The morning air is still crisp. Buddhist monks, clad in saffron robes, line the front row as a room of people unroll their mats, sit down Indian-style and close their eyes. A hush spreads, and meditation at the retreat begins.
The monks chant in an ancient language, which resonates and echoes against the walls, helping everyone to focus their thoughts. And as the last verse drifts into silence, the room is quiet again, a cocoon of serenity. And then, a phone rings — a familiar marimba chime of an iPhone.
A couple of people open their eyes, but a few more stir in their seats. As the ring continues, no one goes to shut it off.
If this was an orchestra concert, someone would be reprimand by the conductor. If this was a movie theater, other patrons groan and whisper quips about rudeness in the darkness. But this is a meditation retreat, and monks do things a bit differently here. As they stay placid, eyes half-closed, it seems as if they’re ignoring the persistent ring. But then, I notice — no, it’s as if it never heard it in the first place.
The others take the cue and ignore it, too. And soon, the ringing becomes blends into the hum of the world around us. It’s neither the most important, nor the most urgent, sound anymore — just another element that fades into the background, like the buzz of the fluorescent light bulb or the whir of the refrigerator that clicks on in the next room.
We emerge from the room feeling at peace and relaxed, and interestingly enough, most people leave their phones unchecked. Instead, we quietly talk to one another, and stretch or put our shoes on. Then, a few phones begin to come alive with texts. But they’re either ignored or glanced at and quickly put away. We’re all eager to keep the cocoon of serenity that we just emerged from.
But then, I begin to wonder: is it possible to carry this feeling into everyday life? To exist fully in the moment without letting our devices pull our attention away?
Gadgets are very good at grabbing our attention. Ringtones, an insistent vibration or a chiming notification, they all cut through the chatter of everyday life. But more often than not, we don’t need them to send for us — we’re compulsively gravitated towards them.
In fact, on average, we check our phones 110 times a day, according to NPR. While replying to texts, e-mails and Facebook posts is harmless, compulsive behaviors can be signs to deeper, hidden emotional issues, which can often bubble up in the form of anxiety and stress.
When the phone buzzes, for example, do you jump to pick it up because you don’t want to miss a text? Or is it a deeper issue because you’re afraid of missing out on life?
Since gadgets are our most constant companion throughout the day, a concentrated understanding of our motives for reaching for technology can unmask emotional deficiencies, should there be any, and the reasons behind them.
Meditation, of course, is the practice of stilling the mind and honing our awareness to our surroundings. The mind is full of chatter — reminders to do tasks, thoughts of random people or sights, reflections of the past or plans for the future — that echoes in the brain, never quite taking a break from the steady stream of stimulation that bombards us each day.
Meditation is a useful way to strip out that noise of life, so we can focus on, and become aware of, our reasons for doing things — whether we pick up a phone because we’re afraid of missing a call, or in fact, because we’re afraid of being alone.
By sitting still and focusing — usually on your breath, but perhaps on a mantra, image or sound — meditation can help you see the mental patterns underlying your busy mind, and over time, help to bring any anxiety or distractions to a standstill.
But meditation itself is part of a larger idea: it’s meant to instill what Buddhists and psychologists call “mindfulness,” translated from “sati” in Pali or “smrti” in Sanskrit, and defined as “awareness.” It means a presence that you’re completely there, in the moment — fully awake, without being distracted by thoughts of the past or the future.
In that mental state, free from distraction, we can focus on what’s happening now and calmly acknowledge and accept any feelings, thoughts and sensation. That simple act of taking a moment to check in with emotions and motivations will show not just how you unconsciously use gadgets, but whether you use them to cover up boredom, loneliness, anxiety or even a sense of emptiness inside.
When we feel pent-up emotions, the phone is often the first thing we grab for because instead of understanding the issues beneath the surface, we use gadgets to appease or even push them away.
Practicing mindfulness sounds simple, but it isn’t. Try this: close your eyes, breathe deeply and focus on your breathing. Within minutes, your mind jump to something else: maybe your to-do list, maybe what you’re going to eat for lunch, maybe that strange thing your friend said to you this morning.
Meditation is also hard to fit into our lives. I don’t have an hour in the morning to meditate, like I did at the retreat, and I certainly don’t have the luxury of leaving everyday life behind to chant in the forest for six years, as the historical Buddha did around 400 B.C.
But luckily, you don’t have to meditate like Buddhist monks to benefit from practicing mindfulness. It can be applied to a variety of situations and activities. Japanese Zen masters use mindfulness when they engage in the classic tea ceremony, for example, preparing and serving with great ritual and purpose.
Hatha yoga, meanwhile, uses mindfulness in stretching poses. One basic exercise: focus on the sensations you feel as you do an ordinary activity like washing your dishes or peeling an orange. Anything can be an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness when done with great focus — including how we use our gadgets. Anyone — young or old, Luddite or tech-savvy, man or woman — can benefit by bringing full presence of mind to the everyday moment.
Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University who studied the practice for decades, says it’s not hard to introduce mindfulness in everyday life — it just takes a simple shift in mindset: we need cultivate a sort of “beginner’s mind,” where we regard each experience as new one.
The problem, according to Langer, is that we make assumptions to help us deal with the deluge of information, which our brains then gloss over. We assume certain people, activities and relationships won’t change, and that creates a false sense of certainty that can often lead to trouble.
