A young woman is standing in a forest at sunset (Getty Images)

Your phone can't save you now: On Buddhism, technology and the alleged supremacy of the mind

I went on a technology-free silent Buddhist retreat and decided to go on a wilderness hike. What could go wrong?


Ginny Hogan
March 8, 2020 12:30AM (UTC)

I recently ended a seven-day silent, technology-free meditation retreat in the hills of Northern California. I had high hopes for the experience — I felt like I was getting a makeover for my brain. And I had so many questions — was a week long enough to cure me of my anxiety and phone addiction? Would I get over my ex and my propensity to eat straight frosting? Would I find my passion in a life of sitting on a mat? I couldn't wait to find out.

On the second morning of the retreat, I went on a hike. I prepared little, glancing at a map only once before I took off — there were supposed to be signs along the way. It took me over an hour to book it up the mountain. Once I reached the top, I walked along a flat road for a bit until I hit a sign indicating the beginning of my descent. Thus far, the hike had been steep but not scary. A mile down, I came to a fork in the road. Well, it was more like an "end" in the road; there was no clear path forward. The only thing that vaguely resembled one was a stone tunnel into a forest. 

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The first two-thirds of the hike had been on open-air, golden hills where people could see me, which meant venturing through the tunnel into the dark, tree-covered woods might not have been the best idea. To make matters worse, the tunnel was distinctly difficult to traverse. It was slippery, filled with thorns, and steep. I hail from rural Manhattan, so I'm really not meant for the outdoors, but I'd confidently assert that even my friends from Brooklyn would say it was hard. After about 15 minutes climbing down steep rocks and crashing through bramble, I deduced I had gone the wrong way. I turned around. 

I had promised myself I wouldn't climb down into anything I didn't think I could climb back out of, but I soon discovered I'd miscalculated the terrain, my climbing abilities, or both. The return was terrifying — scaling rocks taller than the tallest man I've ever dated (5'8"), putting all my weight on branches that might not have been connected to trees, clenching my abs to balance as I tried to get my legs up higher (thank goodness for the one yoga instructor who told me to do that). I was distressed. At one point, I dropped my water bottle and determined that it was lost forever — going back wasn't an option. 

And yet, I was impressed with my body's ability to balance, to set my foot on the right rock, the one that wouldn't shift under my weight. For most of the ascent back out of the forest, I didn't feel like I was making decisions about how to climb. I was letting my body guide me, and it was almost as if it had done this before. Instincts, in many ways, are like connecting to a long-forgotten Wi-Fi network. They sometimes just work.

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After a few more minutes, I was relieved to find myself back where I'd started, albeit exhausted and trembling. I'd taken many an exercise class where the instructor bellowed that shaky muscles were a good thing, but I could not help but think this was not a good thing. My body was wearing down, and I was nowhere near the end. I still had to get off the mountain and tack to the retreat center. 

At this point in my journey, The smart thing would have been to go back up and around the way I'd come. But this would have been a much longer route (I was halfway down the mountain, so going back up would take approximately three times as long), and my brain told me I didn't have to. My mind did me dirty and told me to try another way down. Back into the forest, I went.

This time, I got desperately lost. I was not in a narrow, rocky tunnel that I could follow back up but deep in the pathless woods on a very steep hill with no exit in sight. I'm prone to irrational anxiety (my Alexa isn't mad at me, that's just its voice), but I felt like my fears here were justified. With every step, I worried I'd slip and hurt myself. If I sprained an ankle and couldn't walk, who knows what would become of me? These were the facts: I'd gotten lost on a hike I'd told no one I was going on, on a huge mountain on which I wasn't carrying a phone, in the woods where no one could see me, on a retreat where no one knew my name. I was, quite possibly, screwed.

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The Buddha himself went into the forest to find enlightenment, and he stayed multiple days until he got there. I supposed that in a worst-case scenario, I could sit under a tree until I achieved Nirvana and eternal peace (I was on a Buddhist retreat, after all), but I really, really, really didn't want to. I wanted to get back to my life of delusion, flaky man-children, and fake sugar ASAP. So badly, in fact, that I prayed to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha that if they let me out alive, I'd be good forever — I'd be nice to others and never, ever do any sort of physical activity ever again.

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Clinging to a tree trunk, with a vague idea of the direction I needed to move in, I realized I'd have to climb up a hill that was beyond my physical capacity. Yet, going down felt equally daunting, plus I'd be further into the forest, so I moved upwards. And somehow the impossible happened. Even though I'd never felt so physically exhausted, I was able to keep moving up a very steep hill — a ClassPass "very rigorous," at least. My feet landed on rocks rather than on slippery leaves. A tree I thought was just a branch was able to support me. I was terrified, quivering, and pessimistic, but I was getting somewhere. My brain yelled all sorts of curses at me, but I didn't need to listen. I didn't have the energy to, anyway.

