Issues

Human Being or Human Doing: It’s Up to You, Friends

Editor's Note:

William Pullen is a psychotherapist registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. He practices Integrative therapy and specializes in the treatment of depression, anxiety, problems of self-esteem and confidence, and substance abuse. He has been featured in publications such as Vogue, The Independent, and GQ.

While working as a psychotherapist in the hyper-connected international hub that is London, I often hear my clients describe a painful lack of connection in their lives. Though they have families and jobs, culture and cash, they complain about a life of anxiety and loneliness – a sort of existential crisis that while they may have plenty, they feel bereft. But bereft of what? In time, through the fog, comes a realization that the pace of their lives has become overwhelming. We then explore to what extent they are the architect of this rushing about. We go on to examine how they spend their “down time,” or as I often find myself thinking, “down-loading time.”

When I think of how hard it is to unplug from the digital world in which we live, it reminds me of Saturday mornings at a small boarding school in southern England. There, in a large hall, we would noisily amass, each clutching a handsome stipend with which to buy sweets from the large collection around us. What had felt like a Dickensian work-house during the week had reinvented itself into a kind of pleasure-dome. On those Saturday mornings, a weeks’ worth of neglect, fear and adventure were quietly and magically replaced with a sense of comfort at the thought that actually it was all going to be OK.

Now an adult, our treats are more powerful. Instead of sherbet fountains, jelly babies or gob-stoppers, it’s Facebook, Instagram, Amazon and much, much more. Pretty much whatever I need, or can dream of, is on offer. But of course, as a child the limit of time and resources was part of the fun. It may have been challenging, even agonizing to be patient, but it guaranteed a sense of satisfaction later on.

The internet seems to have no end, constantly reassuring me that it will always be there. Rather than being satisfied, I instead find myself to be a glutton. In this way, I’m like many of my clients who describe a sense of anxiety that something isn’t right in their world. The self-awareness and tools I possess as a psychotherapist can only do so much to remove the same ever-present temptation in me. Like everyone else, my curiosity, my need to connect, my desire to surrender to something larger than me, all create a constant struggle. By over-feeding many of my core needs, the internet renders me powerless to stop. Never more than an inch away, it keeps me topped up without ever filling me up. The sugar that feels so good is the same sugar that’s killing me.

In the famous Stanford marshmallow test we’re told that children who could delay gratification, substituting an immediate reward for a larger one moments later, enjoyed better life outcomes. Whether this is actually true or not is debateable, but perhaps what’s just as important is that in consumer-driven America these children were given no choice to opt out. I remind my clients that as adults it is up to us to regulate ourselves in order to feel in control. In a sense, this is what therapy provides – a clearer understanding of our options and, hopefully, an improved ability to choose well.

Today I still take careful stock of the sweets available to me, but something is different. When I was a child I thought only to measure one desire against another. Today, older and wiser, I see, as the Buddha did, that desire itself is the problem. And so I find ways, such as mindfulness meditation and mindful running, to keep that desire at bay. By rooting myself in my body, my breathing, my senses, I’m able to return to the physical world. This is the familiar world of my childhood, and as I sense it once more, I am comforted by the sensation of how real it is and that it can hold me.

Mindfulness, so often talked about these days, is a simple practise that exchanges rumination for relaxation. Sadly, the people who could profit most from it are often the last to give it a go. They picture some sort of temple full of people chanting themselves to a spiritual ecstasy. I tell them it’s much easier than that. All you have to do is do nothing, I say. Log out, switch off, unplug, and just concentrate on your breathing Breath in, breath out. When your mind returns to your thoughts you return your mind to your breathing. More is not more. Less is not more. Instead, it’s okay as it is. It’s about just being with our existing without doing anything with it. That should be simple enough, right? After all, how many marshmallows will ever be enough?