Seneca vs Social Media: Dumping the Smartphone for Idle Thought

I recently started reading Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic and was surprised by the content of his first letter: “Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” This has some real clout. And it also started me worrying.

Photo illustration by Gear Patrol.

I recently started reading Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. It was recommended by a coworker and friend, a smart man who has his shit together. Also, I immediately recognized a great opportunity to sound impressive when asked by others, “What are you reading?”

One page into Seneca’s first letter, the sage was already making an impression. He wrote, “Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” This has some real clout. And it also started me worrying. Because I’m certainly not the owner of a well-ordered mind; and lately, I haven’t been stopping and passing any time whatsoever in my own company.

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That’s because every time the opportunity arises for some passing of said time in said company, I whip out my cell phone and peck hungrily at its screen. This is also a revelation: Seneca didn’t know it at the time (at least I think he didn’t), but his teachings would someday apply to our tech-obsessed generation. I find it disturbing that I can’t take a shit and spend that little amount of time in my own company. I have to check my Instagram account, which, even as I’m opening it up after doing my business but before wiping, I know I care not a jot about. Not that my thoughts beyond the world of likes and follows will be goldmines of introspective thought and philosophical debate — but I’d rather learn more about myself by pondering who invented the sliding metal bathroom stall lock than blankly scrolling through my cousin’s shitty vacation photos.

Not to sound alarmist, but reports from Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Buyers and the team behind an app called Locket found in 2013 that cell phone users check their phones on average between 110 and 150 times a day. That’s a lot of moments spent staring at a tiny screen rather than the world around us (or the questions inside of us). A report (this one from Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project) showing that 58 percent of American adults now own smartphones, a number that’s increased from 35 percent in 2011, proves those numbers aren’t going anywhere but up. And, as Jimmy Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, told Christian Science Monitor in an article about how smartphones are changing our lives, “What I don’t think we fully realize is that we’re altering in a deep way our ability to pay attention, our ability to be contemplative, to be reflective — the things that we might be losing.”

Idle thoughts have been called the Devil’s playground, but if that’s the case, I call the swingset.

So I decided to make a real effort in the spirit of Seneca’s “well ordered mind” and fight the urge to look at my phone during every idle moment of the day. It was way harder than I expected. Turns out I pull out my phone all the time, every day: Twitter feed while waiting for the slow elevator, Instagram on the aforementioned commode, checking for a text every block on the walk home from work. I even check my email and texts very first in the morning as I emerge from crusty-eyed sleep. At first, it hurt a little, jamming my hand in my pocket like a junkie, then becoming self aware, prying my fingers off the phone while it sang its siren song of mindless bliss. My brain really wanted something to do that didn’t take work, and I realized I felt tense and anxious without constant communication to my friends, my family, my girlfriend. But I rebelled against the robotic overlord.

And what came was pleasant. Well, that’s not true. At first I wasn’t really sure what to do — of course I had an inner dialog, but what exactly was I supposed to do with it? This was the most disconcerting part of my experiment. Had I forgotten how to actually ponder? Turned out, of course, that I was just out of practice. I lapsed into thinking about my dreams. Freud would’ve been proud: I picked apart those suckers like they were fresh, old-bay-saturated blue crabs. No, I didn’t figure out exactly what it meant when my best friend morphed into a killer whale. It wasn’t fulfilling, per se, and I didn’t feel any wiser. No magic pill, this giving up the smartphone obsession. But the next time I rejected the phone in favor of some introspection, my thoughts came easily, unprompted. I sat on the toilet at the gym, putting off working out, and found I was daydreaming, and that it was nice. Think about it — how much has your time spinning nonsensical tales featuring you as the protagonist suffered because of your battery-powered think-sucker? I hadn’t done this in a while. It was cathartic; I relaxed; I thought happy thoughts. I was practically ooom-ing.

As the week progressed, so did the ease and range of my quiet-moment thoughts. Not across the board, mind you, but in peaks and valleys. Here and there were dumbed-down Seinfeld world questions — why should I be forced to pay for the washing machine only with quarters? — but there were important ones, too. I should go on a fishing trip with my dad. It’s been too long. For someone whose thoughts are frenetic, unordered and easily forgotten, making time during the day for them — come what may — was an important time. Things that had slipped my mind reappeared. Things that had never crossed my mind crossed it. Idle thoughts have been called the Devil’s playground, but if that’s the case, I call the swingset.

Whether it was in my head or not, a week without idle smartphone browsing made me feel more progressive, more active in my pursuit of daily life.

I even verged on some philosophy. It was circular, I know, but I spent some time thinking about writing this very piece. One night, lying in bed, a thought entered my head unheeded, falling gracefully in a way that my pondering hadn’t for some time. I scrambled out from the covers and wrote down:

“Our thoughts are like water filling the tiniest cracks of a problem. Time allows our ponderings to freeze and expand the tiniest bit, and the next time you thaw them by sitting alone and thinking, they’ve opened the crack just a little wider. Enough time spent coming back to a thought can turn the largest of life’s boulders into pebbles that can be trod over with ease.”

I’m no Thoreau (or Seneca). But still — whether it was in my head or not, the week made me feel more progressive, more active in my pursuit of daily life. It made me feel thoughtful. I’d spent some time with myself, felt at ease with my own thoughts and produced something on paper that, compared to an invite to Farmville, was pretty good.

I’d like to think Seneca, whose personal brand of Stoicism taught that a studied, thoughtful, self-possessed person could weather the toughest of life’s storms, would approve. And probably give me a shitload of extra advice. Because after all, I’d only managed to not look at a glowing block every minute.

As for the success of a continued thought process plan? In terms of a cold-turkey stop to my idle phone piddlings, it’s been a total failure. Instagram on the toilet has roared back. I check my email as I wake up — something I hope to work toward ending. But within my day, the old Stoic has made his improbable impact. The phone stays in the pocket on long walks, and while I wait for the elevator, and in line at the salad place down the block. People watching takes its place, as do random thoughts. I plan on trying to wind down my phone checking and usage even further…slowly. Turns out my own company isn’t so bad.

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