Mind the Stream: Where Technology and Mindfulness Meet
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” – Mary Oliver
It’s Sunday morning, and my puppy is curled up in my lap, as she often is. The rainfall outside has subsided for now, replaced only by the occasional medley of bird calls. The hum of my computer, a familiar sound, seamlessly blends into the background. My phone sits in the other room, unattended, until it pings for my attention. My tablet rests in the closet for now, idling before I dive back into one of the three books it currently stores.
How many devices are bidding for your attention?
Look around you. How many devices are bidding for your attention? If someone came into your dwelling space, could they tell what year it was by the technology that immediately surrounded you, or would they have to dig a little deeper? When was the last time you checked your phone, your email, took a walk outside untethered?
While your answers to these questions might surprise you, what may not is how rarely we ask them. As our relationship with technology continues to advance, so does our dependence on it. We no longer have to make eye contact to carry on a conversation or pick up a newspaper to glean the latest headlines. We can hide our flaws behind filters, or assert our self-confidence with hashtags like #nomakeup. We can raise funds, increase followers, or advocate for a cause we believe in all with a simple swipe, tap, or click.
As social psychologist Adam Alter points out, smartphones give us everything we need to enjoy the moment we’re in, but require little initiative. With information readily available at our fingertips, there’s less incentive to memorize or come up with new ideas. Moreover, as we rely more on our handheld devices to satiate our need for knowledge and connection, we run the risk of scaling back on our time spent with others face-to-face.
Technology as an Escape
Psychotherapist Nancy Colier suggests that while humans have historically developed ways of escaping the moment, particularly when it’s uncomfortable or poses harm, what’s different now is the societal consensus around how we do so: the means of technology as a form of escape has become the accepted contemporary norm.
Is it possible, therefore, to be more mindful in our use of products that we habitually rely on to distract us? Mindfulness, or an awareness of the emerging present without judgment, has been growing in popularity, but seems to be absent when it comes to our digital dependence. Endless scrolling through apps like Twitter and Facebook hardly call on us to tune into each moment as it unfolds. A 2017 study by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of millennials worry about the negative impacts of social media on their physical and mental health. And for good reason: according to a 2017 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 66 percent of Americans have witnessed online harassment, while 41 percent have experienced it themselves.
Nearly 41% of us have behavioural addiction
Sherry Turkle, an MIT Professor and psychologist, points out that her students will often email her instead of coming to office hours. In fact, the more office hours she holds, the fewer students show up. Turkle fears that these students are trying to hide their imperfections and vulnerabilities behind their screens, and views it as a sign that we’ve become too dependent on our devices to get us through life’s ups and downs.
But it’s not only the younger generations that seek a sense of security from their pocket companions. A 2011 study suggested that nearly 41 percent of us have a behavioral addiction, that number sure to have grown with the increase of social media platforms, smartphones, and tablets. By design, such technology is meant to catch our attention, and sustain it. It’s easy to see how we’ve become a culture caught up by likes and shares, one that struggles to appreciate the here-and-now of our experience.
When I traveled to the West Coast last month, I watched passengers around me scroll through social media feeds, as if oblivious of the opportunity for human connection and conversation that surrounded them. A young woman across the aisle snapped selfies with a mesmerizing nonchalance. There was an outlet at every seat, and free wi-fi was available in each cabin. When did we begin prioritizing plugging-in over free meals and extra leg room, I wondered?
As I made my way through the coastal beaches, parks, and gardens, I was driven by alternating desires to capture the beauty that lay before me through the lens of my camera or to simply witness it, undocumented, relying only on my five senses and mental snapshots. As an avid photographer, I couldn’t resist the former, but as a mindfulness practitioner I was captivated by the latter.
I knew I couldn’t digitize the salty ocean air or warm autumn sun. I couldn’t recreate the tall meadow grasses, that gave way to wet sand, that turned to cool, thick forest all in a single hike. I certainly couldn’t capture the conversation with strangers turned friends, who shared my journey. I could only savor it, as I experienced it, and know that was enough.
The present moment is worthy of our full attention, whether we’re washing the dishes, or marveling at a beautiful sunset. For all the positive purposes technology serves, our reliance on it carries the danger of compromising our awareness of what’s happening around us at any given time.
Consider this: on a typical workday, 85 percent of us are constantly or often digitally connected, by email, text, and social media. On a non-workday, the percentage falls only to 81. We can reduce the grasp our cellphones, tablets, laptops, and social media accounts have on the present moment by using them more mindfully, and by starting to acknowledge the hold they so often have on us.
David M. Levy, author of Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives and a professor at University of Washington recommends a beginner’s practice of just thinking about your cell phone (without taking it out), and notice what’s happening in your mind and body. Then, take it out and just look at it. Next, open it up or unlock it, and look at your email, but don’t read anything yet. Then, read a message and possibly respond to it. Finally, turn your phone off and put it away.
Can I refrain?
During each of these steps, pay attention to your breath, posture, emotional reaction, and the quality of your attention. Identify any patterns. Ask yourself what they tell you about your relationship with your cell phone. Do your answers suggest any ways you might want to start using it differently? “I think there’s a lot of learning that comes from seeing the way that our strong emotions drive us to do certain things unconsciously, so being able to become more aware of our emotional responses can be very powerful,” Levy says.
The next time you’re tempted to use technology, Colier suggests asking yourself, “Can I refrain? If I don’t use, what then will I have to feel?” followed by, “What is happening right here, right now, inside me and outside me? What’s arising that makes me want to distract myself?” Through this exercise, you can start practicing mindfulness simply by noticing your urge to use technology, and use that awareness to become conscious of your desire to escape the moment. This allows you to pause before you act.
The 2017 study by the American Psychological Association found that more Americans are employing “technology usage management” strategies, such as prohibiting cellphone use during dinner and family time, and taking occasional “digital detoxes”. Turkle suggests adopting technology-free zones and times, such as the kitchen, the bedroom, and the car, and during mealtimes, children’s swim meets and ball games, and when picking your children up from school.
Mindfulness does not mean accepting each moment as perfect or even desirable; yet our photos, posts, and status updates can paint an image of our lives untarnished. Before you go to engage online, see whom you can engage with in your present surroundings. Before you update your status, think about the message you’re trying to convey, and the present pain or discomfort you might be trying to avoid. Before you try to capture nature’s beauty on a 5-inch screen, rely on your 5 senses. Pause to take it all in, and let that be enough.
Mindful Tech, by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review/ 2016
When Escaping the Moment is the New Moment: The Power of Off, by Nancy Colier, Yoga Journal/ 2016
Why We Can’t Look Away From Our Screens, by Claudia Dreifus, The New York Times/ 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/06/science/technology-addiction-irresistible-by-adam-alter.html
Where Not to Use Your Phone, by Olga Khazan, The Atlantic/ 2017 https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/06/where-not-to-use-your-phone/532053/
Save Your Sanity. Downgrade Your Life., by Pamela Paul, The New York Times/ 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/opinion/sunday/technology-downgrade-sanity.html