When Nobody is Watching

Who you really are is what you say or do when no one is watching.  There are all kinds of variations on this idea.  C.S. Lewis says: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”  Motivational guru Tony Robbins quotes UCLA basketball coaching legend, John Wooden:

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are…the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Robbins warns that creating an image of who you are, or cultivating an image through social media, can be at odds with who you really are, your core self.   Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that social media is creating a “prestige economy” in which people seek recognition or prestige by what they say or do online, often reacting to what others have said.  It’s done with the idea that everyone is watching you, which at first seems compelling, like the 60’s TV-oriented protest slogan: “The Whole World is Watching.”

In a Recode Pivot podcast interview with Scott Galloway, Haidt says that:

social media and technology have put us all into a social space where whatever we say, various strangers with assumed names are going to say incredibly nasty things about us. Which makes us all reluctant to speak in public and which kind of decimates trust…

..,technology changes social dynamics so that when two people are talking, they’re not necessarily talking to each other. They’re talking to the, possibly a very large audience. That changes the nature of interaction, and generally, in bad ways.

Social media can be the equivalent of thinking out loud without giving much thought to what you say.  It is possible to share whatever comes to mind, without any intervening delay, without getting the feedback of a few before hearing from many.   The reaction might not be what you expected.

It is good to ask ourselves what we would do if all of that noise wasn’t happening all around us, online as well as offline.  Or what we’d be thinking if we weren’t always listening to what everyone else has to say.  Can we balance the chatter of social media by cultivating the life of our own minds, giving ourselves the time and space to think — or not think at all?  This would require developing a practice, a habit of balancing ourselves, a kind of mental training for when nobody is watching you.

Nancy, my wife, does Morning Pages, a practice which comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.   Nancy writes three pages longhand every morning in her journal, which she will show to no one.  (I have instructions that upon her passing to gather her notebooks and burn them — without anybody reading them.)  Morning Pages are not intended to be consumed by anyone. They help create a space in your own mind for you to listen to yourself and express yourself — without judgement, without analysis.

I must admit that when she first started writing her Morning Pages, I didn’t quite understand what and why she was doing them.  It was a kind of writing exercise, I thought, that seemed somewhat pointless to me.  Blogger Chris Winfield thought the same thing until he started doing Morning Pages himself.  He found that it helped develop a “clearer mind, better ideas and less anxiety.”  It can also help you discover your creativity.  He writes:

In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it. And it’s through this seemingly pointless process that you are able to find it. You discover things that have been hidden inside you and stuffed down in the business of life.

We need a way of discarding many of our thoughts and just letting them go. It’s like flushing pipes to clean them out before fresh water comes out.  Opening the flow itself is what’s important about creating Morning Pages.  Shutting off the flow altogether may also be its own practice.

Meditation, sometimes also called mindfulness, seems very different from Morning Pages, yet it is a way to gain some control over your thoughts.  Often meditation is described as teaching yourself to be present in the moment, creating greater awareness that you and your mind are in your body, here and now.  “Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant,” Sam Harris, author of the book, “Waking Up”, writes on his site.  Harris adds:

The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.

For most of us, meditating for long stretches, sitting in silence, seems impossible.  Sometimes just for a minute, it is hard to stop the incessant talking in our own heads and not feel subject to the randomness of conscious thought. Meditating is a way of learning to pay closer attention to what Harris called the “flow of experience.”

This weekend, I attended a memorial service for artist and poet Wilder Bentley at a Buddhist temple (Emanji in Sebastopol).  (I hope to write about Wilder in a future post.)  In the pamphlet distributed at the memorial, a poem of Wilder’s mentioned “the silence behind all sounds” and the Buddhist priest emphasized it his remarks on Dharma, or Buddhist teaching.  I want to learn to think more deeply, and also think a lot less. The priest went on to say that the Dharma is a flow, which I took to mean was a way of thinking, rather than the thoughts themselves. The Way of Dharma. The Artist’s Way.  Seeking our own way.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I visited the Grand Buddha. 


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