I don't typically see myself as connected to my body. I had never trusted in its innate wisdom before. In fact, almost all the effort I devoted to my body was towards making it smaller, not stronger, and certainly not wiser. My favorite type of exercise is Barre, which focuses on giving you "long, lean muscles." Are lean, long muscles the strong kind? I found myself asking, as I struggled over the jagged terrain. They never clarified. My body asks for so little (relative to my brain, which demands constant stimulation and compliments), and yet I give it even less. I had nothing but gratitude on that morning to have a body capable of scaling rocks — a privilege I hope to never take for granted again, one that I'm well-aware many don't have, and one that I know I won't have forever.

Still, as I climbed, my brain could not accept the guidance of my body. Instead, it kept demanding the one thing it reaches for when in doubt: my phone. My constant companion, my handheld encyclopedia, my miniature detective. But why would I want my phone then, in that forest? Even if  I'd had it, it wouldn't have had service. As such, I would have focused all my effort on trying to get to a place with a signal rather than finding a way out, because that's all I know how to do. 

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Phones extend our brains, but what do they do for our bodies? According to Buddhist Priest Kurt Spellmeyer, "Most of our machines have been designed to replicate or enhance our bodies' functioning. A hammer is a prosthetic hand; bicycles are prosthetic legs. But cell phones, iPads, and PCs are prostheses for our minds." In a culture that values mind over body, it's no wonder smartphones are ubiquitous. We show our natural prejudice in many ways — in how often we quote Descartes' "I think therefore I am," in what we consider being "alive," as reported by Rachel Aviv, and in how we equate brain function with being human. 

Without my phone, maybe my forest experience was more similar to the Buddha's. Probably not, because I doubt he bellowed, "CAN ANYBODY HEAR ME I'M GOING TO DIE!!!" While in the forest, I cursed so many people — the retreat coordinators for not warning me, myself, my roommate in LA for not inventing an emergency to keep me from going. But mostly I cursed the world, for letting me believe that my phone might keep me safe from all dangers. That my mind, and its natural extension, was all I needed to get out. But what happens when we leave the reign of mind-superiority? Had my dependence on my phone fed into my belief that my brain is vastly superior to my body?

The retreat was movement-focused. We learned about the connection between body and mind, and the Buddhist believes that neither is better than the other, regardless of how either functions. Meditation often takes the form of perfect stillness — it is in quieting the body that we quiet the mind. In fact, one of my instructors taught us that "wisdom pose" (which I'd learned in yoga as "child's pose") was designed to have our heart, body and mind all on one plane so that none is prioritized above another. Buddhists believe we have a consciousness that permeates all things and forms our core, so there's really no distinction between body and mind — it's all one, and neither constitutes the "self." 

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I don't live that way — I live with my brain. I depend on it for sustenance. I measure my self-worth by the entire functionality of my brain but only the aesthetic of my body. And that's to be expected — I'm a writer in Los Angeles in 2020. Not everyone is fortunate enough to depend on their bodies or their minds in many circumstances, and technology has done wonderful things to increase accessibility. I can't imagine surviving — not keeping myself entertained, but truly surviving — without my phone, and I'm an able-bodied person. I would never want to discount the aid technology has provided, as well as the safety it offers in many circumstances. But perhaps I'd depended too heavily on it. Had I incurred a cost when I decided to stop relying on my body?  

Buddhism emphasizes doing one thing at a time. I struggle with this while I'm using my phone. I click with abandon. In the forest, though, I could not have been more focused. My mind and body wanted the exact same thing — a rare unification. They're usually at odds; my body wants sleep, but my mind wants the internet. My body wants food, but my mind wants to meet arbitrary beauty standards. And my phone takes me out of my body by allowing me to live beyond my body's limits. If I don't feel present, it's because I'm not. I'm quite literally absent from my body. When my body and mind worked in unison, away from technology, I really felt like I was living the Buddha's teachings in search of a very specific goal — survival. It was only in their unity that I was able to fully be in the moment.

After hours of climbing, I found myself back on a golden hill. I was nowhere near the path I'd started on, but I could see a distant road. One with cars, people, and a way back to the retreat. From the hill, I got to the bottom relatively quickly. As soon as I could see a perfectly straight line ahead to the road, I breathed a sigh of relief and my ankle immediately snapped. I wondered if my body was saying, "Hey, you're safe now, my work is done." My body had shielded me from harm for as long as I was in danger (or as long as I believed I was in danger), but then it had to admit I'd taken advantage — I'd pushed it too far. I tried and discovered I could still limp, and I soon walked it off and found my way back to the retreat. 

I need my brain for many, if not most, tasks, but not in isolation. To find my way out of a forest, I needed my brain and body working in unison — and that was all I needed. On that day, on that hike, on that mountain, my phone couldn't save me.

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Ginny Hogan

Ginny Hogan is an LA-based writer and comedian. Her first book, "Toxic Femininity in the Workplace," was published by HarperCollins in 2019.

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