Noticing Smartphone Addiction

The other day I listened to an interview with Nancy Colier, author of The Power of Off, about technology addiction. Smartphones feature prominently in the conversation as a driving force in our increasing distraction and disconnection from our own bodies and from our loved ones. If you can find an hour, take a listen.

Nancy makes one point which resounded with me in particular: We often leave a smartphone on the table when we’re meeting with a friend, and it hurts our connection. I’ve been vaguely aware of this as an issue for a while, but she describes it very precisely.

When the phone is on the table, we’re telling our friend, “you’re not enough.” We’re willing to be interrupted by something else that might be more interesting, important, or urgent than what we’re doing right now. Maybe that’s true. If we’re waiting for a call about a birth in the family, or about whether a house sale went through, we can let our friend know how important that is. But usually we’re just getting text messages from someone we’re going to see later, emails about work, or meaningless push notifications from an app (Life Pro Tip — turn them all off). Those all can wait.

A simple solution is to leave the phone in a bag during the conversation. Even having it in a pocket can be distracting, unless your phone is fully silent and non-vibrating.

I started to realize that this isn’t only an issue when we’re sitting with someone else. It’s just as much an issue when we’re by ourselves. I usually leave my phone next to me, screen up, when I’m working on my computer or writing in my journal.  Now I’m telling myself, “I’m not enough.”

It’s not enough for me to sit with myself, to focus on a specific piece of work I care about. I’m willing to be interrupted by anything that might come my way. That interruption, that distraction, has become more important than my connection with my work and my awareness.

This bums me out. I’m not sure another way to put it. I’ve had conversations where I’ve expressed this idea that technology is making us less in some way, and I’ve gotten a lot of push back. There is resistance to the idea that something new and useful could be worse than what we had. Intrusive technology, it seems, is inevitable. I do think there are responsible and healthy ways to use technology, but I also think that everything about how it is designed is to keep us from using responsibly. We’re driven to distraction, addiction, and dissatisfaction. Marketers and app-creators want it that way.

Of course there are exceptions. Of course technology does good things. But for the moment I’m going to revel in being a curmudgeonly luddite and dream about going back to a landline.



10-Day Vipassana Meditation Course, Round Two

I just got home from my second 10-day Vipassana meditation course, as taught by S. N. Goenka. I took my first course (each course has the same material every time) three years ago, and wrote about it here. So I knew what to expect of my external reality. In short, it’s a really intense silent meditation experience, with all sorts of physical pain and mental challenges. And I pretty much got what I asked for.

After my first course, I felt compelled to really lay out the minutiae, but this experience felt less about the details and more about a few overarching thoughts that I came away with. Some mundane, some important, some powerful. So instead of detailing every pain and joy and confusion of the experience, here are a few of the big take aways.

  • Food and eating are beautiful things. We should always give them care and attention, and appreciate when we get to share meals with other people.
  • Technology has really done a number on our attention and appreciation of the present. This is something I worry about a lot. It felt so peaceful to be disconnected, and I didn’t miss anything that happened in the world despite having no media or phone access.
  • We are not addicted to things, we’re addicted to the sensations those things create in our bodies. These sensations are subtle, and must be listened to carefully to be heard. Next time your smart phone vibrates with a text message, just notice your reaction to it. That is where the addiction lives.
  • Walking slowly outside for even just a few minutes without other distractions can be so centering.
  • It feels great to take an 18 hour fast (early lunch, no dinner, no snacks). We did this every day, and I gained a lot of mental clarity. Granted, we weren’t doing much physically. I want to do this more often.
  • A lot of pain in our bodies is referred from injuries in other parts of the body. I found that the searing shoulder pain I experienced after sitting for several hours was completely relieved when I brought attention to relaxing my psoas muscle in my low back/hip.
  • A lot of pain in our bodies is the physical component of mental and emotional discomfort: stress, anxiety, depression, worry, fear.
  • Waking up early is fantastic. We got up at 4 a.m. every morning on the course, and now I’m going to try to keep it going with a 5 a.m. wake up as long as I can. I love looking at the clock at 8:00 having already been up for three hours.
  • It’s nice to go slow, be early, and welcome delays. Got an hour to kill at the mechanic? Wonderful time to sit and reflect.
  • Our miseries come from inside.
  • Sleep works to rest the body and rest the mind. These two things don’t actually have to happen at the same time. I spent a lot of time awake in the night, unable to sleep, despite the early wake up time. Lying still and focusing on sensations in the body, rather than on thoughts or anxieties, allowed me to be fully awake and functional in the morning. It turns out it is the anxiety and those thoughts that hurt us the next day, much more than the simple lack of sleep.
  • Keeping my eyes closed all day gives me really vivid dreams.
  • To move beyond unwanted (or badly wanted) thoughts, we don’t push them away or crave for them, but instead observe and acknowledge them. The meditation technique teaches us to slowly learn not to react to those thoughts. They will likely never go away, so we have to learn to live with them.
  • All of these ideas, and important ideas in general, can be intellectualized, but they must be experienced to be fully understood.

