From Overwhelm to Awareness: Cultivating Conscious Living in a Noisy World

16 April 2024
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Look at you in action! Hunched over, eyes glued to your screen, scanning this article. Any second now, a text will pop up. You’ll start juggling chatting and reading.

Then a couple of social media notifications will chime in, one or two emails and a funny video from a friend.

As you read, you’ll stumble upon a new idea or concept and head over to Google for a quick search.

You’re standing on the edge of the digital river, gripping a branch.

Caught in the relentless digital flow of constant social media updates, news alerts, and advertisements, you struggle to absorb as much as possible without knowing what you should keep or what to let float by.

Ten years ago, I wasn’t standing on the riverbank. I was neck-deep in the river, drowning in the irrelevant, worthless information.

Exhaustion threatening to pull me under. Then, just as I was about to surrender, a spark of self-preservation kicked in.

Using the last strength I had left, I somehow broke free from the current and swim to safety.

Back on the riverbank, I swore to filter out the noise. Only embrace information that serves a real purpose, to embrace practical skills that solve problems or strengthen the bonds with those I care about.

In this article, I will share how I managed to both change and sustain a healthy mindset in an overwhelming information age, until it became second nature.

We will also explore the role of input, memories, and consciousness and delve into how they contribute to curating and shaping a fulfilling human experience.

Exploring Consciousness

Imagine, you’re on a basketball court, ball in hand, ready to shoot. But it’s not just you and nine other players. There are 200 other players, each with a ball, running around, dribbling, passing, and shooting.

It’s a madness of motion, a cacophony of bouncing balls and squeaking sneakers. This consuming reality defines our digital existence.

Every day, like clockwork, most of us allow over 200 app notifications to derail our attention.

Our relentless phone addiction has transformed us into modern-day versions of “Pavlov’s Dogs,” compulsively reaching for our devices, a staggering 144 times each day.

I felt stuck in my current situation. I had turned my consciousness into a puppet, and the noise was pulling the strings.

I wanted to write my story, but my mind was blank, devoid of any words to express my thoughts.

I wanted to change, but I couldn’t even envision what change looked like.

Desperate to break free from my destructive habits, I turned to philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience for answers.

I was drowning in a sea of unanswered questions. Each one pulling me deeper into confusion, when a question that has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries grabbed my attention.

What is consciousness?

As I dwelt deeper into this mysterious ability to experience feelings, sensations, and thoughts as integrated wholes, two more life-changing questions emerged.

How do I broaden my consciousness?

What part does my level of acceptance play in its expansion?

I realized that expanding consciousness isn’t like blowing up a balloon. It’s more about letting in the right amount of air.

How do I cultivate conscious living in a noisy world filled with information overload? What does this process look like?

What Consciousness is Not

Consciousness is not a passive receptor of information.

It’s not a detached, static or unchangeable observer.

Consciousness is not a solitary process, independent of our senses.

The accumulation of information, or hoarding of facts.

The Potential of Consciousness

Understanding consciousness is like trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. It’s the silent conductor behind our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, but we can’t show it to anyone else.

A mystery, born from the billions of electrical sparks in our brain. A remarkable interplay between stimuli memories and stories we tell ourselves.

Consciousness is present, yet no scientific theory can fully explain it.

I see consciousness as an explorer, not a collector. It’s not merely the accumulation information or hoarding facts.. It’s an active adventurer, not a lone spectator.

It doesn’t absorb, but interacts with thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environmental cues.

Without consciousness I cannot understand, interpret, or react to these experiences.

When I expand my consciousness, I become more aware of my inner world (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and the outer world (environment, relationships).

New perspectives, ideas, and experiences challenges my existing worldview, which includes abandoning my old ways of living.

It is through the development of consciousness that I gain a better connection and understanding of who I am, my values, and my place in the world.

Consciousness is a spotlight I control. Initially, I only illuminate a small irrelevant area in front of me. Expanding it, I widen the beam of the spotlight, allowing me to see a larger and more complex and relevant picture.

New thoughts, perspectives, and experiences started occupying my mental landscape, creating a different map than the one I was used to.