It’s easy, for example, to take a spouse for granted — we assume we know what they’ll think, say or do, so we stop asking them for their opinion. Instead, we file them away in our brain, so we don’t have to think about them, and can focus on more immediate, pressing matters — like work. But slowly over time, a disconnect builds up between you both, until one day, you realize you no longer know or connect with the stranger staring into their phone, sitting across from you at dinner.
That gap widened, in large part, because you made assumptions about what they would think or how they would feel, and you labored under the illusion that they’d always stay the same so you could put your focus and awareness elsewhere.
In a way, that’s what technology does to our emotions. But instead of making assumptions about our spouses, it’s with our gadgets. We rarely, if ever, stop to ask why we compulsively pick up the phone to glance at Facebook every five minutes. And just like being unable to recognize a spouse across from you at dinner, in this case, the face looking back is your own.
When we make assumptions about how our gadgets work and what they’ll tell us, we stop paying attention to our habits, blind when they turn from pleasant distraction to compulsions.
The solution, as Langer noted, is to look at everything as if it were new, without assumptions. By consciously bringing intention and curiosity to the forefront, approaching everything as new experiences, you can begin to take the first step to loosening stress or anxiety that can have a grip on your life.
“When you think you know something, why bother thinking about it?” Langer said at Kripalu, a meditation center in New York. “Once you recognize that the certainties you have are illusory, that naturally leads you to pay some kind of mindful attention. When you recognize that you don’t know, noticing follows naturally.”
In concrete terms, it boils down to more than just taking a deep breath and a moment to check in with yourself. It means bringing the practice of mindfulness into life to make aware the relationship you have with technology.
So when the phone rings, don’t immediately jump to answer it: let it ring a few times and see if you become impatient. Likewise, when you get the itch to check e-mail, wait a minute or two and notice how you feel. Are you bored? Or perhaps, anxious? Then take note of how that’s changed after you’ve downloaded those messages. While browsing Facebook or Twitter, take a moment to see how you feel as you read.
Are you happy or sad? Maybe jealous? How did you feel before and after you hopped on social media?
If you’re especially ambitious, leave the phone at home and run out for short errands. Notice how you feel — the bodily sensations and emotions that come up. If you’re waiting at a stoplight or simply in line at the store, resist the urge to check the phone and see what the delay creates inside of you.
Are you uneasy? Impatient? Trying not to feel impatient?
With mindfulness, anxiety can often drift away without fixing a thing. Just the act creating the mental space to observe emotions can help transform an unconscious compulsion into an informed decision based on self-awareness.
If you notice persistent patterns — like checking Facebook when we’re lonely instead of calling up friends or loved ones, for example — you may be able to address deeper problems, either on your own or with the help of a professional.
If you recognize an enthusiasm for Facebook masks loneliness, make an informed choice on how to use devices to help: instead of using Facebook, choose to FaceTime chat instead. Or simply go out into the world and explore your interests in another way, with an eye to making friends.
“The notion of mindfulness has much broader meaning than as an Eastern philosophy or for practitioners of Buddhism,” Jim Taylor, a therapist who specializes in mindfulness, wrote in Psychology Today. “In fact, it has tremendous significance for your children growing up in this crazy new world of technology.”
In Buddhism, mindfulness is considered one of the pillars of enlightenment, the seventh “jewel” on the Noble Eightfold Path to nirvana. On a more everyday level, it can help manage stress, get us in touch with ourselves and create and deepen compassion for others. Psychological studies regularly show that engaging in practices that cultivate mindfulness sharpens our memory, enhances our creativity and even boost our happiness.
MRI scans observed by neuroscientists showed that meditation can strengthen the brain by reinforcing the connections between brain cells. And according to a study by UCLA researchers, those who meditate regular develop more folds in the cerebral cortex, which may allow the brain to improve attention, form more memories and process information faster. A separate study linked the increased cortical thickness characteristic of serious Zen practitioners with a decreased sensitivity to pain. Still, some research even shows that meditation can stave off age-related effects on the brain, as well as cognitive decline.
But beyond the physical changes to the brain, meditation can change the nature of its electrical activity by reducing what neuroscientists call default mode network activity and connectivity in the brain — functions that underlie disorders like anxiety and ADHD. Meditating can even increase the type of brainwaves associated with wakeful and relaxed attention.
Not bad for just sitting there, breathing deeply and being in the moment, right?
Gadgets often seem to rule us, instead of the other way around. Beyond making us anxious, phones make it hard to hold a humble, uninterrupted conversation.
We’re saturated with such a deluge of distraction in the form of information and entertainment that we’re distracted from simply being there for friends, family, and even self-reflection. And it makes it easy to be in one place, while our minds are in another, resulting in a feeling of “having no idea where the time went.”
It’s easy to blame our devices for creating stress, fracturing our attention spans and slicing and dicing our memories into shards of impressions. But technology itself is a neutral force. Ultimately, we’re the ones who pick up the devices themselves, often compulsively and automatically, without much thought, and it’s up to us to decide how we use it.
In the end, we don’t have to eschew technology to have a saner, more mindful relationship with them. In his long search for enlightenment, the historic Buddha tried every extreme trick in the book to gain inner peace and contentment. For six years, he fasted, wandered and took up with various masters, religious sects and philosophies in his search for enlightenment. But in the end, he created the so-called “middle way” that led him to a set of epiphanies that would become the major world religion it is today.
We don’t need to even become Buddhist to find our own middle way. We just need to take a moment and check in with ourselves and our intentions, bringing self-awareness into those little moments so easily lost in the hubbub of our daily lives, touch screens and QWERTY