Overcoming addiction – whether to smartphones, messaging, video watching, Internet surfing, gaming, pornography, drugs, or any of the world’s allurements – is to overcome the nafs. And the first thing the salik knows about the nafs is that it is easily fooled. For the spirit to rise, we use the intellect to rein in the ego.
Never before in history have anonymity, convenience, and immorality come together so seamlessly as they do now. What was once only possible with effort and planning is now readily available at our fingertips. Shame is no longer a factor, whether messaging that barbed comment, reading ghiba, or viewing the illicit.
Am I Addicted?
—We almost engage in anything impermissible, even if for a single moment, to say nothing of actually engaging in the impermissible. If one is willing to risk the Hellfire, be sure that the ego and its caprice have run away with one’s intellect.
—We occupy our days and nights with distraction at the expense of health, relationships, and work. Whatsapp, Facebook, video watching, and non-work email are the most common.
—We miss prayers in the mosque or meals with the family to do “just one last thing.”
—Even when we are not engaged in the addictive activity, we are mentally tethered to it. When we stand in prayer or sit at mealtime, our thoughts are cluttered with dunya.
If these or similar signs are now regular features of our lives, we may be addicted.
Eliminating the Bad: The First Forty Days
We now turn to Allah by rising for Tahajjud and offering the Prayer of Repentance, Prayer of Need, and Prayer of Guidance in succession, begging and pleading Allah for a new beginning. We now resolve to change forever. Being given tawfique to apprehend that there is a problem is a gift in itself. But a gift soon squandered if not acted upon.
We summon our courage and determination – indeed, our anger – to meet our enemies square in the face: the ego and its caprice, the Devil, and this world. Fooled long enough by them, we now have the high resolve to anticipate their machinations before we are brought under their sway.
To overcome our brain’s dopamine addiction we begin by first eliminating the bad:
—We first acknowledge that there is an addiction, because acknowledging the problem is often half the solution.
—For forty days, we remove the source of the addiction, typically the screen: computers, mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, televisions, cameras, and the like. No one needs them – certainly not one
whose addiction is fed by them – and everyone once lived without them. “Remove” here means to remove the device itself from the home, not merely turning it off. Use a landline for communication, the office or library for email, and a mobile phone with a screen no larger than a postage stamp in case of an emergency on the road. Henceforth, until we are forty days free of our addiction, we vow never to look at a screen unless we are at work. If one finds this extreme, consider the success of non- Muslim alcoholics who never touch a drop of alcohol again: if you don’t want to slip, the saying goes, don’t go where it’s slippery. Not having access to the means that enable one’s habit often eliminates the habit itself. Without performing this one step, the addiction is here to stay.
—Our five senses send powerful subliminal signals to the brain throughout the day. What we see, smell, hear, touch, and taste deeply affect how we think and what we do. Studies show that powerful habits consist of a cue, routine, and reward. In order to eliminate a bad habit, often only the cue needs to be changed. Location and timing are two of the most powerful reinforcing cues. Immediately take the following steps:
1. Schedule an out-of-town trip lasting one to four weeks. Hajj, Umrah, a visit to the Hayy, or camping are ideal. Do not take your laptop or mobile.
2. The day before the trip make two important changes to the location and timing of your addiction so that you eliminate the old physically-triggered behavioral patterns:
a. Location: Permanently move the location where your addiction occurs — the computer, for instance — to a less frequented location other than where you normally use it
b. Timing: Reschedule and batch usage (described below), ensuring that the previous timing is now occupied by a new event and the new timing is followed by an immovable event. For example, if you were used to checking email at night before sleeping, now check email thirty minutes before the midday prayer.
3. Once on the trip, do not look at a single screen, even if only to check messages. During your trip, take up a new activity that you continue with after you return: start learning Arabic, a new fitness regimen, or a useful craft.
—Often addiction is merely another form of escape. Sit down with pen and paper and list all the stresses in your life, resolving to address each to the best of your ability with Allah’s help and returning to Allah in slavehood for those stresses beyond your control.
Bringing in the Good
We turn to Allah by bringing in the good:
—Perfect your prayer, checking every nafsanic urge to think about “the next thing.”
—If you are not married, get married, and be not friendless. Invite friends over regularly and share a meal. Loneliness and addiction often go hand in hand. If you are married, be best friends: enjoy each other’s company, ask after each other, organize outdoor activities, and so on. Every day ask your spouse, “How did you get to be so (insert quality)?” Much of our happiness and sadness is tied to this one relationship, so give it its due. If you have children, spend meaningful time with them.
