THE BLOG

To Unplug, or Not to Unplug, That Is the (Wrong) Question

26/02/2014 12:52 GMT | Updated 01/09/2014 15:59 BST

I must admit that I had a knee jerk reaction when I read this opening line in Evgeny Morozov's article "The Mindfulness Racket: The evangelists of unplugging might just have another agenda" in the New Republic:

In yet another sign that the new age lingo of the 1960s is still very much with us, "mindfulness" has become the new "sustainability": No one quite knows what it is, but everyone seems to be for it.

His assertion that "no one quite knows what it is" does not seem fully informed. The practice of intentionally bringing curious and accepting attention to present experience has been explicitly taught for thousands of years. This aside, I stuck with him long enough to appreciate his final sentiment:

If it takes an act of unplugging to figure out how to do it ["mindfulness"], let's disconnect indeed. But let us not do it for the sake of reconnecting on the very same terms as before. We must be mindful of all this mindfulness.

Piggybacking on this concept, Gracy Olmstead, in her article "Defining Digital "Mindfulness,"" in The American Conservative finishes with a similar thought:

Stepping away from technology will not make us more or less mindful--just as a day of detoxing or fasting will not automatically change our perception of food. In all things, we want to cultivate Aristotle's virtuous mean, searching for that place between excess and defect where excellence dwells. Mindfulness does not necessitate pure abstention from iPhones, Twitter, and the like--it is not about neglecting certain platforms. Rather, it defines how we use those platforms. The reason for a "fast," "detox," or what-have-you is to help us see the big picture, to give us greater purpose, understanding, and discretion.

As someone who coaches people and organizations in how to be more present, positive, and purposeful, I often field questions related to the omnipresent pull of technology on limited attentional resources. In response to these questions, I think it is important to acknowledge that technology is not going away. Of course, any one of us is free to go "off the grid" and live without cable, wifi, and cell phones. I have been on extended silent retreats, and I can attest to the opportunity this provides to deepen a practice. But, I know from experience that I am capable of practicing mindlessness quickly upon my return. There is value in taking a break from interacting with screens and experiencing live human beings and three-dimensional life in real time. And it is possible (and very useful) to practice mindfulness in our interactions with technology.

When I first began a mindfulness practice, I was told repeatedly that my time on the cushion was important, but that being mindful in daily activity was the true benefit. Technology offers many chances to see the pull of sensations and habits, and to see the choice that is actually available in their presence. In the same way that a chocolate chip cookie can end up in my mouth before I am aware of what I am doing, I can find myself surfing mindlessly from one social media platform to another. Technology can be either another item on a long list of things to complain about, or an ever present opportunity to practice how we use our attention. The former absolves us of personal responsibility and the latter requires it.

Yes, the ding that announces a new arrival to your inbox can be habitually responded to as something that requires your immediate attention. The same tone can be used as a reminder to take a breath, wiggle your toes, smile, and refocus on the task at hand. Pausing, taking a breath, and reading your email one last time before clicking send could save some cleanup time later if it helps you catch an unnecessarily snarky phrase. Noticing the urge to check text messages and then refraining when you are in a conversation with a live human being can be a powerful practice.

When you are in a conversation with another person, there are constant sensations and thoughts of disappointment or excitement based on how people are responding to what you have to say. Many of these internal reactions go unnoticed. The same phenomenon occurs when you look at how people are engaging online with one of your posts - and it could be a source of great insight if you brought some mindfulness to the experience.

Whether we are plugged in or not, the common denominator remains the same - life does not go on hiatus when we plug in, but we do get to choose whether we are there for it.

What are your thoughts about mindfulness and technology? Please let me know in the comment section.

Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching and supporting the transformational practice of being present, open, and purposeful. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices than can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit www.AppliedAttention.com

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