By Yisroel Cotlar, Cary, North Carolina
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
“The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”
“Distraction Trap: How to Focus in a Digital World”
“You are not a gadget”
The marketplace is now flooded with books such as these that address a new societal problem:
• In a world where information is so accessible, we understand less.
• In a time of relative comfort – free from many of the disturbances our ancestors faced –we are distracted more.
• In an era where so many tasks are now automated, we are busier than ever
• In an age of endless means of communication, we connect less to each other.
While the problem is simple, the solution is not. In just over a decade, our attachment to smartphones has become so powerful that suggesting to unplug is not enough. Utilizing technology in healthier ways requires taking a step back in order to better understand our relationship to information and strengthen the art of deep thinking.
This essay will explain how we can harness the power of Da’as to both identify and resolve a problem that afflicts so many of us.
When Knowing the Information is Only Step 1
The very word “Chabad” is an acronym for the 3-step process of learning, understanding, and then integrating a concept or world-view until you and it become one. In Tanya(1) the Alter Rebbe describes these steps and emphasizes that the true value of information is only achieved when all three steps are completed. If we stop short, its impact will not be felt.
The processing of new information begins in the stage of Chachma. At this point the learning is exciting and novel. The discovery requires little effort on the part of the individual – on the contrary, Chachma often occurs when least expected.
Bina requires concentration and focus. What was initially an amorphous concept, is now analyzed in detail. Conclusions are reached. Information is stored. Knowledge is built.
Da’as is the marriage between the person and the idea. Prior to Da’as occurring, the idea is just that – a concept. With the internalization of Da’as comes along a fundamental shift: The subject matters to you and will be applied to your life.
Da’as is associated with maturity(2). A young child, even when possessing a wealth of information, lacks the maturity to integrate knowledge into their emotions, and hence, their practical life. This applies to adults as well. Think of the patient who is told by a doctor about the dangers of smoking, and yet lights a cigarette the moment he leaves the office. The information is there. But the connection to real life has not taken place.
Although practically speaking, this integration follows both Chachma and Bina, Chassidus explains how Da’as is rooted far higher, in Keser, the source of our desire & willpower. A strong Da’as therefore leads to a strong conviction. Once a concept or position becomes fully internalized, one gains the strength to followthrough with that ideal. Conversely, knowing something to be true but lacking the conviction to follow-through (or falling prey to distractions along the way) may be due to the concept never being fortified with Da’as.
While this is only a brief summary of these three faculties, it should be sufficient for the purpose of this essay.
How Da’as is Achieved? – The Three I’s (3)
Intimacy The Torah first uses the word Da’as is to describe the intimate union of Adam and Chava(4). We therefore see that Da’as, even in its more common intellectual context, relates to a form of intimacy.
The first stage of Da’as is an intellectual intimacy in which a person completely attaches themselves to a particular idea. In Hebrew this is called Hiskashrus:
As a pre-requisite for intimacy, there must be:
• Privacy: There is atmosphere of quiet — distractions are not present.
• Time: There can be no rush. The Alter Rebbe once translated the words “V’Avaditem Mehaira” (in the second paragraph Shema) as “you should lose your sense of hurriedness.” Da’as takes time.
• Focus: Contemplating the subject matter for long periods of time. No multitasking.
Creating the time and space for Da’as – and then being able to maintain that focus– requires tremendous body and mind awareness, or in the words of Tanya “A toiling of the soul and toiling of the flesh.(5)”
Identification A consequence of deep thinking is relevance. By laboring over a concept, one extracts the essential point that can then be applied to other circumstances including those in one’s own life. This may not happen in one sitting. On the contrary it is often when thinking later on, while taking a walk or behind the wheel, that this clarity will occur.
The second stage of Da’as, identification (or Hakara in Hebrew) allows the person to recognize how this truth exists inside of them, and through that lens, see it in other situations.
Let’s take for example, the subject of “Divine Providence”
At the first stage intimacy, one focuses on the concept at great depth, visualizing a world where every detail of life is guided by Hashem down to the last detail. One reflects on the theology behind this truth and works to make the concept as real and personal as possible. But it is still(6) a connection between 2 different entities – the mind and the subject matter.
At the point of “Identification”, the truth now exists inside of you. You begin seeing Hashem’s providence in your own life. What would have once been overlooked as a coincidence is now seen as a direct lesson or message.
Integration In the final stage of Da’as, the subject matter is no longer a truth that merely exists in the mind but also in your heart and bones. (In Hebrew, this step is called Hargasha). It has become you – not a concept. When teaching the idea to another you are not relating information but attempting to share that which you experience.
This bridge between mind and heart is formed through many moments of contemplation and identification. Take for example, a person whose opinion about a particular political issue is now longer an opinion. It is them.
What Technology Does to Our Brain(7)
Even in the most peaceful of environments, Da’as is not natural. What technology has done, however, is make Da’as that much more difficult.
Let us briefly address some of obstacles to the Three I’s in our smartphone era.
INTIMACY Can one truly attach themselves to an idea when they can be disturbed at any given moment by a notification announcing a text, call, or email?
Furthermore, intellectual intimacy requires serenity and quiet. Today, however, we become uncomfortable when there is but a moment of down-time. We feel the need to check a device as soon as there is a wait at a red light or store. We miss out on valuable Da’as moments.(8)
Identification Da’as requires a person to focus in depth on one idea. We can call this vertical learning – unearthing new layers by thinking deeper and deeper about the very same subject. This is quite different than what can be called horizontal learning – exploring new facts and related ideas.
Information on devices, as opposed to books, lends itself to horizontal learning. The average website is filled with multiple methods of information (audio, video, advertisements, RSS feeds) with the tempting hyperlinks never far away to connect us to related subjects.
