Last week I attended a mindfulness seminar.
The genial psychologist running it talked for some time about the benefits of mindfulness, which included but weren't limited to:
- A reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Increased productivity and the ability to concentrate for long stretches of time
- A greater sense of accomplishment and fulfilment in our working and personal lives
- Better and deeper sleep
He also spoke at length about the science of attention, which I enjoyed.
While I found the talk informative, I left feeling disappointed that he hadn't spoken more about our (yours, my) relationship with technology and social media. He professed that rapid transformation in one's relationship with it is possible, as he went on to evidence probable increases in grey matter and in our capacity for greater attention to the things that matter to us, with the introduction of a daily mindfulness or meditation practice. The extent of his "digital detox" advice was to put one's phone on aeroplane mode whilst working and to limit internet entertainment to two hours a day.
Whilst Dr Mindful's advice was good advice, it felt a little reductive.
While I don't disagree with the science of mindfulness and the relevance of it for improving the quality of our lives and increasing our capacity for greater attention and presence, I don't agree that simply turning my phone onto aeroplane mode is sufficient to beef up my frontal grey matter, nor are conversations of this kind engaging me in questions about why I'm so eager to quell the unease that is driving me to use the flashy, shiny thing in the first place.
Social media and internet technologies are, no surprises, addictive. Each time we receive a text message, an invite to a party on Facebook, a like on an Instagram pic, we get a tiny hit of dopamine to the brain. Which is the chemical that's released, as you probably know when you gamble, drink alcohol or have sex. It feels good. So you keep going back for more. Yum Yum.
But a pertinent question is rarely of us asked alongside the dopamine declaration. And that is, what is it that we're scared of and why might technology help us to not feel so afraid and alone (albeit in the short term) and why might this be a dangerous thing?
This quote is taken from an Atlantic article published back in 2013 and it sums something very important up:
"A typical trajectory goes something like this. In the early phase of addiction, using drugs and alcohol can simply be fun; or it can be a form of self-medication that quells persistent self-loathing, anxiety, alienation, and loneliness. Meanwhile once-rewarding activities, such as relationships, work, or family, decline in value. The attraction of the drug starts to fade as the troubles accrue—but the drug retains its allure because it blunts mental pain, suppresses withdrawal symptoms, and douses craving."
(Sound familiar if substituting drugs for smartphone?)
As I have written about in previous posts, I was ( until very recently) previously addicted to the feel good buzz I got from checking social media and my email account whilst working on my university and work assignments. While I was "up to date" and allaying FOMO, I was also feeling pretty darn yuck about myself. I would walk away at the end of a work day feeling wired, unaccomplished and EXHAUSTED. I hadn't really done much actual work, but I'd used, what Cal Newport terms "busyness as a proxy for productivity." I looked busy, I felt busy... but I wasn't being productive. Rephrase... I wasn't creating meaningful work of original creative value. I was swimming, and breathing and coping and half smiling.
Understanding why I might do what I do, without wanting to do it, knowing why I sneak in a quick check when it's not convenient or appropriate is as important (for me) to the conversation about mindfulness as is learning about why kids let loose in nature felt, "happier" after a week with no screens. Why am I hardwired to feel connection, but why am I so terrified by it, and is technology doing something to my brain that's making it more difficult for me to feel vulnerable?
Am I using technology as a proxy for connection?
Am I using technology to avoid feeling vulnerable?
As I discussed in my previous post about social media and value, when we don't have a process to examine our behaviour by, when we aren't equipped with the goods that would empower us to make thoughtful, carefully considered decisions, it's easier to just do what they're doing and not engage in some deep philosophising of our own.
In the interest of keeping things process focused, shall we look at one for this dilemma? How do I know if technology is being used in my life as a "proxy for connection?" (or to avoid feeling vulnerable)
Below are a few questions that I asked myself following this talk last week. The result seem to indicate that yes, I may be, probably am sometimes using technology as a proxy for connection. The results, though not wonderful have helped to clarify what I want and what I don't.
- How do I feel when a friend is on their phone while we're out to dinner together? BAD
- Am I often too terrified to call... do I text all the time? Yes, because I don't want to seem awkward. Awkward is unattractive.
- Do I want my story to be, "oh we met on Tinder?" NO WAY!
- What does vulnerability look like to me, and am I consciously avoiding being and feeling it? It looks brave and awkward, and YES to the second part.
- Am I avoiding feeling the pain and fear of going where I've never gone before by watching movies all weekend? A little, perhaps.
I'm trying to write an honours thesis at the moment-today, RIGHT NOW and it's terrifying. It's terrifying because I've never gone this far before. I don't know if I can do it. I'm scared. But the alternative to feeling scared, is feeling distracted and unfulfilled and to grow old and sour at my past self for not being braver. So for now, I'm choosing the vulnerable things. The way I see it I don't have a choice... well I do, always... but the alternative is not worth choosing.
The header image is of Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing. He is famous for cracking the German Enigma ciphers during the Second World War with his famous Turing Machine. Some regard him as the father of modern computer science. Sadly, he took his own life at the tender age of 41. Rest in celestial peace Alan :)