I Escaped the Black Hole of My Phone

Mindfulness was my way out.

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Feb 2 2017, 3:00pm

We are living in a time of collective disorientation and mental clutter. Smartphone addiction and social media have exaggerated our already-accelerated pace of daily life. We are confused, agitated and more reliant on technology to perpetually bring us happiness than any previous generation. Recent research has supported the idea that compulsive smartphone use causes depression and anxiety. This emotional tug-of-war is combined with a consumerist culture that emphasizes immediate pleasures through lightning-fast means. Smartphones certainly provide a profound amount of practical advantage and comfort, but there is a cost. We fall into a continuous pursuit of the next hit of experience—increasingly a digitally delivered one—hoping that it will satisfy some vague underlying thirst. Not only is the thirst never extinguished, but the search for the next hit of information or experience actually fuels a greater desire to find even more gratification. We have become as happy as our next "like" on social media. We wear each new "follower" as a badge of honor. Our momentary contentment is achieved one meme at a time, and replaced by another, and another. Our success or failure in the workplace is contingent on our ability to navigate nonstop emails, floods of instant messages, and perpetually scheduled meetings that can be rescheduled instantaneously. Our battles are won and lost by the millisecond, and it's impossible to tell if we are ahead of the pack or quickly falling behind. 

One thing is certain. This experience, which has been referred to as "popcorn brain," is not within our control, and it's speeding up exponentially. 

I remember my initial sense of reward when I first bought a smartphone: I was able to constantly immerse myself in a profound amount of information, entertainment and humor during any time of day or night. But I eventually noticed my dependency on the device: I would wake up in the morning (from a smartphone alarm clock), roll over and look at my phone, which would inevitably result in scrolling through various social media apps before checking my email, and perhaps going back to a social media app or two before making my way to the shower. The same ritual would be repeated after my shower, and then during any lull throughout the day. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I would scroll through some social media apps before going back to sleep. If I was waiting in line at the grocery store, I would scroll through a few pictures, perhaps tagging some friends in the most amusing of them, to pass the few minutes of wait time. My smartphone use was enabled and supported by nearly all of my friends and relatives, as most of modern society seems to be engaging in these compulsive internet rituals, which further exaggerates and normalizes the dependency. 

When the fuck did I start caring so much about other people's pictures? And, more importantly, was there any solution to the problem? 

Eventually, after a few years of doing this, it became apparent to me that there would never be enough pictures to double-tap, articles to read, and funny videos to watch in order to make me deeply fulfilled. When the fuck did I start caring so much about other people's pictures? And, more importantly, was there any solution to the problem? 

Mindfulness has been widely supported as a practice that helps reduce stress and increase focus. I have found that it can serve as an antidote to the confusing unreality of the digital world. Mindfulness is the ancient practice of focusing on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensation in non-judgment. It has also been referred to as "bare attention." Mindfulness has been central to Buddhist practice for over 2500 years. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is currently professor of medicine emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, established the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill. The initial intent of MBSR was to teach patients how to "be with their pain" in order to avoid compounding their underlying physical pain with further emotional suffering. MBSR and similar programs are now taught globally in schools, prisons, hospitals, veteran centers and businesses. 

Mindfulness is a simple noticing of a particular thought, emotion, sensation or occurrence. During mindfulness practice, if you are sitting, you simply know that you are sitting. If you are walking, you simply note that you are walking, and feel the sensation of each step, without judgment. If you feel pain in your body, you acknowledge the pain without judging it. If you are thinking about a certain subject matter, you note that you are thinking in non-judgmental awareness. Simply living "in the moment" is not mindfulness. Joseph Goldstein, who is credited with being a central figure in popularizing mindfulness in the United States throughout the past five decades, makes the analogy that a dog lives in the present moment, but he is not mindful because he is not aware of his presence in the moment. Moreover, a dog is constantly seeking pleasurable experiences and running away from the unpleasant. By contrast, in order to be mindful, you must intentionally notice what is arising in your present awareness, acknowledge what is arising, and not judge it.

Mindfulness is the opposite of denial or suppression. Central to human experience is the act of gravitating towards pleasant experiences, running away from unpleasant experiences, and ignoring neutral experiences. Mindfulness creates a balance whereby we can exist in the middle of these extremes, and thus remain content and mentally stable despite external circumstances. If one is not mindful, a thought or emotion can lead to a train of association that pulls a person through a variety of turbulent thoughts, emotions or sensations with little to no awareness or control over the experience. 

A helpful acronym, R-A-I-N, is often used to help people to conceptualize mindfulness:

STEPS OF MINDFULNESS

Recognize what is arising
Oftentimes the practice of "noting" is helpful during the recognition of thoughts or emotions. Noting involves making a soft mental note of what is arising (i.e. "frustration," "anger," "jealousy," "planning"). 

Accept that it is occurring
Rather than ignoring or resisting the thought or emotion, you accept and acknowledge its occurrence.

Investigate with interest
Notice where in your body you are feeling certain sensations (i.e. tightness in your chest, or tensing of your muscles), and examine these sensations with interest. Also examine whether thoughts are arising from the sensations (i.e. "I hate this").

