The ubiquity of cell phones and social media will likely never go away. But there’s a simmering backlash coming from some remarkable sources about the harm they might be doing to us. Consider:
- Hedge fund Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teacher’s Retirement System, which control $2 billion shares of Apple stock, sent an open letter to Apple last week pressing the company to offer parents more tools to control and limit iPhone use and for more research.
- The California Department of Public Health issued a warning in December against exposure to cell phone radiation, advising people not to keep cell phones in their pockets and not to put them against their ears for long periods.
- Facebook, citing research from the University of Michigan, acknowledged last year that passively consuming social media makes us feel bad.
- Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business in December that he feels “tremendous guilt” about his role in creating social media that he believes is “ripping the fabric society apart.”
It’s early days, but the kickback against Apple, Facebook, cell phones and social media reminds me of how the culture cooled on the fast-food industry.
Fast food had become a mainstay of American life by the 1950s as consumers embraced its innovation, convenience and entertainment value. In the ensuing years, the fast-food business grew rapidly, expanding overseas and luring families with children’s menus and toys. It wasn’t until decades later that consumer groups, government agencies and health advocates fully informed the public about the health consequences of eating too many burgers and fries and of feeding them to their kids.
Consumer safety often plays catch up in a free-market economy. Nonetheless, we now know what we’re getting into when we walk into a fast-food restaurant. And as result, many of us choose not to do so.
But when it comes cell phones and social media, we’re still in the dark in terms of understanding just how deeply technology affects our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. In many ways, our interaction with the digital world amounts to a huge biological experiment. Increasingly, that makes many of us uneasy.
If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we already know something isn’t right in our digital domain. For all the benefits our devices bring, they command way too much of our attention. We’re perpetually distracted and we miss real-time moments of our lives when wedded to them. We feel anxious and “less than” when binging on social media. Some of us are addicted to the dopamine boost of receiving a “Like,” a text or an e-mail.
Of course, we could all take more personal responsibility when it comes to how we use our devices and how we allow our children to use them. But we should also demand scientific data from tech companies and government agencies about how cells phones and social media affect us. The California Department of Public Health only issued its recent cell phone safety guidelines after a UC Berkley professor sued the agency to release its detailed findings.
As technology continues to expand its reach into our daily lives, there’s urgency to getting answers – particularly for our kids.
After citing research that 78 percent of teens check their phones at least hourly and half report feeling “addicted” to their phones, Jana and Calstrs executives wrote to Apple that “it would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents ensure it is being used optimally.”
On My Mind
What’s the difference between seeing and looking? Is there a difference?
These are questions I often ask elementary school children when teaching them visual mindfulness. Most of them eventually conclude that seeing involves more attention and focus while looking doesn’t. In meditation and in practicing mindfulness in our daily lives, we’re often instructed to settle the mind by attending to our breath, to sounds or to sensations in our bodies. Seeing gets short shrift.
And, yet, seeing is a lovely mindfulness practice. Thoughts arising in the mind are often accompanied by a cinema of images. We can notice the images and increase our awareness. When we’re out and about, we can stop and really see the sky, a leaf or another person and more fully inhabit our world.
Playwright Henry Miller said: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
So, try this simple practice: Close your eyes. Take a breath. Then, open your eyes and gaze upon an object within your field of vision. (Use the image of the flower at above if you like.) Take in its shape, its color and its size. Make a study of it. Notice details you might otherwise miss. If the object is small enough, reach for it, hold it in your hands and as Miller suggests marvel at its awesomeness.
Watch this intriguing video and learn how the quiet life of Billy Barr, aka “The Snow Guardian,” has given scientists a treasure trove of climate change data. Barr devoted his life to measuring snow and to living simply. He makes me want to live more simply, too.
Flossing your teeth nightly. Exercising regularly. Meditating daily. These are helpful things to do. Though, many of us don’t want to do any of them. The question remains: Why is it so difficult to begin and keep a good habit?