With the new map, it’s clear that there is no one answer, and I am still far from understanding the complexity of consciousness.

I discovered that my brain is the ultimate converter, taking information from the world around me and transforming it into mental models so I can make sense of the world.

When I cut my finger, I don’t experience the sensation of pain in my finger itself, but in my brain.

The magic of tasting that sweet chocolate and its smooth texture melting on my tongue occurs in the brain, not in my mouth.

The bright, vibrant world I see isn’t out there, but constructed inside my brain.

When light waves hit my eyes, they tickle little cells that respond by sending a flurry of electrical messages to my brain. My brain then deciphers these messages, and voilà! I see the image in front of me.

As I type these words, the aroma of my wife’s coffee fills the air. The tiny whiffs of the brew reaches my nostrils. Receptors rush signals to my brain. In an instant, it sketches the smell of familiar coffee. The entire scenario takes place inside my head.

What I experience through my senses does rarely mirror the true nature of things.

My conscious experience does not expose objective reality, but instead provides a simplified version of reality that allows me to make decisions and navigate my environment.

While my brain takes in raw details from the world through my senses, my consciousness acts as a vibrant stage where my thoughts, feelings, and experiences come to life. It’s a mesmerizing drama that paints a vivid picture of how I see myself and my understanding of the world around me.

Without this interplay between the external world stimulating my senses and my consciousness, there would be no information to process. No interaction to ignite the spark of consciousness, and no experiences to weave the tapestry of my being.

Everything I’ve witnessed, the joy and the pain, the fear, shame, the people I’ve loved and despised, the longing and belonging, the dreams I’ve chased, the secrets I kept, the sunsets I’ve watched. It is all influenced and limited by what I allow into my consciousness.

The inputs I had been feeding my mind were like ingredients for a recipe. I was not satisfied with the dish I tasted – it was time for me to revise most of the ingredients I had been using.

The Role of Acceptance in Expanding Consciousness

I found that the moment I accepted something into my consciousness; I created fresh memories, which formed my identity.

My willingness to accept or reframe information defines the limits of my consciousness. This shapes my understanding of myself and the world around me.

An idea was born: perhaps setting boundaries on what I allow into my consciousness isn’t such a bad thing?

Most societal norms have a negative affect on my health and relationships.

I’ve made some major changes in my life and stopped doing most of the things that are considered “normal.”

The only way I know that I exist as a conscious being, the only way I suffer, is through the experience of my consciousness.

Reduced Attention Span and Focus

My brain is naturally wired to pay attention to novel stimuli.

The constant pings and notifications from my phones were creating a distracting symphony, diverting my attention from what matters.

Over time, this led to a shortened attention span and shallow interaction with information, making it difficult to improve my life.

Information Overload

I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information I allowed into my consciousness.

I spent years drowning in a flood of information, without ever retaining anything of value; doing any deep work or learning effectively was futile.

To guard against information overload and improve my quality of life, I stopped watching the news, reading newspapers, and quit social media. As a result, much of the world’s noise no longer reaches my consciousness.

Seneca famously said; “Life is short, but it’s long if you know what to do with it.”

He was onto something, even if he was painting with broad strokes.

Today, it is not enough to know what I want to do with my life.

If I want to spend my days doing meaningful work, reading and writing. I must block out everything that is “normal” to consume.

Impaired Decision-Making

I type “motivation” into the Google search engine, and one of the first questions that comes up is: “Why do I feel unmotivated and tired all the time?”

The abundance of information was like an “all you can eat buffet.”

Overwhelmed by this information overload, I made impulsive decisions instead of using my mental energy to process relevant information. This left me feeling sluggish, mentally fatigued, and unmotivated.

Checking social media or watching a quick video triggered a dopamine release. I realized I did not differ from the addicts I was caring for as a nurse.

When I cut off the constant flow of information, a fog lifted from my mind. My mental clarity and focus became better than ever before.

Today, I am equally mindful of the information I consume, as I am mindful of the food I eat.

Negative Impact on Emotions and Well-Being

In six years of teaching high school, I’ve seen the impact of social media algorithms on mental health. Interacting with each other constructively becomes increasingly difficult, eroding our fundamental human skills.

