(This has been published in the Globe and Mail: https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/its-time-to-put-your-device-down-and-practisemindfulness/article36690118/)
When was the last time you stopped to smell the roses? It’s cliche and trite,but the message holds more meaning than just bombarding your olfactory senses with a wonderful smell.
Going for a walk anywhere these days is a practice in dodging distracted people. Headsets in and eyes lowered, people are walking about without paying any attention to what is going on around them. It is amusing to watch two techno-zombies bump into each other, upset with being interrupted from their screen. Just the other day I saw two heads-down people try to avoid each other, fail by bumping into each other, and, then, still with their eyes glued to their devices, both try to go the same direction and collide again.
The distraction doesn’t just impact in a harmless way either. Three of the last four years have set records for the number of pedestrian fatalities, and it is possible that it is a combination of distracted drivers and distracted pedestrians that have led to this increase.
My grandmother used to call the television the ‘idiot box’ but I think we may have a new contender for that moniker. People are so focused on the tiny screen in front of them that they are not taking the time to look around, pay attention to their surroundings or enjoy the moment they are in.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment, where you are and what you are doing. It is a chance to look at the people, the scenery, the world around you. When you are with friends, be with them. Not paying attention to the world around you has consequences not only for you but for others as well.
A friend related a story about his most recent subway adventure; a mom with her face immersed in her device rushed off the train and left her toddler behind. Whatever was on the phone was more important than her child! Fortunately, my friend recognized the situation and got off at the next stop with the little guy and brought him to the subway agent. The agent told him that this is not the first time she had seen this happen!
How often have you been at a dinner where the people you are eating with are on their screens instead of conversing and connecting with the others at the table? Is it more important to brag about the fun time you are having as opposed to actually having a fun time? Do we really need a play-by-play of time you are spending with others while we are not there?
The purpose of all the devices in our lives are to allow us to respond from any where at any time, yet we use them to respond ALL the time. Far from making things easier, they have taken away the easy aspects and replaced them with stress. “I need to respond to this right now”, “What did that person post today?”, “Just let me read this one thing” are all demands on your time at this instant. This need for instant gratification and connection has even manifested into a new psychological phenomenon: “Phantom vibration syndrome”, the feeling that your device is vibrating in your pocket even when it isn’t there.
The best part of the mindfulness practice is the peace of mind you get from it. Once you learn to leave the device alone, or to only check it at certain times, you will naturally be more present and relaxed. Over the past several months I have stopped checking my phone all the time and have started to be more in the moment, I have put the electronics away and spent time with people. My stress level has decreased and my happiness has increased.
Multitasking really isn’t. It’s doing several things poorly instead of one thing really well. People mistakenly believe that they can multitask effectively, but study after study has shown that the human brain is simply not able to. I’ve been in far too many meetings where one, or several, people are typing away on their computer or fiddling on their device and they grind the meeting to a halt when asked a question: “Sorry, can you repeat that?”, “I didn’t quite get what you are saying”, or “Wait, what?” Instead of the honest thing they should say “Sorry I wasn’t paying any attention to what you were talking about because I was distracted with something I think is more important than all of you, so please indulge me and repeat everything you have been saying again while I waste even more time.”.
When I first started my mindful practice I thought it was going to be some jive hippy stuff, or some pseudo religious ceremony, but it really wasn’t either of those things. Taking some time each day to be in the moment was actually more freeing than I had expected. We hall have busy lives juggling work, family, friends, health, commuting, goals, sports, hobbies and a myriad of other tasks, so how can you find time to be mindful? It turns out that you can be mindful while you are doing other things, or you can focus 5 to 10 minutes just as you wake up or go to sleep. Being mindful, truly in the moment, helps you be the best you can be and allows you to be part of the world around you.
So you don’t have to stop and smell the roses, but you can at least notice that they are there.