The Case for Conscious Isolation
On an evolutionary scale, human consciousness is a recent phenomenon, and enough time has not passed for us as a species to get acquainted with its nuances. Then the internet, and subsequently social media happened. We obtained the skill to directly and instantaneously communicate with individuals and masses of people around the globe, almost god-like powers when compared to 50 years ago. The only thing holding us back from developing true telepathic skills is the bandwidth bottleneck between our brain and any device connected to the internet.
The benefits of this giant technological leap are clear in our day-to-day lives, but at what cost, and what is the long-term impact on the human psyche? With the advent of cheap smartphones, internet adoption along with social media usage skyrocketed in the last decade. The adverse impact of such a sudden and overwhelming upgrade to the human consciousness can be seen manifesting at the individual level with spikes in the levels of depression, anxiety, lack of self-worth, and Fear Of Missing Out.
Something I have employed from the early days of my adult life was to take a step back every now and then to facilitate the critical analysis of my emotions, observations, and thought process from a third-person perspective. Among many things, this process had been rewarding when it came to understanding and regulating the social media phenomenon. As you’d imagine, the practically difficult part of this process is “taking a step back”. I call this Conscious Isolation. This post summarizes my thoughts on why Conscious Isolation is an indispensable skill in this age of incessant social interaction.
Instilling a Solitary Nature
Solitude is a state where a person is alone and at ease while focusing only on one’s own thoughts. In contrast, loneliness is a feeling that arises when a person is alone and uncomfortable with one’s own thoughts. The feeling of loneliness is so dreadful that if not properly addressed, it could lead to mental health disorders like depression. Most people fear loneliness so much that they actively surround themselves with people $24 / 7$, physically or virtually. On the other hand, being solitary allows us to reflect, introspect, rationalize, and come to terms with the happenings of the world around us. It is a necessary component of life that most people completely ignore. A conscious effort to temporarily isolate yourself from certain aspects of the world kick-starts the process of being solitary. Over time, this process allows us to become truly at ease with our own self, thus overcoming the feeling of loneliness. The intensity of isolation has various degrees, ranging from abstaining from Facebook to leading an ascetic life, but the question is, how much isolation is necessary. The answer is highly subjective. For me, it is about realizing which of the perceived problems of my life, or the world, am I currently addressing. Then, I can choose the degree of isolation such that the induced solitary nature facilitates a solution to the problem.
Ensuring Pleasantness in Experience
Certain situations in life can be sufferable, and certain others, joyful. One of the hardest tasks in life is to build the mental fortitude to understand and overcome life’s sufferings. Since the analysis in this post is done in the context of conscious isolation, by suffering, I mean mental suffering and not the suffering endured through physical pain. The reason why suffering is especially hard is because we assign an overwhelmingly high value to be in a state of joy. Your current suffering is always in relation to a particular state of joy that you could have been in, either from memory or through imagination. For example, if you failed to land a dream job, you’re actually suffering the state of joy that you could have been in if you had landed that job. One way out of this trap is for us to stay pleasant in the face of both suffering (otherwise leading to depression) and joy (otherwise leading to being manically happy). Here I define pleasantness as the experience of life when there is no huge variation between the perceived values of suffering and joy. This can be achieved through multiple bouts of solitary introspection (through conscious isolation) and re-engagement with life, even when joyful. That all said, this is a Herculean task, but the acknowledgement of such a desirable state, and consciously working towards seeking pleasantness in experience, regardless of the externality, ensures that we are moving towards an emotionally stable state that facilitates rational decision making in our day-to-day lives.
A Productivity Hack
Isolation is not only a necessary tool to grapple with complex life problems but also a crucial instrument for being disciplined. When we’re intensely focused on some difficult task, consistently working long distraction-free hours to attain the desired level of competency becomes a necessity. The larger the complexity of the task, the narrower and longer the focus should be. Unfortunately, it is almost a universal problem that we find ourselves being friends with the instant gratification monkey and then running headless from the stress monster, i.e. procrastinating. Something I’ve noticed about procrastination is that the action with which we procrastinate, more often than not, is external. This means that there has to be an external reward signal that is instantly gratifying, like information gain through reading unrelated topics on Wikipedia, or scrolling away on Facebook which curates your feed to maximize dopamine release, or watching YouTube whose recommendations know exactly what you want to watch. Procrastination through thinking is rare, and when it happens, the thoughts are profound and meaningful than the task at hand, or are thoughts that need thinking through. When you consciously isolate yourself from the external, you’re either doing the task that is necessary as there is nothing to procrastinate with, or in rare cases, you’re thinking thoughts that need thinking. Either way, being able to consciously isolate ourselves with ease drastically reduces the probability of procrastination.
Handling procrastination through isolation is a hack and not an elegant solution. It is irresponsible to procrastinate, and the hardness of a problem does not absolve us from skirting the responsibility towards ourselves. Unfortunately, by design (evolution), we are animals first and humans later. Hence the pursuit for instant gratification is deeply ingrained in us. Therefore, I consider overcoming the compulsive nature of humanity as the highest form of liberation.
Isolation vs. Escapism
Now that we’ve looked at isolation in some detail, let us try to answer a common misconception: Is isolation a form of escapism? The answer is no and yes; the devil is in the details. What matters is the intent behind the need to isolate. Escapism is fundamentally skirting our own responsibilities by checking out of life when it gets hard. In the same vein, conscious isolation is about taking a step away from life and observing it within a mental space that is not tainted by external influences, thereby allowing us to consciously realize that life is hard. Escaping from life leaves no possibility of remediation, leading to the problems of life festering into an unsolvable monstrosity. Rather, if we recede from life with an intent to understand its problems, the solutions, often simple in nature, would manifest themselves as we gain more clarity. In short, though the two ideas - isolation and escapism, in effect are the same in action, they are diametrically opposite when it comes to intent.
There hasn’t been another time in the history of humanity in which conscious isolation has been such an essential weapon in the arsenal for human growth. As the world is coming closer at a rapid pace, a clear understanding of the self is necessary to balance out the constant and unbridled invasion of our private spaces, of which our mind is the last defence. It is our responsibility as sovereign individuals to ensure that we do not fall victim to the exploitation of cognitive biases. Through conscious isolation, we can train our minds to remain unperturbed in the face of constant bombardment with manipulative information, and develop the emotional stability to behave rationally.
Unfortunately, the term isolation has a negative connotation to it. This has to do with the mental health problems that arise due to the isolation that is either not willful, or induced by an already diseased mind. The reason I didn’t talk about such aspects of isolation is because I am not a mental health expert - the viewpoints I espouse in this post are mostly experiential and inferential, and do not have an extensive scientific basis (unless cited). Therefore, please read it with a grain of salt.