This Digital Life

Upgrading Our Inner Lives

To handle the speed of modern digital life, we need to train our minds.

By Rohan Gunatillake

Back in 1965 Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel and the then head of research and development, made an observation that is now known as “Moore’s Law.” He stated that advances in hardware technology and engineering are such that the number of components that can be crammed onto a silicon chip would double every eighteen months, and therefore the processing power of computers would double every eighteen months. Since then Moore’s Law has become shorthand for the rate of change of modern digital life. Not only is computing power doubling (and more) in speed every eighteen months, it feels like everything else is as well. Open the newspaper and there is another complex global problem to get our heads around. Open the app store and there is yet another social media service or gaming sensation which we just have to get into. Open the inbox and there is a pile of new things to respond to. Open the calendar and there’s just no space. And we daren’t even check our voicemail. Thanks, Gordon.

The influential technology commentator Clay Shirky says that the main problem we face is not actually information overload but filter failure. He argues that we have always had the challenge of dealing with lots and lots of information but in the past we have designed ways of curating and filtering alongside the growth of the data so that it felt manageable. The problem now is that that co-evolution of information growth and filter-building has collapsed and the lack of investment into dams means that the information is drowning us all. Given that investing in our minds provides us with inner defenses in a world with few outer ones, it is no wonder then that more and more people are turning to mindfulness.

The amount of things we have to deal with in modern life and the rise of mindfulness are two sides of the same coin. All the challenges of outside make us feel the need to turn inside. Unless we build up our inner resources to deal with a world out there which feels faster and faster, then here on the inside, at best we’ll be stressed out and at worst, we will burn out.

The desire to perfect our outer lives has been one of the main stories of the last fifty years. As a society and an economy we now live in a world that places a lot of value both on the acquisition of material objects as well as on a magazine-cover body. These things are not intrinsically bad things to aspire to, but what happens when we actually get the car, the house, the fame and the abs? For all of its flaws, one of the good things about celebrity culture is that it signals loud and clear that having it all on the outside is not enough. Even if we perfect our outer life, unless we develop our inner life it’s only ever going to be a cake half-baked.

Having a strong inner life means that we have built up qualities such as kindness to ourselves, and have reliable access to calm, concentration, and joy. We are able to deal with things when times are tough. We typically spend a lot of time and energy working on our outer lives but once we begin investing in the inside we start to realize that having these less visible resources reduces some of the reliance on just getting more stuff to make us happy. Then if we do still end up wanting the car and the partner and status and the phone, we will at least do it with lightness.

So if a trend of the last fifty years has been how we as a society have become fixated on upgrading our outer lives, then a key trend of the next fifty must be doing the same to our inner lives. The alternative is that as our outer technologies continue to explode, our own personal ability to deal with that change will not stay in step. That’s where mindfulness comes in. By training in mindfulness we give ourselves a chance of moving toward a Moore’s Law for the mind. While we might not be able to double our brain power every eighteen months, if we practice regularly, we will see marked improvements in how we cope with the travails of modern life. And that starts with dealing with stress and learning how to relax.

Practice: Morning Glory

The first thing we do when we wake up can set the whole tone for our day and should be handled with care. Getting out of the right side of the bed is a choice we can actively make so let’s make sure we do. Spoiler alert: the best thing to do with our first moment of waking consciousness isn’t check our phone. So here is a little morning routine that is pretty great. When you first remember, ideally when still lying in bed and definitely before you’ve checked your phone, drop the idea into your mind that you’re going to have a positive day just by stating the intention to yourself to do so. Then spend a few minutes scanning your experience for whatever feels the most pleasant— such as a warm or relaxed part of the body or a simple delight in the sounds of nature outside your window. Spend one or two minutes resting your mind on that experience as much as possible. If there’s nothing obvious to rest on, just smile— even a fake one works— and notice the simple relaxation and happiness that comes with that. Then when you get up watch how long your warm mood persists and notice what it is that makes it fade away.

Rohan Gunatillake is the creator of the buddhify app and author of Modern Mindfulness: How to Be More Relaxed, Focused, and Kind While Living in a Fast, Digital, Always-On World, from which this article is reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.

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