I started to notice a phenomenon a couple years ago. I’ve dubbed it the “often occupied” human. This human is waiting at the doctor’s office, in line at the post office, waiting for food to be served at a restaurant, walking down the street, sitting in the park…one thing that clearly characterizes the “often occupied” human is the technological device. Perhaps you’ve seen this phenomenon as well.
You may even fall under this categorization from time to time. I’ve noticed that “waiting” becomes something we can’t possibly waste our time with, so we must be “doing” something while we wait, e.g., – checking the phone.
I had a habit of this as well, and when I purposefully did not “occupy” myself while “waiting,” I felt like the odd person out. Like I wasn’t cool enough to have something to put my attention towards while I was sitting quietly, passing the time until my name was called, it was my turn, or I had something else to use my hands, eyes, and brain for.
We are at a stage in human evolution that we have never been before—we have an intimate, and sometimes insecure, relationship with technology. People can be available almost any time of day or night. You can text, call, FaceTime, Facebook, Skype, SnapChat, email, and use many other methods to get in touch with someone, whenever you feel like it. For some people, the device has become like an extra appendage, something they may not be able to conceptualize their world without.
Our technology use has grown unchecked; we haven’t necessarily mindfully adapted to its presence. Like a weed that has endless resources and doesn’t get carefully tended, it can become an obnoxious, unhealthy problem.
While struggling several weeks ago with some dark personal emotions, I noticed I had a habit of checking my phone almost immediately when I woke up in the morning. And while waiting in line, or at a red light, or any moment something “wasn’t happening.” After a long, late night of having no choice but to sit with my sadness and listen to the message it had for me, I realized I had been abandoning myself and my need for my own attention by checking in with the virtual world before I checked in with myself.
Many inspirations to take a closer look at my own technology use, and that of the broader community and society, came from reading the book The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World by Nancy Colier. The day after I decided to delete Facebook and FB-Messenger from my phone, I was recommended this insightful and thought-provoking book. Good timing.
I realized any moment of “waiting” became boring compared to taking a peek inside my device to see what was going on in the digital realm. My media-mania was causing me to desert the present moment. Checking my device was inhibiting my ability to connect with the real world—the one that is made of matter and energy, people, plants, and the planet—the world that is not always uplifting, inspiring, or easeful.
The most profound realization I’ve had is that if checking our devices is a way to avoid feeling an uncomfortable emotion—a cornerstone of being human—we are less skilled, prepared, or able to sit with other people when they are experiencing dark emotions (like sadness, boredom, displeasure, annoyance, irritation, lethargy, etc.). For me, this is a key element of real community—our ability to be with one another in difficult times, to address necessary discomforts, to learn and grow together.
One thing we believe we have with social media circles and online communities is a greater connection to more people. Yet, are we missing out on the people and moment right in front of us, by choosing to instead connect with the virtual field?
More recently I’ve been inquiring into the moments I would habitually check the phone. What am I experiencing in this moment that I’d rather not, causing me to use my phone as a way of running away?
It is not my intention to completely bash the digital world—one of my jobs is being a virtual assistant and I love the work I do. I love the benefits of social media to keep me connected to family and friends all over the world. I also notice that like anything, there is a fine balance—is our relationship with technology medicine or poison?
The challenging part of technology is how socially acceptable it is. Most people don’t think twice about someone checking their phone, but they may feel disconnected by it. For example, have you ever been hanging out with a friend in the midst of a great conversation or activity when someone’s phone makes a bing, and all of a sudden there is something else they are attending to? Whatever was happening in or through the phone took precedence over the moment you were both inhabiting together. Our devices are tools, and they can be distractions.
Are you interested in investigating your personal technology use?
- Start by observing your current behavior with your device. How often do you check it? When are some typical times you notice you do check (when you wake up, waiting in line)? What is the feeling you have when you want to check it, but you don’t?
- Notice how other people use their devices. Ask yourself, how does it feel to be the human who isn’t being paid attention to? Or, would I feel comfortable using my device in a scenario like this?
Here are some tips for how to mindfully use your media:
- Create periods of time where you are unreachable—while at a class or event, for an afternoon hike in the woods, or taking a trip to the store without it.
- Commit to not engaging with the device until being awake for a certain number of minutes (you choose). For example, I established an agreement with myself to not check my phone for a minimum of 20-60 minutes after I wake up. What could you cherish in that time?
- Likewise, commit to not engaging with technology for a period of time before going to bed.
- Set up “tech-on” and “tech-off” times. For example, don’t check social media between the hours of 9pm – 9am, and 12pm – 3pm.
- Set up a Digital Detox for one day a month.
I’m not calling for throwing our devices away—I’m asking us all to become more mindful of the way we use them, and in doing so, discover more about ourselves and our communities. If you are interested in learning more I recommend Nancy Colier’s book, The Power of Off.