People are always wondering if I would do this course again, or if I recommend it to others. It’s hard to say for either. I wouldn’t want to do it again in the next several months, but I could see the refresher being invaluable in a couple years or more. And I’m tempted to recommend it to everyone, except that it is such a difficult experience. If you’re curious, and better yet, committed, then I absolutely recommend it. If you suffer from anxiety or depression or addiction, again I recommend it. But if you are going because someone convinced you to, and you aren’t fully committed yourself, then maybe you should think again and strengthen your intention. I do believe everyone is capable of completing the course, and that nearly everyone will be able to gain benefit from it by sticking it out to the end. It’s a hard road to get there, though. Nothing good is supposed to be easy, right?

Now is the Time to Revisit New Year’s Intentions

February is almost over. We’re a sixth of the way to 2016. Wow. This has gone so fast for me. The years seem to go faster as we get older. Maybe it’s because each one is a smaller proportion of our collected experience, or because we have fewer novel experiences as we age. Or something else entirely. Either way, it’s weird and kind of disconcerting. But I also seem to get happier each year, so it’s all good?

Whether or not this is an observable change in perception, or if it’s widespread, this year is certainly ticking by. We’re far enough in that most of the intentions we made for New Years (if we made any) have probably fallen by the wayside, or at least are no longer priorities. By the way, New Year’s resolutions? Totally out. Intentions are in. They’re a gentler and potentially more effective way to ring in change and personal growth.

The most common New Year’s goal (whatever you want to call it) is probably getting in shape. Going to the gym and eating right. Every year there’s a huge influx of gym-goers in January, but luckily for the people who actually go to the gym regularly, the wave subsides almost entirely by February.

It turns out that a big endeavor like exercising is really tough to add on to an already-full life. Better to change a practice you already have, like eating. Swap out unhealthy eating for healthy eating. It doesn’t take any more time, just shifting focus on something you’re already doing. Then you can slowly add in exercise through a committed but simple routine (with low barriers to entry). Anyhoo, this post is not about exercise.

My intention for 2015 was to work on my communication. Is to work on communication. This includes both outward-facing communication, like talking with loved ones, friends, and strangers, as well as inward-facing communication. This means clarifying my personal feelings and needs, and exploring the stories I tell myself, including those which have resulted in self-repression or shame. So, a pretty lofty goal.

So far I can’t say I’ve done a huge amount of work on this. The biggest thing I’ve done is solidify my writing practice, which inevitably corresponds to a certain amount or kind of communication. I haven’t been disciplined about other aspects of the intention, though. The goal is usually in the back of my mind, which helps me work on it little by little. But that’s nothing compared to what I could do if I dedicated substantial time to practice talking and sharing.

And while we’re already a sixth of the way through the year, at the same time we’re only a sixth of the way through the year. There is a lot of time left to work on our intentions and make some serious progress on our lives. Whether it’s getting in shape, working on communication, learning a new skill, or whatever else you might have dreamed up in a confused haze late on December 31st, there is plenty of time to work. Not time to wait, mind you, but time to make dedicated, consistent progress.

So what are you working on? Even if you didn’t set an intention at the beginning of the year, what makes sense to work on now? The best investment we can make is an investment in ourselves, in our personal growth and development. I’m always looking for new ways to grow, and I’d love to hear what has worked for you!

Stories and Observations from a Pretty Fun and Interesting Life

Welcome to my new Web Log. Herein lie stories and observations from a pretty fun and interesting life. Enjoy!