At the end of my recent meditation retreat, the teacher mentioned that many people go on long, silent retreats every year and meditate for hours a day but fail to maintain a daily practice once they get home. It’s true: One of the hardest things about meditation is doing it…regularly.
While there’s no shortage of advice on behavioral change, the crux of beginning and keeping a good habit might be much simpler than we think. One approach: Take the smallest step possible in the direction of your goal.
“Radical change is like charging up a steep hill—you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun,” writes Dr. Robert Maurer, a faculty member with the UCLA School of Medicine and author of “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.”
Maurer argues that our brains hate change and, in fact, feel threatened by it. Setting big audacious goals can block rather than pave the way to good habits. On the other hand, making a small commitment to change turns off the brain’s fight-or-flight response and lowers resistance. Repeatedly taking smalls steps toward change creates new connections between neurons to support the new habit. It also builds confidence.
Maurer relays an example of a former client named Julie who had difficulty exercising regularly. Instead of advising her to join a gym or sign up for a 5K, Maurer told her to march in place for a minute while she watched television every night for a week. That small, seemingly meaningless commitment changed Julie’s attitude toward exercise. Her enthusiasm snowballed and over time she developed a lasting exercise habit.
So, try flossing a single tooth before bed. Do one push up. Rather than meditating daily for 30 minutes or more, do so for a minute. After a week, see if you can increase it by a minute more or meditate a minute several times a day. Even a few minutes of silence and solitude (see below) can be mind altering.
For a deeper dive into the strategy of how small changes equal big results check out:
- Stephen Guise’s book: “Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results.”http://stephenguise.com/
- Author James Clear’s article: The Paradox of Behavior Change https://jamesclear.com/behavior-change-paradox
- Or Arianna Huffington’s interview with Tim Ferriss. https://tim.blog/2017/10/18/arianna-huffington/ After collapsing from exhaustion, Huffington retooled her life and founded Thrive Global, a company dedicated to health and wellness information. “I’m a big believer in micro-steps,” she tells Ferriss.
On My Mind
One day, 20-year-old Chris Knight drove his Subaru Brat to the edge of the Maine woods, tossed his keys onto the center console and walked into the forest. He wasn’t seen again for another 27 years.
Michael Finkel’s page-turning book about Knight; “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” is a fascinating peak into the mind and the odd life of a man who feels more comfortable alone than with people. But it’s also a thought-provoking reflection on solitude.
In the age of social media, even a modicum of solitude is something most of us avoid. That might be a shame. Poets, psychologists, sages and scientists have long extoled the value of spending – if not 27 years – brief periods of time alone. Albert Camus wrote: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”
As for Knight, Finkel describes his solitary existence in the woods as a timeless, perpetual now that while not without fear or suffering was suffused with satisfaction. Finkel writes:
“The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seem to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. ‘My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
Research shows that kindness is contagious. Try the following one-person loving kindness experiment: Watch this video and notice the feelings, thoughts and sensations that arise. Do you feel like be kinder?
A walk around the block with my daughter took an hour when she was a toddler.
She was so fascinated by every fallen leaf, roly-poly bug or passing neighbor that a walk with her was like standing on the deck of a slow-moving ocean liner. Any adult who has ever gone for a stroll with a toddler knows the routine.
Lately, I’ve been transported back to those lumbering walks. This time, I’m the toddler, hobbling around the block, walking tenderly as part of my recovery from a hip injury.
On a recent walk, the wonder of the world opened up to me much like it must have for my daughter.
Just walking was a bit of a marvel. When you can’t walk well, you’re amazed and deeply appreciative of the physical symphony it takes to propel you forward. But I was also amazed by the crisp sunshine and how it painted the sky a technicolor blue. I was amazed by the wind that arrived out of nowhere and rippled through the streets like an invisible tide. Everything around me seemed so strange and beautiful. I found myself collecting odd, prehistoric pods that fell from a tall tree and greedily stuffing them in my pockets.
For a while after arriving home, I held the joy of that walk like an egg in my hands, knowing it was fragile. I knew that even if I wanted to recreate it I couldn’t because it was part of a healing that would mend me. Soon, I would be back to my fast-walking ways.