We are in the dark about the long-term effects of our toxic interaction with information overload.

Curated online feeds expose us to negativity bias. Social comparison on social media and apps like snapchat feeds children and teenagers with a crippling fear of missing out.

Our dysfunctional use of social media and apps directly links to low self-esteem, anxiety, low mood, and poor mental health.

The American sociologist, Charles Horton Cooley, had a simple yet profound way of putting it:

“I am not who I think I am,

I am not who you think I am.

I am who I think you think I am.”

This is the game we play on social media and in life.

On social media, likes, comments, and follower counts shapes how we see ourselves.

In reality, we work an unhealthy amount of hours to buy things we don’t need, but desire, to fit the image we think others expect of us to be.

Some of my habits have created more of an advantage than others. Quitting social media and mindless internet consumption is one of them.

Sacrificing Creativity and Contributing

When the first iPhone came out, I instantly found myself immersed in the vortex of ceaseless scrolling and clicking. However, I soon realized that this constant consumption was one-sided.

I was a mindless consumer, not contributing any original ideas or adding any value.

Approximately 99%, of us are content consumers.

Less than 1% of internet users create content, and less than 0.01% of them have over a million followers.

Children spend nearly 7.5 years of their life glued to their phone.

Young adults aged 21-27 waste over six hours a day with no meaningful output.

Wasting 6- 7 years of your life… is considered normal in today’s society.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The considerable time young adults spend scrolling mindless information, has an unjustifiable price.

It’s a slow death, sinking, one scroll at a time, one swipe at the time.

I can mindlessly scroll through my phone, barely registering the multitude of posts and updates, or I can decide to not let it into my consciousness.

Instead of passively consuming, I actively create, adding value even if it’s just for one person.

By shifting my focus from mindlessly scrolling to purposefully creating, I make a difference. The decision rests solely in my hands.

Disrupted Sleep Patterns

In the United States, about 30% of adults have symptoms of insomnia, with 10% having insomnia that affects their daily activities.

The data for children and young adults is unclear.

In my six years of interacting with young adults every morning, I’ve noticed that a significant amount of poor sleep can be linked to three factors.

The blue light emitted from phone screens, or staying up late in artificial light, suppresses melatonin production, a hormone that regulates sleep and deep sleep.

Social media feeds, with their constant updates and notifications, create more sleepless nights for teenagers than domestic violence.

Watching exciting shows, action movies, or playing video games before bed are stimulating the fight-or-flight system. This keeps the body and brain active, making it difficult to relax and sleep.

Online arguments on platforms like Twitter or Facebook are notorious for their ability to evoke strong emotions.

Input matters, as it disrupts sleep cycles, leads to fatigue, decreased cognitive function, poor focus, and low motivation.

Millions of teenagers and young adults wake up groggy, barely able to open their eyes. The only thing that gets them out of bed is the promise of that first caffeine hit and sugar. So, they gulp down their favorite drink, loaded with 300 mg of caffeine accompanied by a sugary snack.

A few hours later, their brain becomes fuzzy. To sustain their energy, they turn to more caffeine and sugary snacks. This cycle repeats itself, all while they continuously scroll throughout the day.

The only way to stop this is by tuning out the noise of the outside world and create a healthy sleep routine.

Weakened Ability to Be Present

Look up from your screen and see what’s happening around you. The constant connection to the digital world has made it difficult to be present in the moment and connect with others.

Studies suggest that loneliness persists even with social interaction if those interactions lack depth or a sense of belonging.

To see two teenagers hang out after TikTok entered our lives is heartbreaking.

Instead of engaging with each other, they bury their heads in their phones and disappear down the infinity pool.

Initially, I couldn’t understand how anyone put up with this level of disconnection. But then I realized – they tolerate it so that they can be left to their own devices.

Many parents have embraced the social norm of giving their toddlers a digital device, allowing themselves to scroll on their phones.

The constant digital noise follows us everywhere, invading our meals, walks, and even our moments of rest in bed. This decreases the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication, making it harder to connect on a deeper level and build strong emotional bonds.

When me or my wife are scrolling while together, we are sending a clear signal:

Something else is more important than being present in the moment with you.

