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HACK Your Addiction: Chassidus for the Smartphone Era

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By Daniel Feld, Israel
MyLife Essay Contest 2018

Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.
Rabbi Nachman of Brezlov

An Addiction to Connection: The Smartphone Life

One of the greatest challenges of our modern era is the smartphone, and the incredible dependency we have developed around it. We rely on our phones for just about every aspect of our lives including our schedules, alarm clocks, entertainment, connection with the outside world, and even the psychological comfort of knowing it’s there should we need it.

This is true in the case of simple phones. The problem is multiplied in the case of a smartphone in which every beep, tweet and buzz represents a call for connection from twitter, facebook, Whatsapp or even a phone call.

The extent of this addiction in our lives is apparent in some mind-boggling statistics. A recent study found that the average person touches their cell phone 2617 times per day, uses their phone 5 hours a day (a third of their waking hours!), and over 50% of people check their phone before bed, and within an hour of waking up.[1,2,3] The effects on road safety are clearly damaging, not to mention the effect on our relationships at home, time spent with our children, and on our interactions with the people around us.[4] The urge to check our phone has been shown to be identical in its effect on brain chemistry as an addiction to cocaine and other drugs, and is part of the same addiction to instant gratification.[5]

The negative aspects of cellphone usage is clear, however simply quitting altogether is clearly not a solution due to the tremendous good that comes through our phones. We use our phones to make a livelihood, stay in touch with family around the world, teach, write and have a positive impact on people both near and far. Our ability to impact the world positively has grown tremendously, and it is clear abstinence is not the answer.

Chassidus provides an answer to this challenging issue. It provides a contextual basis to understanding something which has both potential for good and bad such as the smartphone, and a practical path towards overcoming the negative urges which come with it. It offers a life in which each new challenge is an opportunity for growth and for maximizing the potential it offers. Through the Mitteler Rebbe’s Shaarei Tshuva “Im Yihiye Nidachacha,” various chapters in Tanya and letters of the Rebbe, we will explore the Chassidic concepts of Klipas Noga (that which can be illuminated), Machshavaos Zaros (Distracting Thoughts,) and Hagbala and Kavana (Limitation and Intention) as key tools to overcoming the negative, and maximizing the positive which smartphones have to offer us.[6, 7, 8, 9]

So how does Chassidus see a smartphone? Is it good? Is it bad?


Klippas Noga: That Which Can Be Illuminated

In order for us to overcome the smartphone addiction we must better understand what a smartphone is. In chassidus we have the concept of Klippas Noga.

As the Alter Rebbe in Tanya teaches us, our world is filled with many things. Some are wholly negative (Shalosh Klipot Hatmeot). They carry no potential for good and must be fought to be overcome. Others are wholly good (Nefehs Ha-elokis.)[10] They must be nurtured and helped in every possible way to grow.

Then there is that which is a mix of good and bad. It is neutral. It can be taken either direction. The Alter Rebbe and the Mittler Rebbe in Shaarei Tshuva explain that it can be used for incredible good, and can be elevated in the service of something bigger, and yet it also has the potential to bring a person down, and distract them from their larger goals. This category is called Klippas Noga. It is like a peel of a fruit. On one hand it protects the fruit and makes it more beautiful, and on the other hand can completely cover the fruit and never allow it to be accessed.[12]

Klippas Noga is special in that it can be seen as a translucent peel of a fruit. Depending on what we do with it it can become dark and block the light of the world from reaching through it, or can become illuminated and add light and definition to that which it surrounds.

When we use our smartphones for positivity and connectivity, we have found a way to make them a gift to the world, and an example of the expansion of human abilities for the good.

However, when a constant drive and urge to interact with the device overcomes us, it has become a thief, taking our hearts and minds captive and distracting us from life itself. It has become a drive for instant gratification that disappears the moment that new message is seen, only to come back a few minutes later.

The question remains: We get it. I know the phone can be an amazing tool or destroy my life. But what can I do? I’m addicted to it. How do I overcome my drive to constantly be on it?


The Answer of Chassidus: Limit It, But Don’t Stop the Train

In order for us to understand how to overcome our dependency, we need to understand what a distraction or a compulsive urge is. Chassidus understand distractions to be Machshavos Zaros – foreign thoughts.[12] As humans we are constantly plagued by multiple thoughts distracting us from the task at hand. At any given time we are thinking about things we forgot to do, need to do, and should have done. In most cases we can easily overcome these distractions and not lose energy in the struggle. However, there are times when the power of the distraction is so strong that it can become a compulsive drive to do something we know is superfluous. We know things will not change if we check our phone now, or in 20 minutes, yet we do it anyway. In this case we need tools to overcome this urge..

The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers a Chassidic approach which is profound in how much it differs from the prevalent attitude towards addiction. It tells us: Limit the addiction immediately, but in the long term do not wage a war against yourself. Do not destroy your phone and beat yourself up for your dependency. Please redirect your thoughts. Use your drive for something else. Do not stop the train. Please change its direction.[13]

However, as in the case of any addiction that has gotten to the point of affecting one’s life, the solution begins with recognition of one’s predicament, in order to overcome the challenge.


“HACK” Your Thoughts: The Action Plan for Overcoming Addiction

To understand and overcome the cell phone addiction we offers a practical battle plan called HACK.

