Grant me a moment to stalk this unknowing monk. I took this picture in Dharamasala, India in 2013. I remember coming to the end of a hike and walking past this man and feeling struck by him. He’s wearing a pair of trainers (seemingly indoor 5-a-side football shoes!), has one legged propped up against the post looking casual and cool and… he's on his smartphone! Yes a buddhist monk on his smartphone. I couldn’t believe it! My brain struggled to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory things together.
I remember asking myself: Is he even allowed to do that? Does this make him a rubbish monk? Isn’t he supposed to be meditating? What’s his relationship like with that thing in his hand?
Ok, that last question was perhaps less stupid than the others. What is his relationship like with that thing in his hand? I really believe that we should be fundamentally questioning our relationships with technology at the moment. For all the understandable worries about AI, sophisticated hacks into political systems and other global and geo-political fears we have about technology, I think many of us could do not with looking at those big questions but with looking directly in front of us. At the things in our hands.
In the same way that many people will have an alcoholic drink daily but not consider themselves alcoholics, I think many of us judge others for being glued to their screens when we’re just as bad, putting this in the category of 'something that somebody else does’ rather than something we do.
I’m pretty committed to not letting technology intrude into my in-person relationships and have a load of routines and personal hygiene around my use of technology (l’ll post them soon in case they’re valuable to you too). And yet recently my son was talking to me and I answered with a ‘Hmmm. Hmmm.’ and he said to me “Jon? Are you actually listening to me? Or are you just on your phone?”. This is terrible. An 8 year old boy ignored by his dad because of a phone?! That’s not normal.
Even I who consider this carefully, have a defensive tone pop up in my mind when he picks me up on it. I think, ‘Yeah, but everybody does that…'. When I should be thinking 'Shit! Everybody does that!'. Everybody doing that is in no way a good argument for me doing that too (this is some version of what I call the status quo bias, I’ll write about it another time).
So what is that monk’s relationship like with his phone?
Well I’m a reasonably committed meditator, but I would need about 10,000 hours more to have a brain even close to knowing what his relationship is like with his phone. But from my limited insight into the nature of my own mind, and into its reaction to technology, I can say that weirdly meditation and that phone are useful conversations to combine. Have you ever really noticed, first hand, what happens to your mind when using your phone? Here are some scenarios that I experience.
I’m at home with no clear plan. I’ve finished with work for the day. My family are busy doing their thing. I notice my mind start to crave something to alleviate the micro-boredom and so it flickers between things I could do right now. Just to give me something to do. It goes to the phone first. First on the list is the phone. Luckily my phone is probably on airplane mode and I’ve deleted almost any addictive app (except WhatsApp!). So next I think of my laptop. But I’ve promised myself not to work. So maybe then I’ll consider a book, or a walk, or just sitting. On these days where I succeed in conquering my mind's reaction to boredom not by grabbing my phone but by sitting with it or choosing something good for me, I notice the madness first hand. That I’m hooked. And it takes constant willpower to not go for the top 2 on the list.
What about when using the phone? Well my phone is useful. Maybe I should answer that message. Maybe I should check it one last time. But once I start using it what happens? It’s so easy to get sucked in. I notice that I go there and if I have a text, my mind speeds up and feels gratified. If I haven’t got a message, then it also speeds up, now looking for gratification somewhere. When I’m bored in a social situation I go to my phone first. When I’m anxious I go to my laptop to ‘do work’. And the list goes on…
Over the couple of years the deepening of my meditation practice has coincided with researching addictive design for my recent book Tech Monopolies: a short rant about addictive design. In this period I’ve found these two interests to at times really be in contrast to one another and yet at other times, not at all. Noticing first hand what is happening to our minds when using these superficial devices actually offers a strangely deep insight into who we are. By noticing my mind’s reactions to technology I notice my anxieties, my insecurities, my vulnerabilities, my needs.
(I actually got a whole audience to do a micro meditation on their use of their phones at a talk recently. It's at the end of this talk.)
So perhaps because we are so reliant on them, our devices actually offer us a great opportunity to catch our minds out. To notice what is driving them. To notice what feelings are driving our thoughts and behaviours. To notice the underlying reactions and habit patterns of the mind. We have an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to grow.
Perhaps that monk really was mindful on his phone. Perhaps he wasn’t scrolling through Instagram but rather was fully 'noticing what it was like to be him in the present moment’. Perhaps we could all do with having a slightly more buddhist approach to technology and noticing the cycles of craving and aversion that are the root cause of much of our suffering.
Perhaps not. Anyway, I'll go hit refresh on my inbox tab for the 10th time today to see if anybody new has validated my need for self-worth.