Finding Spiritual Harmony in an Era of Knowledge- UnpluggingMay 21, 2018
By: Rabbi Amichai Cohen
What is freedom? That is a relative question that depends on who you ask. For someone in the middle of Africa who does not have running water, freedom is simply running water. Where as, someone living in the comforts of a western country, would not consider running water freedom. For that person it would be perhaps the ability to pay their bills, go on the vacation of their choice or follow their dreams by attaining higher education and starting a business.
Within the hierarchy of creation, the freedom of the inanimate is to simply be. The freedom of the vegetative is to sprout, grow and flourish. Freedom for the animal kingdom is the ability to move, hunt and procreate. Freedom for a human is to be able to utilize the mind, seek knowledge, and express that knowledge in speech and in writing. The freedom of the inanimate is vastly different than the freedom that the vegetative requires, and the locomotive needs of the animal is vastly different than that of the human, who requires more than just locomotion, rather utilizing the intellect and the mind.
The need for us to express our intellect has been at the core of all advancements, including the technological age which we are in now. But are we getting ahead of ourselves? Is there such a thing as too much knowledge?
The Zohar speaks about the flood of Noah which saw a downpour of water from above, as well as the “lower waters", which emanated from the abyss and underground wells. The Zohar says “in the 6th Millennium waters from on high and water from below will flood existence”. The 6th millennium corresponds to the 17 Century, which saw the advancements of the Industrial Revolution, the greatest advancement that the world has seen. The 17th Century was also a time of great spiritual revelation, in the form of the revelation of Chassidut of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his students, who revealed the mystical teachings of the the Arizal and the Zohar.
The Zohar is saying that the spiritual and technological advancements are an indication of the world forging forward to a new reality and new possibilities. Knowledge and connection is a click away. We can Skype, Whatsapp, share and learn any information at any given moment of the day.
I believe that it is no coincidence that Israel is in the forefront of technological innovations and called "start up nation".
About 6 years ago we hosted a guest in our home for a Shabbat dinner. The man in his mid 40’s was a former professor in the Technion University and currently a top engineer in Intel. A brilliant man who was a newcomer to Judaism and Kabbalah.
I asked him how he embarked upon this newfound path.
This is what he told me. “ 2 years ago I was part of a team of engineers from Intel, working on accelerating the microchip synapses to a frequency of 200 million times a second (whaoa !). When we finally tested the results and pressed the button we were overjoyed and shocked to find that it worked. At that moment we all felt in our core that the connection and transferring of information on such a minute level was no longer “science” or “technology”, rather there was something G-dly there. We simply revealed what was always there, on the minute level”.
While we can all agree that there are so many positives in our techno-age, and we are certainly advancing towards an era of knowledge, the highest knowledge “the knowledge of G-d”.
Knowledge, however, can be very dangerous and without proper borders can overtake one’s mind and deviate the individual from their true selves and become an addictive over-pursuit of random and often useless information.
Let me share.
Public commercial use of the Internet began in mid-1989 with the connection of MCI Mail and CompuServe's email capabilities to the 500,000 users of the Internet. Just months later on 1 January 1990, PSInet launched an alternate Internet backbone for commercial use; one of the networks that would grow into the commercial Internet we know today. The Internet continues to grow, driven by ever greater amounts of online information and knowledge, commerce, entertainment and social networking. During the late 1990s, it was estimated that traffic on the public Internet grew by 100 percent per year, while the mean annual growth in the number of Internet users was thought to be between 20% and 50%. Around 40% of the world population has an internet connection today. In 1995, it was less than 1%.
The number of internet users has increased tenfold from 1999 to 2013.
The first billion was reached in 2005. The second billion in 2010. The third billion in 2014.
Recent studies show that office workers dip into their inboxes a whopping 74 times a day on average and spend roughly 28% of their total workday on the task of reading and responding to email. What’s more, scientists have established a clear link between spending time on email and stress—the more frequently we check our email, the more frazzled we feel.
Back in the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner invented a device called the “operant conditioning chamber” (now known as the Skinner Box), which he used to test behavioral theories on rats. Skinner wanted to see what effect different kinds of positive reinforcements like food pellets and negative reinforcements like electric shocks.would have on the animals.
