Mindfulness can create a healthier relationship between humanity and technology. It starts when we bring our senses back online.
Mindfulness has gone mainstream. The ancient Buddhist practice was almost unknown until a generation ago, when Jon Kabat-Zinn began using it to help medical patients manage chronic pain and stress. Today, it benefits millions of people in settings as diverse as boardrooms, prisons, classrooms and military barracks — and, of course, yoga studios.
Meanwhile, a compelling body of scholarship chronicles just how mindless we’ve become with, and through, our use of technology. There’s a reason that Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his own children use iPads at home. The information at our fingertips enhances our lives, but the technology that delivers it can overwhelm us and put our visual, auditory, and tactile senses to sleep. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and chiropractors agree that unrestrained time online compromises our bodies, minds, and brains. Sleep patterns, social skills, mood, cognitive function, and ability to focus all degrade from unbounded time tethered to glowing, addictive screens.
It’s not the technology itself that’s the problem: it’s mismanagement of our agency over it. The solution isn’t to ban technology (good luck with that). Instead, we need to lay a foundation of mindfulness so that our daily encounters with technology do more good than harm. In an April 2017 interview about the mindfulness revolution that he helped to create, Kabat-Zinn said that the biggest distractor is not your iPhone: “It’s your own mind.”
The Road Back to Our Senses
Mindfulness balances technology by strengthening our sensory experience. I witnessed a revealing experiment last summer at The Mindful Unplug Experience at the Feathered Pipe Ranch retreat center in Montana. It reinforced the power of mindfulness to bring our senses back online. The exercise was choreographed by professional photographer and longtime yogi, Zane Williams. He’s putting down his camera more often these days to share with others the revelation of truly seeing and savoring their world.
The participants first sat marinating in the picturesque, nature-drenched setting of a mild and sunny Rocky Mountain summer day. Next, they put on light-blocking eye masks and sat in silence for 20 minutes on blankets on the soft lawn. Zane’s only instruction? Relax and notice your experience.
After they removed their masks and opened their eyes, I saw their expressions of surprise at the ‘new’ details they observed. Zane encouraged the group to pause in silence for an extended time to first take it all in. Some fixed their gaze on a discrete element of the visual landscape, and others turned their heads and bodies around slowly to survey the full 360-degree view.
Many reported seeing subtleties of color, shadow, movement, and texture that had gone unnoticed and unappreciated before the brief period of imposed sightlessness. A few were mesmerized by the shimmers of light glittering on the lake in the afternoon breeze. Still others were startled at how many rich, new layers of sound at the quiet ranch surfaced in their experience when their visual sense was subtracted for a time from the sensory equation.
Next, they were asked to stay silent, close their eyes, and open one hand to accept delivery of ‘something’ unidentified. It was a fresh strawberry.
First, feel it in your hand, note its temperature. Investigate its texture. Then, slowly put it in your mouth and taste and feel it. Do this unhurriedly, mindfully. Notice the shape of the berry on your tongue, become aware of the slight flavor shifts depending on where it is in your mouth. Finally, slowly chew and then swallow the berry. Be interested in the experience of swallowing.
A few minutes later, the participants were asked to volunteer to share what the sensory experiment revealed.
I jotted down some of their observations:
“I’ve been here dozens of times before, in this exact same spot, and never noticed before just how many shades of green there are!”
“I had no idea of how rich and layered the soundtrack of nature is until I deliberately closed down my visual input for a while.”
“I’d forgotten how vivid and vibrant color can be.”
“I think I smelled dandelions – was that my imagination?”
“I’m realizing how many opportunities I miss every day to relish the soundscape of nature.”
“Did anyone else hear the mountains humming?”
“I see the world differently around me now.”
The exercise was a real-life lesson in how mindfulness restores our connection to sensory experience. As such, it serves both as an antidote to technology’s numbing effects and perhaps even as a safeguard against them.
Not Anti-Technology, Just Anti-Mindlessness
Many of us benefit from the supercomputers in our pocket. But we also feel the tug to consume and create digital data almost all the time. As our awareness tilts toward the virtual world, our experience of the real world is compromised. The shift deepens with every tap, swipe and digital notification. It happens in small increments. We may not notice the cumulative effect on our senses as we are seduced to scroll our way ever deeper into distraction.
But each notification ‘ding’ could serve as an audible reminder of our power to assert dominion over our devices, especially if we practice mindfulness.
The rewards of commitment to fuller presence with the real world are known — and well documented. Senior research psychologist Robert Epstein, for example, shares the results of a classroom exercise that he conducts to make this point. He asks students to draw a detailed picture of an object they have seen many times from memory — a dollar bill. Next, he asks the students to make another drawing with a dollar bill physically present.
