Perhaps the most basic tendency of the human mind is to get fixated on things. We ruminate about things we (or others) have done; we worry about things that may happen in the future. We also build up an idea of what kind of person we are – what opinions we hold, what values we stand for – and grow attached to this idea (our ego). The mind’s normal state, then, in the words of Zen teacher David Loy, is one in which it keeps getting “trapped” as it grasps for one thing after another. Many contemplative traditions, Zen included, share an aim to free us from the compulsion to fixate on things.
Fixation is perhaps easier than ever in the digital era. A steady stream of alerts and notifications are in a constant bid to grab our attention and the spaces throughout the day when we are just present with what is, content not to be entertained, have become fewer and fewer. The other day, when waiting in line to mail something at the post office, I found myself automatically reaching for my phone. Looking up for a moment, everyone else in the line seemed to be glued to theirs, too.
Partly, it’s the way that media is presented to us – click-bait and never-ending news feeds – that’s given rise to this state of affairs. But a question I’ve been wondering lately is how much this has to do with our smartphones per se? There is, to begin with, their portability. Before the rise of smartphones, we didn’t carry laptops around in our jacket pockets whereas our phones go everywhere we go. While this is clearly a key factor, something else to consider is the extent of smartphones’ multifunctionality. We can debate how much having one device do so many things makes sense – more on that below – but coming at this purely from the perspective of the way that our phones grab our attention, their multifunctionality is highly relevant – for two reasons.
First, there is what you could call the “classic distraction scenario”: you pick up your phone to check the weather, say, only to notice a message from a friend; before you realize it, you’re on someone’s Instagram feed – 20 minutes later.
The second way it plays out, though, is the ‘mindless grasping impulse’, when we pick up our phones for no particular reason whatsoever. As we get used to reaching for our phones all the time, for all manner of reasons, this impulse becomes a force of habit. When I reached for my phone in the post office, I did so with nothing specific in mind that I am checking. It’s simply that my mind would rather fixate on something than the alternative: just being present for a moment, with no stimulation, no task, to fixate my attention on.
With this latter type of grasping, we can make an analogy between smartphones and money. The sociologist Georg Simmel called money “the most egoic of commodities” because the potential things we can buy with it are almost infinite. Suppose you were given a yacht worth $1 million, but under the condition you could never resell it. While you might get somewhat attached to the yacht – and the idea of owning it – you would likely get far more attached to $1 million if you received this, free to spend it as you wish. Simmel’s point is that the egoic mind will likely get far more attached to the money, with all its possibilities, than it would to any particular object of the same value.
Similarly, when we mindlessly grasp for our phones, it is because we’ve internalized the equation: smartphone = possibilities. But instead of possibilities of what money can buy, here, it’s possibilities for what the mind can consume next (and the dopamine hit that follows). But there is a cost: such mental consumption takes us away from being present in the moment, whatever we are doing and whoever we are with. (And as an aside: if the content we fixate on revolves around people projecting their opinions about things or a social media ‘show reel’ of their lives, this can serve to strengthen our own egoic attachments).
The challenge, then, is to use our smartphones wisely. Advice on how to rethink our relationship with our technologies typically proceeds in one of two directions: how to cultivate qualities of mind or how to use these technologies in ways that work with, not against, our personal goals. What both approaches typically share is the recognition that, with the brains we have, multitasking is not an effective way of getting things done. It serves, rather, to fragment our attention and reduce our focus on the task at hand. “Mind” solutions encourage us to actively fill our lives with practices – like meditation – that boost our capacity to be present with ourselves and those around us. “Technology” solutions include tips such as turning off notifications or restricting access to our social media feeds during certain periods of the day. In social settings, Sherry Turkle advises us to preserve “sacred spaces for conversation” by not putting a phone between ourselves and the person we are sharing a meal with.
Both of these approaches point to the merits of some form of ‘single-tasking’, albeit in different ways. So perhaps we can reflect on this general strategy in light of the smartphones’ multifunctionality: how multifunctional do we, in fact, want them to be?
The point is not that smartphones shouldn’t have more than one function. Integrating certain functions – your calendar with your email, and so on – can clearly be helpful. The point, rather, is to give consideration to the question: which set of functions do I want this device to do, knowing my own psychological weaknesses and so on? A few years ago, I didn’t question the usefulness of having an alarm clock, MP3 player, camera and phone in one device. But since then, I’ve noticed the drawbacks of an “all-in-one” approach. I now use an alarm clock for waking up, a camera for taking photos, and so on. And, somewhat oxymoronically, I actually have two phone-like devices. One of these serves as a ‘smartphone lite’: a budget phone that can connect to WiFi, but has no sim card or bills, and which serves for a host of ‘distraction-free’ functions: playing music, maps, an app for checking the weather and a timer bell. It’s the device I use most of the time, and it removes the temptation to see messages or browse the web during that time.
That works for me, but obviously how we configure our devices will depend on our life circumstances. But the general principle here, which I think is worth reflecting on, centers on a re-enchantment of taking one thing at a time in a world in which gadgets that integrate more and more functions are marketed as being unequivocally helpful to our lives. We can challenge that received wisdom by experimenting for ourselves with tech usage on a more ‘single-tasking’ basis. This can yield benefits well beyond our performance and well-being, though, because it can support our attempts to unhook from mental fixations: to be present in the situations we find ourselves in – whatever is going on in our own minds and whoever we happen to be interacting with at that moment. Just one small step, perhaps, towards Loy’s description of an enlightened mind: one characterized by an awareness that is completely free and open, fully liberated from all fixations.
Dan Nixon leads the “Paying Attention”initiative at Perspectiva and is a freelance writer on themes relating to the human mind, technology, and the future of the economy.