And, yet, a teaching from that walk remains. While all experiences are fleeting, they leave traces like contrails from jet planes. The contrail from that walk is that there is goodness everywhere if you make a point of noticing it. Yes, even in these upsetting polarized times there is goodness. You’ll find it in nature. You’ll see it in me, in yourself and in everyone around you.
“Good facts abide and abound no matter how obscured,” writes meditation teacher and psychologist Rick Hanson.
So, look for goodness. Choose it. Catch yourself hurrying along and slow down. One way to enjoy the subtle goodness in our everyday life is to come in contact with something sensory and to drink it in like soup from a ladle. Some ideas: Savor the flavor of a juicy orange, listen to the laughter of your children in the next room, see the smile on the face of the cashier at Trader Joe’s. Even the low-down feeling of your feet in your shoes can be immensely good when your mind is whirling like a fan with worries.
Hanson wrote a useful book on how to make this a mindfulness practice. It’s called Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. Here’s how one woman told him she made a habit out of it.
“I live in Detroit where 40 percent of the land has been abandoned, which means that it’s like living in nature amidst urban ruins. The other day when I was out in the “urban prairie” I was literally stopped in my tracks by a tree full of raucous birds. I looked up taking in the sounds and the sights, letting them fill every part of me. I became aware of the hum of the distant freeway, which created a symphony played by birds and cars. Taking in moments like these has helped me see the world in a new way. Sometimes, late afternoon sunlight on the red brick of an abandoned building can be almost too beautiful for words.”
On My Mind
What’s the point of mindfulness if not to make us more present for each other?
Kerry Egan’s book On Living beautifully explores this terrain by chronicling the stories and wisdom from those nearing the end of their lives. Far from maudlin, Egan’s book is a celebration of the poignancy that unfolds when you bring your full, listening self to others. Egan writes not so much about death, but about the varied and curious journeys we all take to arrive at our final destination.
“I don’t know if these stories will make you wise,” Egan writes. “But maybe, in seeing that other people have done it, you’ll find your own way to let your life be kind to you.”
Watch Danny MacAskill’s unbelievable bike ride through rural Edinburgh and be struck with awe.
Dedicated Practice + Focused Attention = Joyful Flow.
Danny MacAskill’s Wee Day Out
Norwegian television embarked on an odd experiment several years ago when it aired a seven-and-a-half hour-long program showing a train traveling across the country from Bergen to Oslo. That’s it – just footage from the train.
Granted, it showed some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. Snow-capped mountains. Verdant valleys. Flowing rivers. But seven and a half hours of the stuff? To everyone’s surprise nearly a quarter of Norway’s population or 1.5 million people tuned in. The show was so successful that similar programming – 12 hours of knitting anyone? – has aired since, creating a movement called “slow television.”
I could offer a number of theories as to why slow T.V. is a hit. Watching beautiful scenery even if it’s on a television screen provides a hypnotic oasis of calm in an otherwise frenzied world. I suppose, though less understandably, so does knitting.
But I have another theory. Something magical happens when you embrace things that on the surface are patently boring. You stumble upon contentment.
Underneath the presumed monotony of life’s less exciting moments lies that subtle yet often sought after feeling of ease. It’s the sand at the bottom of the ocean. It’s always there. But it’s hard to see when we’re thrashing in the surf.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert has said that everything interesting and meaningful in life is also boring. Marriage? About 90% of it is boring. Work? A snooze. Parenting? Booorrring!
The earnest acknowledgement that most of life falls solidly between the lines of ecstasy and misery is not only freeing but gratifying. Without the anvil of expectation weighing you down, you can settle in a bit more and enjoy the ride. Your capacity to become interested and even fascinated with the banal moments of life expands. Slowly, but steadily the experience of so-called boredom becomes not only tolerable but at times a welcome friend.
Next time you feel fidgety because nothing is happening, don’t reach for the cell phone. Don’t open the fridge looking for edible entertainment. Stay with the boredom for a while and see what lies underneath. It may or may not be contentment – at least not at first. Petty frustration. Anger. Sadness. Who knows what you’ll find as you sink to the bottom of your experience.