—Exercise outdoor daily. There is no better activity than walking fifteen to twenty-five thousand steps daily for overall fitness; one hour in the morning and walks to the mosque make this achievable. Complement walking with strength work and Chi Kung.
—Improve your diagnostic ability by keeping a written account of any slips or close calls throughout the day, noting location, time, and circumstance.
—Begin a gratitude journal, writing one thing you are grateful for in your life at the beginning of each day.
—Before performing the Supreme Name at night, listen to a couple of minutes of mudhakara.
After the First Forty Days
—Keep the mobile and computer off: Place them in a hard to reach closet and switch them on only when absolutely necessary, ideally no more than one hour per day or as work permits. Limit the number of entire days (not merely hours) that devices are actually on. For instance, check messages and email on fixed days at set times (e.g. Mondays and Thursdays at 9 am). It is easier to avoid distractions when the device is completely off (not merely in “sleep” mode) than when one is already on and trying to discipline oneself. Once on, limit the amount of time the device is actually used by scheduling it between two recurring activities that force one to turn it off, for instance, between Asr and leaving the office.
—Ban blog reading and social networking: The Internet is people, and words are the fullest expression of a person. Sit on a blog or social networking site like Facebook or Twitter and you sit with these people. Unless not reading a particular blog, article, or social networking site seriously compromises your work or your ability to minimally maintain ties, or puts you and your family in life-threatening danger, ban all blog reading and social networking. If it is a work requirement, then have posts emailed to you; surfing these sites itself invites a host of other avoidable problems. If you must read something longer than a few pages, print it out.
—Reduce accessibility: For every message sent, expect 1.5 to 2 in return. The multiplicative effect of this is unsustainable. If you do not answer emails right away, people will soon figure you out. No one will be seriously offended, especially if you are cordial in person or over the phone. “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferriss provides recommendations for those looking to streamline administrative work.
—Get a life: Most of the problems of digital social media fall away when replaced with real social interaction. If you have a life, you are less likely to waste it away on a computer. Move to a community where the focus is suluk. Live among murids. If not possible, move to a country where murids live within walking distance of one another. Driving to visit one another limits the kind of natural interaction that fosters community, so take steps to live in a walkable neighborhood, either sharing an apartment block, living together in a cluster of homes, or building on an empty plot of land.
—Read books on paper.
Special Considerations for Smartphone Users
If you have a smartphone, you are likely addicted to it. Nomophobia, or fear of being without access to a working mobile phone, is now a word in the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. According to a recent UK poll, 66% of those surveyed say they “fear losing or being without their phone.”
With a smartphone you are mentally and emotionally tethered to it throughout the day, whether it is on or off, like a rat waiting for its next cocaine pellet. You started off with a few innocent emails and apps and now you are on multiple WhatsApp groups dutifully responding to messages lest you offend.
This preoccupation — lasting what seems only minutes or hours of the day — comes with a mental, emotional, and spiritual preoccupation that is unrelenting; cluttering our day with random, circular thoughts and filling our nights with fitful sleep. Our brain never stops. Our heart never rests. And our soul dies a slow death.
So what should we do?
Use a sensible combination of a landline with voicemail and a wired laptop. Eliminate the smartphone altogether and replace it with a non-smartphone that remains off except for urgent use when a landline is not possible. It may be the single best decision you make in your life.
Here are some practical recommendations that should cover the busiest individual through twenty- four hours in all locations:
—Landline: Use a landline to make and receive on-site calls, letting it go to voicemail when you are busy. Landline means an ordinary phone connected to a network by wire — not a cordless phone, the radiation from which might even be worse than a mobile phone’s.
—Wired Laptop: Use a wired laptop for online conversations, email, and messaging. Check email and messages at limited, set times of the day, scheduled between two important activities (e.g. prayer and mealtime). Eliminate wi-fi from your home.
—Batch Messaging: If eliminating messaging from your life is not possible, batch messaging to once or twice a day. Get off message groups unless absolutely necessary. Use a mobile only for urgent, important, off-site calls and voicemail checking. Otherwise, keep it turned off and let calls go to voicemail. Stop using a mobile phone in the house, especially if you have children, except for a few minutes of the most unavoidable communication. Avoid using Bluetooth headsets and hands-free headphones with your mobile which, according to some studies, magnify radiation exposure. For calls over a minute, place the mobile on a table and use the speakerphone. While out, keep it in a bag and off your body, ideally inside a radiation shield case (available at LessEMF).
And Allah knows best.