Hack: A 4 Step Approach:

1. Havana – Recognition. Recognizing that the drive for my addiction is instant gratification. Recognizing that it is not logical, and will not actually accomplish anything if I fulfill my desire, yet I am doing it anyway. This is a key first step of Tshuva in general, and to overcoming addiction specifically.[14]

2. Action – Hagbala. Practical steps to limit the behavior. This is the second step in breaking the behavioral cycle and allowing an opening for redirection of the drive. It is the important 2nd step in Tshuva (returning), of making a practical change so that the behaviour will not happen again.[15]

3. Contemplation – Using tool of Hisbonenus (Introspection and contemplation) to identify areas in which your phone is helping you do good and helping you have a greater effect on the world around you. In Chassidus the concept called Hisbonenus (Contemplation and Introspection,) is the practice of taking time to contemplate an idea, and to internalize concepts important to our behaviour and Avodas Hashem (the service of Hashem).[16]

4. Kavana – Intention – Now is the time to formulate the positive side of the same challenging issue. In which ways is the same issue that challenges you, bringing good to your life. Remind oneself of this Kavana when faced with the challenge in real time, in order to help overcome it.


Application of HACK: 4 Steps to Overcoming the Phone

Step 1. Havana – Recognition
What to do? Set aside a time to identify the areas in your life which the smartphone affects negatively.
Examples: Lost time with your children, lost time with your spouse, productive time lost during day, being exposed to negative content…

Step 2. Action – Hagbalah
What to do? Come up with basic practical steps to limit the negative effects it is having on the areas in your life you identified in step 1.
Examples: 1. Turning off phone before davening.
2. Having a phone basket at home where phones are put upon entering the house.
3. Not bringing phones into the room where you sleep.
4. Removing non useful applications from phone.
5. Not using the phone while driving.

Step 3. Contemplation – Hisbonenus
What to do? Using the practice of Hisbonenus, (contemplation and introspection), to identify the areas and ways in which your smartphone is helping you do positive things, and helping you have a greater effect on your surroundings.
Examples: It is: 1. Allowing me to stay in contact with family around the world.
2. Allowing me to make a livelihood and succeed at my work
3. Giving and listening to Shiurim
4. Spreading positive messages to a larger audience. Having a larger impact.

Step 4. Kavana – Intention
What to do? Using the points identified in step 3 to make a concise formula which one can use to overcome negative cell phone habits in real time.
This formula is your tool to use to redirect oneself in the case of addictive phone behaviour by re-reminding yourself why you have a smartphone and where you are using it for positive purposes in your life.
Examples: 1. In the case of phone usage being at the expense of family time, to remind oneself: “I use my phone to be in contact with family, and not to be taken away from them.”
2. In the case of phone usage taking away productive time from your day: “I use my phone to be productive and successful at work and not to be distracted by non useful things.”
3.  In the case of phone usage affecting healthy sleep habits: “I use my phone to be healthier and happier to serve Hashem, and not to damage my health.”

By applying HACK, we can use the tools Chassidus offers us to turn our phones into positive tools for growth and success, and to overcome the negative addiction so commonly found in our modern era..


Conclusion: Embracing A Connected World

In our modern world we have more major technological changes than ever before affecting all of our lives in very real ways. We have a choice. We can embrace the changes and the incredible possibilities they provide, or we can shun them and strive to live a life uninfluenced by their changes as much as possible.

Chassidus offers us practical tools with which can allow us to embrace the incredible connectivity we experience today. The possibilities provided by the smartphone are incredible, yet the price of the smartphone in our lives is heavy. Chassidus provides a path through which we can utilize the gift while protecting our core.

It accomplishes this by providing us with the understanding of the smartphone as an aspect of Klippas Noga (potential for good), its challenge of Machshavos Zaros (distractions which take us away from our goals), and the 4 step tool of HACK (Havana-Recognition, Action, Contemplation, and Kavana-Intention) to maximize the good, while overcoming the intense distractions it carries.

By applying the practical tools of Chassidus to the advancements of our age we can live an inspired life, a life embracing positive change, one which turns the challenges of our time into our greatest gifts.


Footnotes and Sources:

1 Study done by DSCOUT in 2016. How Much Are We Really Attached To Our Phones https://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches
2 PLOS One Journal. Beyond Self Report: Tools to Compare Estimated and Real World Cell Phone Use.
Sally Andrews. October 2015.
3 Deloitte Mobile Consumer 2015 Report, Consumer Usage Patterns in the Area of Peak Smartphones,
4 Cellphone Use While Driving, European Commision. 2015
5 National Geographic Magazine 2017, How Science is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction, Fran Smith. It has been found the the urge to constantly check ones phone shares the same dopamine reward system as other drug addictions.
6 Mittler Rebbe, Shaarei Tshuva, Shaar Hatshuva, 3, 2 “Im Yihiye Nidachacha.”
7 Alter Rebbe, Tanya, Chapters 1, 27, 28
8 Freidiker Rebbe, Likkutei Dibburim, Chelek 1, Ot 2 on the subject of Machshavos Zaros
9 The Rebbe, Iggros Kodesh, Chelek 2 Amud Reish, Chelek 12 Amud 270 on the subject of “Hesech haddas and Machasavos Zaros”
10 Alter Rebbe, Tanya, Chapters 1, 27, 28
11 See Footnote 7
12 Tanya, Chapter 27, 28
13 This is an approach the Rebbe would often recommend for people struggling with Machshavos Zaros, and other negative behaviours. To not put more energy into directly battling the issue which can make it larger and more challenging, but rather to redirect the same energy into something positive. This approach is found in letters throughout Iggros Kodesh. See footnote 10 for a few examples.
14 Rambam, Sefer Hamada, Hilchot Tshuva, Perek 1, 2 A similar sentiment of the importance of recognition of the problem is found in the famous Alcoholic Anonymous 12 Step Program.
15 See above footnote. A similar theme is foudn throught Iggros Kodesh in regards to taking positive resolutions in areas of personal challenge.
16 Alter Rebbe, Introduction to Siddur. Brings practice of Hisbonenus at the start of every day in recognition of the Creator and his world. Mittler Rebbe, Kuntres Hahisbonenus for an in depth exploration of the practice.

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