Mindfulness will never be enough
Have you tried to meditate, or practice mindfulness? How many articles, books, friends, or therapists have recommended the art of mindful eating or mindful walking as a way to cope with daily stress or anxiety? Have you asked yourself why it isn’t working? Or have you noticed, as a friend recently complained, that ‘mindfulness just seems to be such a chore’?
Mindfulness is mostly used in quick grabs: a 10-minute meditation on the train to work, a 5-minute breathing exercise in between meetings, a guided body awareness meditation to help us go to sleep. The aim is to come back to the present moment, cultivate a state of presence and awareness away from a state of continual broken attention and scattered focus – the new norm – so urgently explored in the new Johann Hari book Stolen Focus.
And mindfulness does not work, for two reasons: this is not the way to practice mindfulness (more on that later) and it is not enough.
There is no amount of mindfulness that will ever work, until we close our laptop screens and put down our phones for a significant portion of our day. Johann Hari describes the pull of technology, the smartphone in particular, as someone ‘pouring itching powder’ over you, all day long and then telling you to meditate to cope with the itch.
The technology itself cultivates a broken focus, loss of concentration, scattered attention, a surface engagement with topics and ideas, poor sleep, and it changes the workings of our brain. A 2017 University of Texas Study found that just having your phone nearby reduces our cognitive capacity significantly, even if the phone is turned off. Our ability to hold and process data is significantly impaired by the mere presence of our phone.
In 2022, this should surprise no one. We are addicted to our phones, scrolling past headlines, reading only parts of articles, answering emails while listening to podcasts, interrupted by intermittent notifications, our attention span shortening as we consume nothing longer that a series of tweets, TikTok videos, or a string of memes. Have you noticed yet just how hard it is to keep focus, read an article or a book, finish a task, any task, without pausing to look at your phone every few minutes?
We must stop and consider the existential and political matter of the attention economy and what it means for our thoughts, our relationships, and our experience of the only life we will ever have.
The clickbait headline, the addictive game, the app that rewards you only intermittently, the social media notifications and consequent dopamine hits – with everything fighting for your time, where do you chose to spend it? A life spent on looking at the screen means a life not spent in the world of looking in the eyes of your loved ones, or looking around the physical world you inhabit.
A sunset or what’s on your dinner plate appraised through the lens of the phone camera become objectified before you have had a chance to notice your awe at the beauty of nature or your excitement at eating something new or delicious. What kind of experiences is your life made of in the end?
Have you noticed yourself in conversation and your phone screen lights up, or the phone vibrates or makes a noise and your head swivels to it before you have had a chance to choose where your attention goes?
In the age of systematic and deliberate destruction of our attention, and with it our capacity to maintain a flowing sense of self, putting down your phone becomes a powerful and necessary act of resistance.
The impact of technology on our attention spans has been talked about with each new invention: the typewriter, the printing press, or the newspaper – with writers positing that our manner of thinking will change as technology changes. In his 2008 article for The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asked ‘Is Google making us stupid?’, and indeed, Google is making us stupid. We skim read, ‘bounce’ across web pages and articles, never reading the complete piece.
The internet reflects the primary values of our time: immediacy and efficiency. And yet, developmental psychologists and research now recognise the impact of this manner of engaging with information. It is not just what we read or the type of information we consume, but how. The scattered focus and chopped up attention that is par for the course in our online lives is weakening our mental capacities required for deep and meaningful interactions that depend on sustained focus and attention on ourselves and another, without distractions. This is the place where we feel seen, held, heard, and connected.
Mindfulness will never be enough. You must put down your phone and reclaim your mind.