Tuesday 09 April: I exit work and enter the lift alone. I reflexively pull out my mobile phone (rarely used for making actual phone calls) and open a news site. Scanning headlines, I see nothing of interest and, in frustration, check a different site before the elevator doors open on the ground floor. As I walk to my car, I find a marginally interesting headline and click on it. The headline was clickbait – boring article! Nevertheless, I walk on, face glued to the phone until I reach my car. Later that evening at home I open a mindfulness app on the same phone and meditate for 10 minutes.

Mindfulness is hot right now – but what is it? A simple definition of mindfulness is paying attention to present experience non-judgementally. Another way to think about it is the simple phrase Be Here Now. Mindfulness is hard to explain because it is, in many ways, more like doing nothing than doing something. Many people think of meditation when they think of being mindful. Meditation is one of the most popular methods of practicing mindfulness. But you can be mindful anywhere – washing the dishes, having a conversation, even while in the bathroom!

The benefits of the age-old skill of Doing Nothing are continually to being scientifically supported. Health and well-being practitioners from surgeons to faith healers now spruik the benefits of this practice. Mindfulness helps you tolerate pain, beat addiction, overcome depression, lose weight, be a better parent, be a more productive worker, be better at sex.

How does Mindfulness work? One way seems to be by encouraging non-judgement. Many people already have an “Observer Mode”. But often this Observer Mode is often more an Inner Critic – full of unhelpful judgements and criticisms. In order to avoid the pain of this self-critical mode, many people have learnt to live mindlessly. The downside of living mindlessly is that we remain trapped in unhelpful habits. These habits might be addictions, or overeating, or aggressive communication, or avoidance. Being mindful allows us to observe these habits without judgement, and therefore be able to change them.

So, it seems that a good way to spend your precious time and money would be to go on a meditation retreat or start a meditation course.

Or, for a cheaper option, you could just stop practising mindlessness.

Richard Lopez from Rice University in Texas conducted a series of studies on the link between mindless digital device use and obesity and food temptation. He found that people who reported more media multitasking and compulsive digital use also had higher Body Mass Indices (BMI). Additionally, he placed participants in a Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) machine and showed them images of unhealthy food. The brains of Media-Multitaskers showed increased activation in areas of the brain associated with food temptation. This indicates a link between compulsive digital use and mindless eating.

When we compulsively check our phone, we are refusing to sit with present experience. Usually we are escaping boredom or anxiety or awkwardness. Refusing to just Be Here Now. We are training our brains to be intolerant of distress. Training our attention to be always engaged in novelty. Learning to feel less comfortable with stillness and space.

Many of my clients have digitally unhealthy habits. They obsessively check social media/property prices/news/sports. Many of the very same clients are practising meditation in order to manage stress.

Am I any better? I learnt to meditate via an app on my phone several years ago. After practising meditation for a few months, I started noticing benefits to my stress and anxiety levels. Around the same time, I found the compulsive “pleasure” of reading internet news sites. Although I might tell myself I’m staying informed, I know that in reality, I’m just staying distracted. To this day, I still meditate and still mindlessly check internet news. The good work of mindfully meditating being counterbalanced by mindless phone use.

Its time I switched off!

5 thoughts on “Mindfulness/Mindlessness”

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