Zen Buddhism fully affirms life lived to the fullest, in perfect awareness and with direct insight into the simple truth of things. Modern screen addiction offers exactly the opposite, upending the very idea of being present moment-to-moment.
The world of gaming has invaded our lives. It seemed an innocent new way to spend time during the early days of arcades-only games and later to Atari in our homes. With the plethora of choice available on our mobile devices today, we have a more complex relationship. We collectively feel the draw of spending hours each day in the pursuit of gaming expertise.
At an arcade in Tokyo, I had a strong taste of the allure of fully investing in a gaming lifestyle. I came away with the sense of being both inside the fish bowl with the gamers, as well as standing outside, looking in. Arcades are cheerless places. The one I visited was uncomfortably warm, and covered with a dingy and worn carpet. The ceiling was dimly lit by the reflection of the blue and neon lights cast off by the gaming consoles lining the narrow aisles. The stale odor of human perspiration hung in the air. Everyone was completely engrossed in a game, oblivious to the surroundings.
In front of an interactive dance game, a young man perfectly mirrored the moves of an anime woman with long, brown, flowing hair, and impossibly long and lean legs. For every extra sashay and crossing of wrists, bonus points appeared on the screen with messages such as “perfect!” or “bonus!” She appeared to beckon him into her world with her small smile. She winked, and her animated eyes twinkled with starbursts. The young man clearly knew his routine inside out as he moved through the choreography. It appeared that he was happily dancing to the music. But his face stayed dispassionate, without light, as if he were in a trance. I noticed that he was alone, without friends with whom he could take turns or even dance together. Other people are not necessary: the bonus points and encouraging winks from the long-limbed anime character are rewarding enough.
Those rewards feel real for all of us. I cannot resist falling into the abyss of scrolling through social media, such as the never-ending Twitter feed. Though that is not a game, the hook is the same. Once I start, it is hard to stop, and before I know it, I have wasted far too much time on my screen. I justify it by reasoning that I am reading the news, but I feel conflicted about being up to speed with current affairs. To be aware of what is happening in the world seems virtuous, but I also feel dread in being caught up in the sensationalism and outrage with which the news is delivered.
Mindfulness offers a solution. The point of meditation is to examine your true nature and gain insight into truth, a path to freedom from the suffering of the human condition. This practice should also provide a glimpse into how we are all alike in our humanity. We are mere dots in the universe, united by our common ways of being. The perversion of mindfulness — of being in the now moment — is screen addiction. We are clearly no place else in our minds because it is impossible. Yet our screens provide a mindless escapism that transports us to everywhere but the physical here and now. We are actively, though perhaps unwittingly, disempowering ourselves and playing into the hands of the companies that encourage and feed our addiction.
What happens if we continue this spiral of turning away from each other, and what does that mean for our social fabric? Watching the dancing man in the arcade revealed an underbelly of Japanese society that is comprised of loneliness and disconnection. I am afraid that we are in a similar boat in the United States, and that we will only become increasingly isolated and alienated. The more that happens, the less we will care about our fellow man.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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