The second drawing is inevitably a more accurate and detailed representation of the object than the first. “The difference between the two diagrams,” says Epstein, “reminds us that visualizing something (that is, seeing something in its absence) is far less accurate than seeing something in its presence.”
We are, in other words, changed by the experience of presence.
Your Attention is Sacred Currency
Mindfulness is a potent and accessible practice that champions stillness and peace in a turbulent and noisy world. We are better and kinder stewards of our lives, our communities, and our planet when we tame the overproduction of stress hormones and the impulsive reactivity that accompanies them.
Perhaps committing to mindful presence with the real world improves our odds of restoring technology to its legitimate place as humanity’s servant, rather than its master. Try unplugging for a spell to see, hear, and taste what’s happening live. You may discover valuable insights about your inner landscape too.
Maybe we wake up one strawberry at a time. And mountains begin to hum.
SENSORY MINDFULNESS TIPS AND RESOURCES
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
This modern classic set in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley is a luscious literary meditation on seeing. Dillard writes, “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” See what I mean? Read the book.
Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-five Paintings to Change the Way You Live, by Christophe André
Written by a French psychiatrist and long-time meditator, this ingenious book has 25 carefully curated works of art presented from different perspectives. Elegant prose about each painting takes the reader on a journey into fresh visual mindfulness territory. Art lovers and meditators are guaranteed to swoon— and revisit this precious book again and again.
American Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray’s 2016 book dissects the terrain of body-based meditation practices to deposit you into deep levels of inner sensory awareness. The book includes a link to free downloads of guided practices recorded by the author.
Attics of My Life, by the Grateful Dead
Listen to it. Hear it.
Bonus! An easy DIY unplugged meditation to refine your auditory sensory literacy. Try this at home.
1. Power down your digital devices and put them in another room, entirely out of sight. Park yourself outside if the weather allows.
2. Take a comfortable seat and plug in your sit bones. Find the inner lift in your spine, relax your body from head to toe, and take a few minutes to be still, without “holding yourself” still.
3. Turn down the volume of any mind chatter by first shifting your awareness to your breath. Mentally say “I’m breathing in” on every inhale and “I’m breathing out” on every exhale.” Do this until any mind noise tames down at least a little bit. Keep it easy, don’t hassle yourself.
4. Stay as relaxed as you can be, softening your jaw, your tongue, your earlobes, your shoulders, your belly, your pinky toes, everything. Now listen for whatever sound is nearest to you. Hang out and listen — fully hear — and be interested in every detail of this closest-in sound. Notice its texture, qualities, pitch, timbre, and volume. Drag this part out. Stay with this first, nearest sound for a minimum of six breaths.
5. Continue, with a relaxed body and open mind, now listening for the next closest sound. It might be the hum of an appliance, birdsong, a cat’s purr, a ticking clock, or the rustling of leaves. Whatever it is, mentally report the news to yourself about the details of this next sound: its texture, qualities, pitch, timbre, and volume. Do your best to not make decisions or judgments about whether any sound is good or bad, desirable or unwanted, instead rest your focus on the sound itself. Welcome each sound. Invite it into your awareness. Push nothing away. Pull nothing in. Just be there, a curious listening vessel, for at least six to eight breaths.
6. Keep moving your hearing awareness in outward concentric circles, listening for each new layer of sound, one at a time. Stay present. Relax and soften, again and again, as you listen for, and hear, each new sound and hang out with it, involved, interested and aware, for six or more breaths. Isolate each individual sound. If mind chatter starts up again, don’t sweat it. Be delighted that you noticed it, and simply go back for a time noticing your inhales and exhales. Resume your sound awareness practice where you left off. Continue until you’ve reached the outermost sound in your auditory awareness.
7. When you’ve finished isolating all the individual sounds, take a few long breaths and bring all the sounds together in your awareness. Hear everything all at once. Listen attentively to everything there is to listen to. As you stitch the individual external sounds together, integrate awareness of the internal vibration and soft sound generated by your own breath. Include the sounds you make, even when you don’t talk. Leave nothing out, even stomach burbles.
8. Finally, shift your awareness into your physical body. Get grounded by sensing the ground under you. Keep it simple. Recommit to relaxing. Sense the soft pulse and vibration of your own inner soundtrack — your heart. Release any remaining remnants of physical tension.
9. Now be courageous and stay relaxed as you softly close out this meditation. Bring your eyes slowly open. You know what you just did? You Shut Up and Yoga’d. Good work. Consider not powering on your devices again for at least a little while.
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Illustration by Valeria Ko.