First, he experimented with putting the rats on a fixed schedule of behavior reinforcement. If the rat pressed the lever inside the box, it would receive a food pellet. If it continued pressing the lever, every 100th time it did so, the rat would receive another pellet. Press the lever 100 times, get a reward. That was the system.
Skinner also experimented with a variable schedule. In this scenario, the rat didn’t know when the reward was coming. It might have to press the lever 20 times to get a pellet, or it might have to press the lever 200 times to get a pellet. The system was random, and the rat could never know exactly when the reward was coming.
Surprisingly, the rats were significantly more motivated when they were on the variable schedule. Skinner found that even if he took away the rewards for the rats on the variable schedule, they would keep working—that is, furiously pressing the lever—for a very long time before giving up. Much longer, in fact, than the rats on the fixed schedule would.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist who studies the irrational actions of humans, explains: Email is a near-perfect random rewards system.
Most of the time when you “press the lever” to check your email messages, you get something disappointing or bothersome—a communication from a frustrated client or a boss with an urgent request. But every once in awhile, you press the lever and you get something exciting—an email from a long-lost friend or, if you’re really lucky, a video of goats jumping on things. Those random rewards, mixed in with all the distracting junk, are what we find so addictive. They make us want to push the lever again and again and again, even when we have better things to do.
The rat brain is most likely to take control when you’re feeling aimless. Steel yourself against idle email checking by making a ritual of jotting down tomorrow’s to-do list before you leave the office each night. Creating your to- do list in advance empowers you to kick off the workday with clarity and momentum.
And what about the iPhone effect?
In fact, a 2014 study titled ‘The iPhone Effect’ shows how the mere presence of a smartphone can ruin a conversation. In an experiment with 200 participants, researchers found that simply placing a mobile communication device on the table or having participants hold it in their hand was a detriment to their conversations. Any time the phone was visible, the quality of the conversation was rated as less fulfilling when compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices. People reported having higher levels of empathetic concern when phones were not visible.”
What are some tips to better become more effective, using technology while not being overtaken by its dangers?
Deep Work and Myeline
Research identifies that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task, and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.
Cal Newport writes in his book “Deep Work”: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.”
How much time are you spending as a human network router—constantly sending emails and otherwise distracting yourself with every new little push notification and text message and attention-paper-cutting distraction imaginable?
To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.
This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits—effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.”
Gary Keller from The ONE Thing writes “Going small is ignoring all the things you could do and doing what you should do. It’s recognizing that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most. It’s a tighter way to connect what you do with what you want. It’s realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus. The way to get the most out of your work and your life is to go as small as possible… When you go as small as possible, you’ll be staring at one thing. And that’s the point.”
It was 1897 when Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, was studying wealth and income distribution in 19th Century England. During the course of his studies, he discovered that then majority of land and income was controlled by a minority of the population. In fact, 20% of the population controlled 80% of the wealth and income. On further analysis, mythical lore says that he found that this principle held true not only in different countries and different time periods, but also in contexts such as his garden—where he discovered that 20% of his peapods yielded 80% of the peas that were harvested!
Rather than pursuing every available opportunity, we can “calm down, work less and target a limited number of very valuable goals where the 80/20 Principle will work for us.
THE #1 obstacle to getting a good night of sleep is using your technology way too late. (We also know that, unfortunately, most people do that.) Therefore, if we want to have the best shot at a great night of sleep so we can be supercharged for the next day AND have a life outside of work and technology and entertainment, we’d be very wise to TURN OFF ALL THE ELECTRONICS early.
If you are like most people you start off your day by checking your emails, texts etc. The problem with that is that you are not doing YOUR task, rather you are responding to someone else’s agenda.
Advise: Do not turn on your phone or go online until you have done your spiritual practice of the morning and your ONE thing. For me that is learning, praying and working on Live Kabbalah notes and recording videos.
While we are advancing towards an era which the Maimonides Writes "the knowledge of G-d will fill the world like water fills the oceans", we must in the meantime ensure that we do not drown in the sea of technology.
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