis CK’s rant on why he won’t allow his school age daughter to have a cell phone. If you don’t have time to watch (you should, though!) he sums up with much hilarity that everyone is so terrified of sitting with their own emotions, so petrified of feeling ‘forever empty,’ that we are lightning quick to distract ourselves at the first hint of this inevitable existential sadness. And our ubiquitous connectivity is enabling us more than ever before to do so.
As the class worked, I thought, “How can I not go seven minutes, standing here, observing, listening, breathing, doing nothing, being a person, as Louis would say?” I went from flow, one of the highest, most enjoyable human states, to mindless distraction for distraction’s sake, surely one of the most base.
Of course distracting oneself is no new endeavor. Humans have reached towards outer means of placation with food, booze, shopping, sex, gambling, TV, you name it for generations. The difference with the always-on, always-connected time in which we live is that an effective and addictive means of self-numbing is no more than inches away from our fingertips at all times.
Aloneness is at the core of humanity. You can be loved completely and wholly throughout your life, but day by day, choice by choice, action by action, you are the sole actor. We each face the world from a front of one. Though if we’re lucky enough, our mind and body unite, acting together and creating ease of thought and movement, confidence and strength in the face of adversity.
Though checking Facebook during a down moment at work might not seem to be an inhibitor to living an integrated life, to being well in your skin, it is. As I stood before the class, the thoughts chattered across my mind, “what’s for lunch, is that guy I went out with last week going to text me, does the class think I have a double chin when they look up at me?”
During the next break, I resolved to keep the phone face down, stand quietly, and observe the thoughts and emotions that bubbled up. Even for seven minutes, this is not easy. Checking who has recently gotten engaged or who had what for dinner on the usual social vices would have certainly passed these in-between moments more easily.
But each minute we stay with ourselves, facing this quiet adversity, we more fully inhabit our mind, body, and spirit. When we hold the gaze with our humanity, we come ever closer to understanding its mysteriously wondrous nature, and the knowledge of our beautifully whole, imperfect, easily distracted selves.