It’s a peculiar time we live in when people need to be motivated by a competition to simply do nothing.
An event in Seoul called “Space Out” challenges Internet addicts to sit in a park and do absolutely nothing for 90 minutes. The competition was launched by Korean artists as an art installation event in 2014, while the most recent Space Out was organized by Seoul City Council. According to technology news website Digital Trends, “Contestants simply had to look as spaced out as possible, and concentrate on thinking about nothing, certainly not their smartphone and all the incoming messages they might be missing. Sleeping, eating, talking—and using gadgets—were all strictly prohibited for the duration of the competition. Judges also monitored contestants’ heart rates, a clever move that guaranteed to expose a stressed smartphone addict . . .”
While we don’t equate zoning out in Space Out with Buddhist meditation, the motivation behind the event is nonetheless laudable. The need for more mental space has also been recognized in France, where there is talk of legislation that will require companies to impose periods (in the evening and on the weekends) during which no work-related emails should be sent or answered. With regard to handling work correspondence at home, the BBC quoted Linh Le, a partner at Paris-based management consultants Elia, as saying, “You’re at home but you’re not at home, and that poses a real threat to relationships.” She warns that one major threat posed by being constantly connected is complete burnout: “physical, psychological, and emotional distress caused by a total inability to rest.” However, Le also points out that email is far from the only distraction keeping people glued to their smartphones: social media, messaging apps, and even games often consume more of our time and attention than traditional email.
Smartphones, the most ubiquitous manifestation of mobile technology and “personal computing,” have added a dimension of convenience to our lives unimaginable to earlier generations. Text messaging and even phone calls have almost become irrelevant in the face of cross-platform messaging and voice-call apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Line. Keeping in touch with overseas friends or family members living thousands of miles away is now far simpler than it was just 10 years ago. We can even stream entire television shows onto our phone to watch. However, it now appears that having all this “convenience” at our fingertips may carry an unforeseen, heavy price in the form of our addiction to connection.
It is now possible for social butterflies to interact in real time with hundreds of people via a single app, or those with time to kill to lose themselves in an immersive, challenging game whenever the whim takes them: on a bus, at dinner, or in bed. The smartphone, which seamlessly integrates taking photos and videos and sharing them over countless social media platforms, is also responsible for the selfie phenomenon. In her upcoming book Je selfie donc je suis (I Selfie Therefore I Am), French psychoanalyst and philosopher Elsa Godart says the growing addiction to selfies is effectively making our brains regress to adolescence. Speaking to British newspaper The Telegraph, Godart says the habit propagates “insecurities” and provokes “neurotic and self-questioning behavior that characterizes adolescence.”
“We all now have very limited attention spans and very little patience,” she said. “Only we forget that adolescence isn’t a very enjoyable time: we don’t know what we stand for or where we’re going, and we’re in a state of crisis, just as society is now.”
In The Path of Individual Liberation, volume one of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche eerily parallels Godart’s thesis: “In this samsaric, or confused, world, most of you have grown up physically, but psychologically you are very young. If your mind is so adolescent that you have no control over it, what you are taught is completely wasted, because you have not heard it—not because you are stupid but because you are so distracted. The discipline of meditation is the best way for you to work with your mind, so that your mind and your body can be properly coordinated” (Chögyam Trungpa 2013, 232). How can we move on from this adolescent regression? It is becoming increasingly difficult for many of us to reverse the course that smartphones have set us on, especially as they have become so integrated into our daily lives; our desire for distraction has become more powerful and easier to satisfy than ever with a tool that can do so many things once reserved for entertainment machines at home.
We must relearn something that the generations preceding Generation Y once thought natural, especially at the end of a busy day: to put everything aside and to simply be with ourselves. It is a painful irony that despite all the advantages of our digital connections to the outside world, we are most disconnected from our own thought processes, resulting in our reactions and neuroses being mysteries to our own minds.
Through mindfulness, we may be able to discern and observe several momentary phases during our interaction with smartphones. The first is the moment we feel the compulsion to pick them up and look at them. Ideally we should catch ourselves then, and merely observe our desire to pick up and interact with our device. Secondly, we can contemplate the reasons behind our desire: why do we feel that urge to handle our smartphone? Is it because we sense a message alert being delivered to our device by it making a sound or vibration? Is it just because we are alone, or on a bus with no one to talk to? Of course, there are important emails, calls, and messages to respond to, but we can also be mindful of how compulsively and frequently we check or browse our devices in the absence of any alerts or when there is no real need.
As we check our motivation, we can practice mindfulness during another moment and let the urge dissipate. We can look away from our pocket or bag and apply whatever methods will help us focus our attention on the task (or person, since we sometimes use our smartphones in front of others) at hand.
Some pioneers in the field of digital mindfulness have gone one step further, creating apps aimed at making the smartphone a helpful tool for meditation and spending time with oneself. One such app, Headspace, claims to help people meditate in easily digestible 10-minute sessions. While regular sessions of meditation are beneficial, just as important is maintaining the moment-to-moment mindfulness throughout our day that comes with being attentive to our own impulses. If we can observe and attend to those impulses—compassionately—we stand a much greater chance of allowing them to pass like clouds across the vast sky of our minds rather than seizing and attaching to the clouds as if they were solid. It was probably just a friend sending you a photo of their meal, anyway!
Chögyam Trungpa. 2013. The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma: The Path of Individual Liberation. Edited by Judith E. Lief. Boston: Shambhala.
Smartphone-addicted Koreans brave ‘space out’ contest (Digital Trends)
Screen-addicted South Koreans compete in ‘space out contest (The Guardian)
The plan to ban work emails out of hours (BBC)
We take 1 million selfies every day – but what are they doing to our brains? (The Telegraph)
Can Your Smartphone Help You Meditate? (Buddhistdoor Global)