Non-Identify with the thoughts or emotions (don't overly personalize the thought or emotion and recognize that it will change). Create space between you and your thoughts and emotions by recognizing the impermanent nature of thoughts or emotions. Thoughts and emotions are like weather formations that arise from certain conditions and then disperse. 

Meditation is the tool used to strengthen the mindfulness "muscle." While there are various forms of meditation, mindfulness meditation ordinarily involves the meditator sitting upright with eyes closed (although meditation is possible with eyes opened) while focusing on an object of attention, such as the breath, a mantra, a sound, or bodily sensations. The breath is the object of attention commonly used by meditators, particularly beginner meditators. Inevitably during meditation the mind wanders to a thought, emotion, or bodily sensation, at which point a metaphorical "mindfulness bell" sounds in the meditator's mind, and the meditator then re-focuses his or her attention upon the applicable object. Through repetitively re-focusing on the object of attention as part of a regular meditation practice, the meditator becomes more aware of the process of mind-wandering and more adept at refocusing on the object of attention. As a result, the meditator improves his or her ability to notice mind-wandering the moment it occurs, thus improving a concentrated, "one-pointed" mind. The objective of meditation is not to eliminate thoughts (which is impossible), but rather to become aware of thoughts while they are occurring (and while they are ending, for that matter). Thus, a person is eventually able to focus more on the process of thoughts and emotions, rather than the content of thoughts and emotions.  In other words, a person becomes more aware of the nature of his or her own mind.

After regularly practicing mindfulness meditation, and supplementing it with the application of mindfulness during daily life, we generally become able to decrease the degree to which we personalize thoughts and emotions, which generally results in greater happiness and improved focus. It's worth noting that strengthening our mindfulness requires regular and consistent practice, ideally involving both daily meditation and the maintenance of mindfulness during our daily activities. During times of dedicated practice, our mindfulness will most likely deepen, and during times of sparse practice, our mindfulness will most likely weaken.    

Recent research in neuroscience has supported the efficacy of mindfulness in improving cognitive skills such as memory and attention, reducing stress and anxiety, and preventing depression. Furthermore, research has indicated that mindfulness can increase compassion towards others, and even improve our immune system's ability to fight infection. 

Ironically, I first encountered meditation and mindfulness by using an instructional smartphone app. I have now practiced meditation on a daily basis for about two years. I also do my best to engage in regular mindfulness practice during ordinary daily activities. When I wake up in the morning, I know that I'm waking up and getting out of bed. When I'm in the shower, I know that I'm in the shower and I investigate the subjective feeling of being in the warm water. When I brush my teeth, I know that I'm brushing my teeth and I focus on the feeling of the bristles on my teeth and gums. When I walk to work, I practice walking meditation where I feel the bottom of my feet as the weight of my body presses against the ground with each step. When I'm eating my breakfast, I focus on the feeling of the food in my mouth and the swallowing sensation. All of these practices help to ground me in the moment and reduce the wandering mind. 

When I'm in my apartment I have a greater ability to put down my smartphone in my bedroom and cope with the boredom, frustration or anxiety that may arise as a result of simply being a human. 

Now, when I pick up my smartphone, I know that I'm picking up my smartphone. Although I continue to use modern technology on a daily basis, I now feel as though I have more self-awareness when using various digital devices, so I'm able to use it without feeling like the device owns my attention. When I'm responding to an email for work purposes, there is spaciousness around the experience that prevents me from getting sucked into an experience wormhole. When I'm in my apartment I have a greater ability to put down my smartphone in my bedroom and cope with the boredom, frustration or anxiety that may arise as a result of simply being a human. As the 17th century scientist Blaise Pascal expressed, "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

Beyond the benefits related to internet use, mindfulness practice has helped me with thought and emotion regulation in all parts of my life. If a coworker or loved one says something aggravating, rather than reacting harshly based on conditioned behavior, I am able wait a moment, bring awareness to my thoughts and emotions, and then respond accordingly. I feel more focused on a consistent basis. I'm able to have more immediate access to my word choice when engaged in complex conversation. When I leave the office at the end of a stressful day, I don't need a beer to ease me down from internal bustling emotions and whirlwinds of job-related thoughts. I'm able to bring my attention to those thoughts and emotions and apply the RAIN method. In general, I have more clarity around my decision-making, and I feel more intimately aware of my thoughts and emotions, which gives me more confidence because I feel more balanced and in control. 

When I leave the office at the end of a stressful day, I don't need a beer to ease me down from internal bustling emotions and whirlwinds of job-related thoughts.

Mindfulness is not without its critics. For one thing, the new take on the world that results from a consistent mindfulness practice can easily be confused with emotional detachment. However, mindfulness, properly practiced, is not detachment. As noted by Kabat-Zinn, this new take (sometimes called "re-perceiving") helps a person deeply experience each event of the mind and body without identifying with or clinging to it, but rather by allowing for "a deep, penetrative non-conceptual seeing into the nature of mind and world." By connecting closely with our momentary experience, we allow each moment to occur naturally while remaining non-attached. 

Mindfulness is a tremendously helpful tool for processing our complex, digitally infused lives. As our technological ecosystem and communication platforms continue to develop exponentially, virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and their progeny will undoubtedly create further challenges for the human psyche, including profound dependency, disorientation, depression and addiction. By strengthening and refining our power of awareness, perhaps we have a standing chance to maintain some composure and peace.