Matt Niswonger
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The power of no mind

That day I realized I am a slave to a little black screen I carry in my pocket (Cathy Claesson).

Lately I have been spending a great deal of time in the ocean, surfing with my middle son Lukas, who is thirteen. He is going through a phase where he wants to surf as much as possible, and I’m stoked to spend quality time together. Some days I feel motivated to catch as many waves as possible, but usually it’s fun to just relax in the lineup and watch Lukas ride waves. His skill level has long since surpassed mine, and I’m happy to just soak in the beauty of nature from a magic place: floating in the ocean while looking back at land.

Recently I had an insight while surfing with Lukas. The deep feeling of relaxation that was rejuvenating me was connected to the fact that I was in a neutral state of mind and just absorbing my surroundings with very little interpretation, similar to looking at art or listening to music. Meanwhile my iPhone was back on shore, out of reach. Surfing was forcing me to take a break from my smartphone, and that felt good.

Then I wondered if there was anything on my phone that needed attention. I had to admit I was curious. Had any important emails come through? Were people responding to my business and personal Facebook or Instagram posts? Had President Trump tweeted anything shocking or outrageous that I should know about? What was trending? Suddenly, my sense of relaxation vanished. I need to look at my phone, I thought to myself.

That day, floating on my surfboard, I admitted to myself for the first time that I am an iPhone addict. Yes I occasionally need the stupid thing for business, but I am constantly checking it, even though it often robs me of peace of mind. That’s the textbook definition of addiction: doing something over and over again even though you know it’s bad for you.

I also thought about how often I pause in the middle of a mountain bike ride or a climbing gym session just to respond to a text. Can that text wait thirty minutes until my workout is over? Sure, but I still respond immediately because I am a full-blown slave to a little black screen I carry in my pocket. I am reminded of a scene from Lord of the Rings. “The ring is precious to me; I need to have it.” said Gollum over and over. Then he proceeded to choke out his best friend.

One of my earliest memories as a child was blowing out the candles on my birthday cake after wishing for the most valuable thing I could imagine: happiness. I purposely did not wish for the second most valuable thing I could imagine: money. Forty years later I am still fascinated with human happiness and how to create it for others and myself. Along with my wife Cathy, I started Adventure Sports Journal sixteen years ago because I had a spiritual epiphany while climbing in Yosemite: adventure opens the door to my imagination, and imagination is the royal road to happiness. As I noted in my last article (The Adventure Path, issue # 98), power is the direct product of adventure. While feeling powerful we have greater access to our imagination, and outdoor recreation with calculated risk makes the entire sequence possible.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1990s cult classic Fight Club. Somewhat disturbing and completely unforgettable, the movie is a Jekyll and Hyde allegory about a man wrestling with two sides of himself; the disempowered Jack (Edward Norton) and the uber-powerful Tyler played by Brad Pitt. Working a corporate cubicle job, the pathetic Jack is really a social commentary about the disempowering nature of society itself, a daily path of hunched over disillusionment and despair.

In contrast, Tyler Durden is a badass who lives in the moment. He starts a fight club to help Jack access power, imagination, and happiness. The movie has many twists and turns, and in the end Jack rejects certain aspects of Tyler. In the late 1990s many critics found certain aspects of the movie offensive, but I think Fight Club is brilliant social commentary that has grown increasingly relevant over time.

Tyler’s fight club heals Jack, in much the same way a regular practice of adventure sports is healing in real life.

The author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, is a graduate of the Landmark Forum, a self-help education program that I also completed. Through this shared connection I deeply relate to the broader meaning of the biting social commentary that makes his book (and the movie) so poignant.

Here is how I interpret Fight Club: Tyler Durden represents a powerful version of myself, struggling to emerge. To help me uncover my truest self, a self that is incredibly powerful and effective, outdoor activities like trail running, cycling, surfing, skiing and climbing are available. These activities, pursued on a regular basis, will expose and increase a savage effectiveness that is essentially a superhuman version of me.

In order for us to give birth to our own version of Tyler Durden, many of us need to spend less time on our smartphones. There is nothing powerful or cool about seeing how many likes or comments we have on Facebook. The whole game is fine in limited doses, but eventually it becomes disempowering.

My insight while surfing that day was this: Tyler can’t thrive in our daily lives without a regular practice of no mind (AKA the unattached mind), or the absence of interpretation. Outdoor recreation gives our brains a chance to rest, to reset to a default state of power and effectiveness because we are forced to just be in the moment without constantly interpreting the moment. Music and art is also helpful in this regard. Our lives are increasingly complex, and so we are already using our tired brains constantly. Add smartphones to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. Now you have taken away every sliver of mental recovery time during the day and filled it with likes, tweets, comments, shares, emails, photos, and videos. No wonder it feels disempowering. Tired brains are not powerful.

So the net effect of all this smartphone addiction is that we are reducing the benefits of outdoor sports and other empowerment activities like art and music that we pursue. Basically we are draining our mental resources into a social media app while Facebook is laughing all the way to the bank.

Is excessive smartphone usage a national mental health crisis, or am I just projecting? Feel free to send me an email: Just don’t expect me to respond right away. I’m taking a break from my smartphone until further notice and will mostly be working from my laptop.

— Matt Niswonger