Getting to know boredom is a mindfulness practice. It takes time for the modern brain to winnow its addiction to stimuli. But the more you embrace the subtleties of a “neutral” moment, the more you’ll feel at home in your own skin. You might even find yourself tuning into Norwegian slow T.V. All of which can now be streamed on Netflix under Slow T.V.
On my mind
Perhaps, not surprisingly, for a book about attention Mathew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction requires the focus of a watchmaker to read and fully grasp.
But once grasped the philosopher’s indictment of the societal weakening of one of our most intimate faculties – our ability to pay attention – should give us all pause.
Crawford’s searing prose details the many costs of our fractured attention. Not the least of which is the slow drip of disconnection we feel from each other.
Emphasizing this point, Crawford plucks these lines from writer Jonathan Franzen and then extrapolates: “Walking up Third Avenue on a Saturday night, I feel bereft. All around me, attractive young people are hunched over their StarTacs and Nokias with preoccupied expressions, as if probing a sore tooth….All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen.” A public space where people are not self-enclosed, in the heightened way that happens when our minds are elsewhere than our bodies, may feel rich with possibility for spontaneous encounters. Even if we do not converse with others, our mutual reticence is experienced as reticence if our attention is not otherwise bound up, but is rather free to a light upon each other and linger or not, because we ourselves are free to pay out our attention in deliberate measures.”
In other words, next time you walk down the street smile and even say hello to those you meet.
What happens when kids get together and focus on a shared enterprise? In the case of the non-profit Louisville Leopard Percussionists, the answer is an utterly novel and joyous rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Have a listen here:
She’s a 70-pound pit bull with a heart of gold who can teach us a lot about mindfulness practice. My friend got Lulu from the pound. Like any good dog owner, once she got her home she began to train her.
Not long ago, we all took a walk and I saw Lulu’s training in action. A few moments into our stroll, Lulu got distracted by a piece of trash and veered off course. “Leave it, Lulu,” my friend gently commanded and her muscle-bound pit bull fell in line. When Lulu got distracted by an invisible smell, a runner’s shoelace or a breeze (she is a dog after all) my friend’s refrain – “Leave it, Lulu” – guided her back on course.
Our distracted minds are often compared to unruly puppies. But maybe they ought to be compared to pit bulls – well-trained ones.
Next time your mind gets stuck in a stream of unproductive or destructive thought, notice your thinking. Stay with it briefly and even notice how it feels in your body. But, then, instead of following the twisted path of thinking any farther, remember Lulu. Kindly say to yourself: “Leave it.” And come back to something that’s happening in the here and now – your breath, a sound or the feeling of your feet on the ground.
This sort of brain training during meditation or daily life is highly practical. If practiced often, you’ll find that you can more readily drop that gripping worry about your work presentation, your kid’s failing math grade or your retirement nest egg. Like Lulu, you might have to tell yourself to “Leave It” over and over again.
It’s an ongoing process. But it’s led to an incredibly sweet and happy dog. Imagine what it could do for you.
On My Mind
What’s the key to productivity? To a satisfying life? Legions of books have been written on both subjects. But the answer might lie in a single word: Attention. Both Cal Newport and Winifred Gallagher make compelling cases for how the ability to command attention is central to doing meaningful work and leading fulfilled lives.
From Newport’s perspective, the ability to do “deep work” or to engage in activities with “distraction-free concentration” is a 21st century skill that can set you apart because it’s increasingly rare. For Gallager, attention is more lyrical and sublime, but no less meaningful.
She writes: “Paying rapt attention whether to a trout in a stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer increases your capacity for concentration and expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits, but more important, it simply makes you feel life is worth living.”
• Watch this for a playful, yet profound answer to the question: Why practice mindfulness?
• Tired of paying attention to your breath during meditation. Try paying attention to the sounds of a forest.
• I’d love to spend a day in a timber megaphone.