“Look, I got a package!” I’m standing by the open parcel box on the edge of our ashram‘s property, holding up a small cardboard package for my wife to see. My eyes sparkle at the prospect of a surprise gift. I pull out a pocketknife (you can’t live on a farm without one) from my belt holster and quickly slit open the box. The sparkle in my eyes dims in a flash.
“Oh… It’s the supplements.” I had forgotten about my recurring subscription.
Vrindaranya chuckles and says empathetically, “I think you are a little deprived.”
“I am, I am!” I agree wholeheartedly and exaggerate my disappointment for dramatic effect over the botched surprise.
Deprived? Let me explain. For four years now, I’ve been periodically doing something I call the Blackout. What it means is that for a month, I cut out almost all connections to the outside world; I’m only in contact with a handful of people. I fast from social media, news sites, and any other website that’s not connected to my spiritual practice. I avoid any kind of entertainment or endeavor that’s not spiritual (the only cheating I’ve done so far is watching a documentary on black holes. But in my defense, since black holes defy the known laws of physics, they’re practically spiritual, right? Right.).
I started a new tradition this year: I will begin every new year with a Blackout. So, since it’s January 16th as I’m writing this, I’m smack in the middle of one as we speak.
Almost without fail, the Blackouts follow a similar pattern: the first week is amazing. It’s like getting off of hard drugs, and I’m flying. There’s a palpable sense of relief and freedom. The meditation practice flows like water, and I start thinking that life will be this good permanently.
Then, the second week starts. The damn second week. (You might not be surprised to hear that the opening scene of this post happened during the second week of my current Blackout.)
That’s when the withdrawals hit. First, my spiritual fervor begins to calm down a little. Next, I realize I’m somewhat bored with the routines of the day. Then, I realize in the middle of my meditation that I haven’t paid attention for thirty minutes. And then, the cravings kick in full blast. I start spontaneously meditating on anything that has given me pleasure in the past or will give it in the future: chocolate cake, shows with my old band, trips with my wife, art galleries, snowboarding in the Alps, more chocolate cake… During a past Blackout, I even reminisced about a pink plush toy piglet that I was very attached to as a child.
The mind wants immediate pleasure at any cost, and since it can’t get it from the present environment, it rummages through the past and then reaches out to the future. At this point of the Blackout, my mind is in an acute state of imbalance and aggravation.
But luckily, there’s the third week, which I’m just starting now. The third week feels like that special quiet after a big winter storm—a heightened sense of stillness and peace. And it’s a fitting metaphor because the second week of a Blackout is precisely like a mental/emotional hurricane. But when I weather the attacks of the agitated mind without giving in to its demands for indulgence, it sort of gives up on me. I guess this guy’s a little tougher than I thought, it might think, shrugging its shoulders and bedding down for a nap after a tough fight. Of course, the cravings and dreams of ease will still be there, but they don’t have the same seismic force as they do under normal circumstances; they are much easier to ignore.
During the third and fourth weeks, I gain the kind of clarity and calm inspiration that I rarely attain without a Blackout. I also become more tuned in to my immediate environment and have more appreciation for the things and people in my life. What happens naturally is that since I’m not getting my frequent dopamine hits from social media and other services that are expressly designed to over-tax your dopamine response (because a dopamine response equals attention equals profits for the service providers), I begin to look for contentment in my immediate environment as well as in the forms of engagement I’ve allowed myself. Instead of scrolling, I scribble blog posts or work on my new book or read ancient spiritual writings; I pay more attention to the people in my immediate environment; I pay more attention in my meditation. In other words, I do things that require more concentration and resilience but end up yielding more contentment in the end.
This, to me, is the beauty of voluntary deprivation: it’s a powerful tool to redirect your behavior toward things that you know are aligned with your true purpose, but you don’t normally get to because they are often challenging, whereas instant pleasure, ease, and entertainment are always at your fingertips (literally) and require no effort whatsoever. I find it so fascinating and indeed empowering that humans have the freedom—at least to a large extent—to choose the influences they will let into their lives instead of having to accept whatever circumstance they happen to find themselves in.
After four weeks of this so-called deprivation, I don’t feel deprived on any level. In fact, I’m thriving. So why do I go back to the old ways?
So many times, after a Blackout, I’ve sworn off all social media, news sites, meaningless relationships, and the lot. But they always seep in somehow, unnoticed like a professional burglar, stealing one small piece at a time, and suddenly I realize all my furniture is gone, and I’m left with a vacated condo.
But this time, I’m going to double-lock the condo entrance and continue my Blackout past the one-month marker—I’m determined to take it as far as it goes. The Blackout state of mind is just too good to lose.
Wish me luck!
Until next time,
P.S. Since this was just a brief overview of doing a dopamine detox, I might write some more detailed follow-up posts on different aspects of this topic.