Roughly half of partnered adults report their phone often distracts their partner during conversations.

While it might look like a harmless habit, being glued to my phone during a conversation damages my relationships.

Psychologist Emma Seppälä explains that using our phones to connect with others ironically pushes away the people we’re physically present with.

I keep my phone in a separate room or in my bag, out of sight and reach.

When I go for a walk with my wife, I leave my phone at home.

Healthy relationships cannot coexist with an intrusive overload of information.

Memories and Consciousness: The Chicken or the Egg?

My memories and consciousness are two sides of the same coin, constantly influencing each other. It’s unclear what event should be considered the cause and which should be considered the effect.

My memories color how I see the world now. A frightening childhood experience where I drowned made me apprehensive around water as an adult.

After becoming a father, my kids and I built the most elaborate sandcastles and splashed around in the waves. Every time the sea comes to mind, I see nothing but their wide smiles and hear the sound of their laughter merging with the waves. It’s a happy memory, full of joy.

I have the power to control the constant exchange of memories and consciousness.

Ever misplaced something, searched for it in a room, left, and found it in the obvious place when you returned? Observing a phenomenon and even the way I observe it, changes the phenomenon itself.

Consciousness is not a passive observer merely recording experiences, but an active participant influencing those experiences. I have the power to shape how I perceive, interpret, and how I respond to events, changing the experiences themselves.

I have the ability to convert a neutral event into a positive or negative experience.

I’m the gatekeeper of my mind. Nothing uninvited stays for long, without my say-so.

If I change my input by altering my consciousness and the world I inhabit, the million-dollar question becomes:

How do I achieve this?

Cultivating Consciousness: The Roadmap to Self-improvement and Personal growth

Consciousness is being awake and aware of everything in a physical space, including the furniture and people entering and exiting the room.

Self-consciousness is the focused attention on the self within that room – observing any thoughts, feelings, and interactions with the surroundings.

How can I understand myself if I am unable to spend two hours alone, without a relentless flow of information filling my head?

To live a good life, I must cultivate both consciousness and self-consciousness.

Consciousness allows me to appreciate the present moment, manage stress, and experience life more fully.

Self-consciousness helps me develop a strong sense of self, understand my values, and navigate relationships with more empathy.

A word of caution and a potential Downside I struggled with for many years…

Self-consciousness is being aware of being aware. While it is a powerful tool, it also leads to harsh self-evaluation and judgment.

Excessive self-consciousness, accompanied by judgment, leads to social awkwardness, anxiety, and difficulty taking risks.

For many years, my self-consciousness stifled my ability to feel comfortable in my skin and authentically connect with others.

To truly excel or produce something remarkable, I must be in the “zone.” This requires letting go of everything else, including self-awareness, also called being in flow.

Final Thoughts

An entire generation is no longer dipping their toes in the torrent of digital information. They are neck deep, struggling to keep their heads above water.

Things aren’t ok. Kids and teens are drowning in a flood of pointless information.

The problem isn’t the flood of information, endless app alerts, or a lack of motivation. They’re just signs of a deeper issue.

Cleaning up my thoughts and improving my thinking isn’t about stuffing more into my head. It’s about having the courage to understand that less is more and not letting anything destructive enter my consciousness.

Without a space to inhabit in my consciousness, destructive elements started to wither and die.

Once I cleared away the distractions, I experienced life with more intention and fulfillment.

Having an opinion doesn’t necessarily indicate a well-functioning brain. More often, it means expressing a viewpoint on an unfamiliar topic.

After a year of eliminating distractions from my life, my cognitive function improved. I began to recognize the bias and flaws in my own opinions.

If you’re not ready to quit social media, stop watching YouTube videos, listening to podcast, audiobooks and watch 10 seasons of your favorite Netflix series that is OK, but now this:

You’re not destined to get lost in the vast river of digital noise.

You’re meant to savor the richness of the world.

You hold the key to inviting fullness into your life.

The only remaining important question is:

Are you willing to create space for the richness and fullness in your life, or will you keep tolerating the noise?

Thank you for reading this far. You are among the 1% who finish what they start.

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