Browse. Check. Surf. Search. These words, introduced to our vocabulary in the last 20 years, are all horizontal-learning, obstacles to Da’as.
Integration For Integration to occur, when we allow ourselves to really feel the thoughts and emotions inside of us. Today, the world allows us a host of way to numb those feelings. Distractions like social media are a numbing agent that prevent us from properly experiencing our emotions — another obstacle in building the bridge between mind and heart.
The Unique Role of Da’as in Judaism
The problem of technology addiction is usually framed as an obstacle towards deep thinking and concentration– what we would call Binah. Chassidus allows us to also see the issue through the lens of Da’as. It isn’t just that we can’t focus. It’s that we can’t make information real and personal.
This presents unique challenge to Jews. In secular studies, it is acquisition of knowledge that is most important. Math or science can be both learned and applied without it having personal relevance to the student. The very meaning of Torah, on the other hand, is “Lesson”. It is by definition, applied information.
It is for this reason that the Midrash(9) tells us “If someone says There is wisdom amongst the Nations of the World believe them.” But if someone says there is Torah (Da’as) amongst the nations of the world do not believe them.”(10)
As a Chossid
Technology addiction presents an additional obstacle to those striving to live according to Derech HaChassidus.
• The study of Chassidus, in particular, is far less concerned with horizontal knowledge than vertical learning. Countless Chassidic discourses discuss the very same truths – for example, the unity of G-d. The same words of davening are recited each and every day. Daas is therefore needed to make these truths real in one’s life or make prayer personal on any particular day.
• To be a Chossid requires one to live in a higher reality. Not merely adhering to Halacha while living a regular life in this world but operating in a realm where there is not one part of one’s life that lies outside Avodas Hashem. For a Chossid there is no dichotomy between Kodesh and Chol, regular life and Torah life. Once again it is Daas that is needed to lift the Chossid to this higher reality -free from distractions that sling us back down below.(11)
Where we Go From Here:
The world is finally getting to a place where there is a backlash against the internet and social media. Recognizing the problem, however, is far easier than giving answers.
Most of the solutions being addressed in the world today deal with finding ways to defend against the intrusion of technology(12):
1) Setting aside times to unplug periodically
2) Switching off notifications
3) Monitoring just how often you check your phone daily.
4) Using a non-smartphone (at least some of the time)
5) Limiting Multi-tasking
While all of these are certainly helpful, at best, they lessen the problem. They weaken our addiction to technology but stop short of providing an offensive mindset to how to truly break free. They remove the symptoms but do not solve the underlying problem
The Solution: More Da’as
A Chassidic approach to overcoming technology addiction would be recognizing the treasure that is Da’as and understanding how it is the key to true learning and connection. Rather than trying to merely stay away from technology, one would practice, on a regular basis, the art of Da’as utilizing the Three I’s mentioned above.
1) Embrace Quiet time: Every moment of peacefulness is an opportunity for Da’as. Think about people you love. Ponder an idea you learned. There is absolutely no reason to pick up a device when one recognizes how much richer these experiences are than another check of the phone.
2) Recognize that less is more: Vertical thinking produces the change that is growth. Resist the temptation to read another article, google a similar topic, or read further and instead spend time making that which you already learned more real in your life. Slow down.
3) Is this a Da’as Moment? Of course, not every piece of information calls for Da’as. Much of our day – from hearing the weather to booking a flight – is about accomplishing a simple task that we hope to get done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
But by training ourselves in the art of Da’as, we will more easily be able to differentiate between a Da’as Opportunity and a Task. There will be no need to reach for technology when we know a far better alternative exists.
Technology can then be used as a tool for what it was always designed to do best. TASKS. Arranging a meeting, buying an airplane flight, or taking/sending a picture. But in situations with a potential of true connection – whether to a subject, project, another person, or of course Hashem – we will welcome the opportunity for Da’as.
And ultimately, a connection build upon the three I’s, will not be vulnerable to the distractions of technology. For when you are connected above, you do not fall below…
1. Tanya Chapter 3
2. Kuntres Hatefila Ch 5
3. The three stages of Daas, a major theme in this essay, are explained in V’Aleh Mishpatim 5711.
4. Bereshis 4:1
5. Tanya Chapter 42
6. The very name Hiskashrus denotes two entities between tied together
7. See The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brain by Nicholas G. Carr
8. A constant need to check devices comes from the need for instant gratifications. Many studies show how these activities actually release dopamine to the brain making them so addictive. This pleasure-seeking pursuit is the very opposite of Daas which is marked by bitul and devotion the particular intellectual endeavor.
9. Eicha Raba 2:13
10. While that which exists in Kedusha also exists in Kelipa, Chassidus explains how the Daas of Kelipa, is somewhat artificial lacking true Bittul.
11. Indeed, one purpose of a Rebbe is helping us achieve Daas in Elokus. (See V’Aleh Misphatim Torah Or and 5711) For while we can understand and even internalize concepts of Elokus, Hakara and Hargasha in Elokus lies beyond the realm of most people. By virtue of our Neshamos assuming the status of a Nivra on its descent down here, G-dliness remains a “concept” and not an experience. It is only a tzadik that has this Daas. A connection to a Rebbe is therefore critical to our being able to relate to Elokus in a real and vivid manner.
With this in mind, we might better appreciate the incredible Hashgacha Pratis that the internet, as we know it today, from streaming audio to Instant Messaging, began around the time of Gimmel Tammuz. It was then that we needed a medium to be able to hear the Rebbe and be lifted to a higher realm at any time and place.
12. See How to Focus in a Digital World by and Frances Trap.