Tech Sanity, Part One: Mindful Phoning

Jay Michaelson
August 1, 2018
Two hands hold a smartphone

Smartphones: they’re miracles… and monsters.
We all know that our phones are increasingly indispensable, for staying in touch with family and friends to ordering pizza to, I don’t know, refinancing your mortgage. And yet we also all know how addictive they can be. (If you don’t know already, several studies have confirmed this.) Fortunately, there are several realistic, achievable ways to regain your tech-sanity and take back your life from your phone. We’ll look at some specific tricks in future issues of this newsletter. Right now, let’s look at how mindfulness and cell-phone use can interact to your benefit – before, during, and after you’re tapping and swiping.

1. Before You Power On

Let’s say your phone is in your pocket.  You’re about to reach for it.  Are you aware of what’s happening at that moment? As you build your brain’s capacity for mindfulness, you get better and better at noticing the small, subtle movements of mind at moments like these -- moments that precede taking action. So, if you’ve been practicing mindfulness, you might hear a little voice in your head (the good kind) asking “huh, what is going on right now?” Or maybe “huh, what am I feeling right now?” Or, “huh, do I really want to do this or am I just habitually fidgeting in a way that actually will make me feel worse rather than better?” Depending on how assertive your inner voice sounds.

In that mindful moment, you can “check in” with your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. For example, I might notice that I’m bored, and trying to keep my mind occupied instead of just relaxing. Alternatively, I might notice that I’m hate-checking Facebook to see what that person I can’t stand (but secretly envy) is up to. Or I may well notice, “hey, that’s fine, I’m just in the mood to browse Instagram for a bit.”

You can do this without being a master meditator, of course. Just set the intention to pay attention, as the somewhat corny saying goes. When you’re reaching for your phone, just “check in” in this way. No judgment. Just curiosity. What’s going on right now? How am I feeling? Is this conscious or compulsive?

Once again, it’s not that the answer to “why am I doing this” is always bad. Sometimes you’re checking your phone because you’re interested in the news, or you’re keeping up with a friend, or you’re just relaxing and having fun. That’s fine. But if you give this practice a try, you’ll also see that a lot of other times you’d really rather relax. You can even use your phone as an object of meditation, as this guided meditation by Alexis Santos suggests:

Try 'Using Your Phone' (in the app)

2. Before You Scroll

We now know that the most successful social media companies – Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), and Twitter – are constantly re-engineering their products to make them more addictive. That’s why you have an “infinite news feed” instead of having to click for more – just that little bit of reduced friction increases the amount of time people spend online. Which is good for these companies’ business, but not necessarily your sanity.

So, before you scroll onward, consider trying the same “check in” as before you began. As before, mindfulness becomes second nature over time, but if you’re just starting out, you may need to set an intention to “check in” every so often. (Chances are, you’ll forget more than you remember. That’s fine.) As before, the “check in” itself is very, very simple: what’s going on right now? How am I feeling?  Do I consciously want to keep scrolling down my newsfeed, or am I on auto-pilot?  This simple “gut check” can take literally two seconds. And yet, in my experience, it saves me several hours per year of scrolling on auto-pilot and actually making myself feel worse. Cruising along on default will almost inevitably lead to wasting time and feeling bad about doing so. You have to be proactive. Fight the tech industry’s addictive engineering tricks with counter-addictive mindfulness.

3. After You’re Done

Finally, I want to make a case for regret. These days, “no regrets” is some kind of YOLO mantra, but that’s more than a little narcissistic.  Because sometimes, you say and do stuff that, let’s be honest, you ought to regret. I’m not talking about big stuff like betraying your partner or ignoring the plight of the poor. I’m talking about little stuff like sniping over email or using Facebook as your personal therapy couch.

Here’s the tip. When the moment has passed, and you’ve put down your phone, do one last “check in” to see how you feel, in your gut (or heart), about the things you said while you were still in the thick of it. Don’t rack yourself with guilt or feel bad about what a lousy person you are.  Just… notice. Try not to mess with what you’re feeling; don’t try to ace the test by cheating. Just see what’s there. And if there’s regret for an uncharitable word, accept it. Soften to it. Let it happen.

If you do this with regularity, the mind learns the healthy kind of regret, as opposed to the unhealthy kind of guilt. Regret doesn’t feel good. Saying mean things doesn’t feel good, if you’re paying attention. So if you just pay some attention to how you’re feeling after a session of technology use, you don’t have to beat yourself up, or go into the various stories about how you were right (or wrong), or invent stories about reward and punishment. The mind learns by itself.  Just as you avoid hot stoves or thorny branches, you’ll avoid activities that lead to regret. Just give yourself a minute to be mindful of it. And, hey, when you’ve said something warm, supportive, kind, or helpful – notice that too! Kindness feels good. Just as you can break out of negative patterns by noticing their effects, so too you can reinforce positive ones by noticing theirs. All it takes is a little mindfulness, either ingrained or cultivated, to taste the rewards. Enjoy!

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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