First published Psychology Today, March 29, 2016
Mindfulness is a meditation practice that is easy to learn and can be used anywhere. It is about maintaining "a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment."1 We’re hearing more and more about the ways the science behind mindfulness is being applied to healthcare, education, the criminal justice system, and more. One area where the science behind mindfulness hasn’t received as much attention is media and computing. Mindfulness is a word associated with peace and tranquility—it’s downright paradoxical to mention it beside words like media and computing—words strongly associated with mental activity and stress.
To get behind this paradox we intuit that we might be asked to set our smartphone aside for a period of time, or worse yet, turn it off altogether. Right away that thought makes some of us sweat. These technologies tell us the time, the weather, and the news. We use them to keep up with our schedules, our friends, and our investments—to track our activity, map our destinations, and answer our questions. They serve as portable concert halls, movie theaters, and gaming arcades. It’s no wonder we’re reluctant to allow terms like mindful media, mindful computing, and mindful technology to take up residence in our lives—much less the collective consciousness.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: What exactly do we mean by these terms? Can anything that’s so distracting be used to quiet the mind, or enhance a mindfulness practice? Does applying mindfulness to our digital lives mean turning off your television and smartphone? To answer questions we must bring our conscious attention to the way we’re using these technologies: are they facilitating our wellbeing or detracting from it? Here's a quick summary of the way I see this powerful intersection:
- Mindful media: Bringing the science of mindfulness to our media habits means paying attention to the impact media has on our bodies. Noticing what we're sensing and feeling while viewing a particular program. To do this, we need to watch ourselves watching the show. How are we breathing? What are we feeling? Although mindfulness does not involve passing judgement on our thoughts or feelings, this practice may lead us to question the impact of media on our overall wellbeing. Leading us to ask ourselves a few essential question: Does our media intake support healthy psychological states? Are we using it to cover up feelings of loneliness, sorrow, or depression? Do the shows we watch anchor us to our past or inspire us to live in the present moment? Have we ever considered the ways we might use media as a tool to empower and uplift ourselves? If not, we're missing out on a powerful tool for self-improvement. If this idea is new for you, try reading one of the books written by positive psychologists, Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding, that show us how we can use films to build character strengths and virtues.2
- Mindful computing/technology: Web surfing takes us on a ride, but sometimes it's more like being towed under a wave of mindlessness. Applying mindfulness to computing means paying attention to our thoughts and feelings as we engage with digital technologies. Is your breathing pattern short and rapid, or deep and relaxed? Researchers at Stanford University’s Calming Technology Lab have begun exploring breathing patterns in relationship to human-computer interactions, and the development of digital technologies that promote states of calm.3 We'll be hearing more about this area in the coming years. Author and consultant, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang suggests we can learn to use information technologies in ways that protect us from being perpetually distracted.4 Right now, one way we can engage in mindful, or contemplative computing is through noticing the type of interactions we have online. Mindful computing can include embodying the Cyberhero archetype through engaging in digital altruism, e-philanthropy, and digital activism--all activities that require us to be consciously aware of what we're doing, thinking, and feeling.5 Just as there are films that support our wellbeing, so too are there are Apps that support relaxation, meditation, and lucid dreaming. Which brings us to the very thing that makes our pulse race . . .
- Mindful disconnect: If sleeping is the only time we're disconnected from electronic stimuli, we're shortchanging our senses. Undoubtedly, information technology enhances our lives in many ways, but the technology that delivers it can also dull our senses. The biological impact of electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) on the body remains the subject of ongoing research.6 As an energy field in its own right, the human body deserves the chance to give us its own feedback—feedback we can only access if we slow down and tune in. Plus, there are other benefits, including consciously focusing our attention on our loved ones. How do we pause long enough to restore and revive our five senses and go back to our everyday lives consciously? This summer, I’m excited to be involved in the “Mindful Unplug Experience” a first-of-its-kind retreat workshop at the Feathered Pipe Ranch under Montana’s Big Sky.7 The Mindful Unplug is designed to equip participants with the ability to bring a new sense of consciousness to their lives and help them “return to the world of noise and technology grounded, conscious, and well equipped for a commitment to sustaining our own health, and an inspiration toward applying our heart and our intelligence for the common good.” The Ranch is one of the oldest centers for conscious living in the country and we’ll be rebooting back to a healthier relationship to technology in a relaxed, leisurely, nature-drenched setting. Some of the areas we’ll be exploring include:
- Learning how to bring mindfulness and compassion into daily life.
- Learning how to apply the science of mindfulness to our use of media and digital technologies.
- Engaging in yoga, mindful movement and other somatic practices
The science of mindfulness has touched so many areas of our lives: it's time to consider applying it to our interactions with media and computing.
2. Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding (2008). Positive Psychology At The Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths, Hogrefe Publishing.
Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding (2013). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths 2nd Edition, Hogrefe Publishing.
4. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang(2013). The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul