Our Endangered Presence
(aka: Life in the Smartphone Lane)
by Suzan Colón
Ping. Beep. Buzz. Flash. Your phone wants your attention, right now. It just has to tell you that someone texted or liked your Instagram post, or that there’s Breaking News! And while you're at it, check your email, because you haven’t in five or ten minutes.
Sound a little too familiar?
Smartphones are very useful devices that help us in myriad ways, but the price for their assistance and convenience is our ability to concentrate. It’s unlikely anyone knew that our brains, hardwired to seek information, would become addicted to checking our phones. Now that we do know, software engineers use that capacity for addiction deliberately to get our eyeballs on apps and websites.
The other day, I was at the supermarket waiting on line and I noticed all these magazines about mindfulness. There were at least six of them, all promising to teach us how to be more mindful. I was the only one checking them out, though— everyone else was looking at their phones.
Even as a mindfulness practitioner, a Yoga and meditation teacher, and a writer who needs to focus, I’ve had this happen myself. I’ve sat on the couch with the husband I waited decades for and paid attention not to him but to a plastic and metal rectangle in my hand. I’ve been on the Yoga mat and wondered how many notifications I was missing.
But because I teach Yoga and meditation, I’m also aware of—well, how to be aware. I just do one thing at a time. I bring my attention to whatever I’m doing, without getting frustrated when thoughts come up. Our minds will wander; it’s okay, as long as we gently steer our focus back to that one thing we’re doing.
Think back to your life about twenty years ago (if you’re old enough!) It doesn’t have to be a specific time, place, or event, but a general feeling based on this question: What was life like before you had a smartphone?
Okay, it might have been less convenient. But aside from that, remember what it was like to work on something for a job or school, to see a movie or read a book, have a good talk over coffee with a friend, eat a meal, or do anything without a smartphone beeping and pinging? You probably gave whatever you were doing your full attention. If what you were doing wasn’t that interesting, maybe you gave it enough attention to get the thing done. In other words, you were being mindful, without even knowing it or trying.
I’m as likely as anyone to become seduced by the lure of likes on my social media posts. But I also remember what it was like to be able to get lost in a book, or in drawing, or in having a conversation, face to face, uninterrupted by pings or rings. I remember what it was like to daydream and think of things I wanted to do or be.
Being mindful now takes effort, and for me, sometimes a little yarn. Knitting, I’ve found, requires just enough attention for my mind to have something to focus on, while not becoming a distraction in itself. And Yoga is a moving meditation that steers my awareness back to how I feel, reconnecting my consciousness with my physical self. Many people rediscover and strengthen their ability to focus by drawing, or reading a physical book, where alerts don’t intrude on a paper page. And when I get together with friends—in person, not virtually!—we keep our phones in our bags. It’s so good to give them my attention, and to have theirs.
There are lots of solid scientific health reasons to be mindful, but one of the best is simple: Remember what it was like to be entranced. To be captivated by a book, a piece of art, a person… That feeling is a form of satisfaction, and joy, that whatever is flickering across our phones can never match.
Suzan Colón is a former senior editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, and has written ten books, including the inspirational memoir Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times. Suzan has been practicing yoga for twenty-five years and teaching since 2002, with certificates in basic and intermediate Hatha Yoga, Therapeutic Yoga, and Yoga for Arthritis. Her writing has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Jane, Latina, Details, Harper’s Bazaar, and Rolling Stone, and on Oprah.com and Huffington Post. She has appeared on the Today show, The Early Show, NPR, and other media outlets.