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    “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That saying, which Plato attributed to Socrates, succinctly expresses the basic value underlying every form of personal exploration—the idea that self-knowledge is an indispensable value in human life. Whether it’s Western psychotherapy or Eastern spiritual paths of self-inquiry, the message is the same. It is that genuine happiness and peace of mind come only to those who work to attain greater self-awareness. But most aren’t all that interested in knowing ourselves. What we really want is to feel good.

    We spend an amazing amount of time immersed in mood-altering and mind-numbing entertainments, habits, and distractions whose purpose is to increase comfort and numb anxiety and other painful emotions. What all these activities have in common is that they diminish self-awareness. They’re really about getting away from our emotional discomfort rather than facing and understanding it. The most obvious mind-altering distraction is abuse of alcohol and drugs, but there are many others, including:

    1. Food: overeating in search of comfort

    2. Sex: avoiding painful feelings through sexual distractions

    3. Television: watching hours of TV every day

    4. Computer: spending hours every day on social media, surfing the net, etc.

    5. Workaholism: constantly working to exhaustion; inability to rest or take time off

    6. Exercise: compulsively exercising as a way of avoiding emotional pain

    7. Adrenaline: addiction to the rush of frequent and compulsive risk-taking

    8. Shopping: seeking comfort in acquiring things

    9. Religion: using spiritual beliefs and practices to bypass awareness of fear and uncertainty

    10. Cleaning: constantly cleaning to avoid anxiety or discomfort

    11. Rage: avoiding fear or feelings of powerlessness through inappropriate anger

    12. Caffeine: The Starbuck’s syndrome; staying buzzed all day on high-octane coffees to diminish awareness of emotional pain, especially depression

    Modern technology provides us with an unprecedented number of opportunities for diversion and self-soothing, but the sad irony is that they’ve also made us the most restless generation that has ever existed. Millions of us are completely incapable of ever being alone and quiet with ourselves.

    One of the many bad effects is that millions of us suffer from chronic insomnia. It’s estimated that in 1900, the average American got about 10 hours of sleep per day. That’s probably because people didn’t really have much to do after dark. Not any more. When I explore insomnia with clients, I often find that they’re in the habit of immersing themselves in media stimulation right up until they go to bed. They watch the late news or late night talk shows, listen to music, play computer games, cruise online, or several such activities at once. Then, in a hyper-stimulated state, they turn off the lights, climb into bed, and discover that they’re too wired to sleep.

    I believe that our collective need for more intense distracting stimuli is progressing, exactly the way that addictions progress. Many people can’t watch a film from the 1940s or 1950s, for instance, because those films seem to move at a snail’s pace compared to the roller coaster rides of current popular movies. More and more of the people I talk with are in such a restless, jumpy state that they give me the impression they’ve been at a heavy metal concert for the past twenty years.

    Anyone interested in pursuing a path of personal growth and greater awareness must first cultivate enough quiet and focus to be able to do the work. It isn’t necessary to get rid of all distractions, but it’s important to have some time free of them. Spending time in nature can do much to cool down an overactive nervous system. Some people find it useful to practice periodic “media fasts” from all electronic stimuli.

    What is crucially important, however, is to stop running from our suffering, and instead to get to know it, feel it, explore it, to understand its meanings and causes. The rewards of this kind of work are subtle but profound: greater freedom from self-deception, confusion, and anxiety; calm self-acceptance, contentment, and peace of mind; comfort in one’s own skin; greater capacity to think and act independently of the herd. But this maturity comes only to those who can examine their suffering rather than run from it.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit