Meditation, Consciousness, and the Curse of our Devices

Now I’m certainly no luddite but I’ve got an awful feeling about the technological rampage that defines our modern world. Mindfulness aspirants beware, for testing times lie in wait. Since I bought an iPad I swear I’ve noticed a subtle but definite change in my subjective experience of ‘right now’. It’s no longer enough to just sit down and do nothing, or to even read a book. A tiny part of my attention is not ‘right here’, but instead craving the gratification of interacting with a shiny interactive opium-like touchscreen device.

If I’m honest I often feel like a slave to the slinky and seductive shiny black mistress. I just want to look at it and touch it and caress it, holding it in my hands and never letting go, whispering sweet nothings to Siri and sometimes even taking her to bed. I really hate to admit it but I’ve a feeling I’m not the only one and this makes it a little easier. Everyone has some kind of tablet or smartphone these days and I sometimes ponder by how much attention spans all over the world are being truncated on a daily basis through the use of these evil devices.

I’ve noticed that moderate to heavy use of social networking apps on things like the iPad stimulates the mind in a very particular way that has ramifications for those of us who meditate and value being fully here right now. There are two main activities that I feel are responsible for changing the way our minds work.

One of these is the way that receiving new email or Facebook notifications triggers a highly addictive reward response in the brain. That little red dot in the top left of your Facebook app – don’t deny it, I know it’s always the first thing you look for! – is doing more damage than you think. As well as being a simple behavioural response the gratification gained is partly because of what the red notifications symbolise – that someone wants to communicate with you; you are wanted; you are important; people like your stupid new shoes or how you look in your new profile picture or whatever it is. The red notifications alleviate the anxiety that comes with publicly displaying a photo or expressing yourself to several hundred people at once in writing. We may not tell each other but I bet we all feel this act makes us feel quite vulnerable, and this new technology might just have raised the bar for what it takes to feel validated.

The second activity is through the way we are now able to scan different types of information so quickly – for example on our Facebook news feeds and the infinite amount of websites at our finger tips. We have apps for this and apps for that and push notifications interrupt us constantly. We’ve never had so much sensory input available to us before and I honestly don’t think the affect of this on our brains can be understated. I’m not the only one to voice this worry and in fact many studies have raised the particular concern that the internet and social media is absolutely terrible for our attention spans.

Now where was I? Oh yes, but how does all this relate to meditation? Well when we meditate, depending on how we do it, we hope to achieve a highly relaxed and open or focused state of mind. The trouble is that since we all bought that new smartphone we can never put down, our brains are now often in a state of overstimulation. The default state of our minds is now more alert and searching for stimuli. As a result of bingeing on social media and the web there is a subtle but compelling desire to place our attention somewhere else. As if things weren’t hard enough already the aspiring meditator now has to deal with the background whirrings of a mind conditioned to constantly check how many ‘likes’ they’ve had, and which can’t focus on the same thing for more than a few seconds.

I’m not saying that these things consciously occupy us all the time, though to an extent I think they’re starting to. Perhaps worryingly though I do think that a mechanism we’re barely conscious of has been triggered through our engagement in this type of media. It keeps us from being able to sink into the present moment fully; it holds being at ease just slightly further away. For God’s sake I’ve seen people checking Facebook when they’re in conversation with someone else (shit or maybe that was me…). One thing to focus on is no longer enough!

Thanks to our iPads our attention risks becoming more scattered and our ability to reach deep meditative states could well be compromised. In a subtle way we are giving up power over how we think and behave, and in the future, as technology advances and doubtless becomes more immersive I think this will pose even more of a challenge.

Of course we can choose how to respond to the presence of new technology in our lives. I don’t think most people will make ths choice though and in any case most people won’t be aware of it or care about it either. Whatever. But some will, and for those of us who aspire to live mindfully I think it is important to be aware of the changes that could occur in our lived experience of the present through technological advances that demand our attention in the ways I’ve described.

I don’t think I’m stuck in the past. I freaking love browsing stupid pointless shit all day long and chatting to friends on the other side of the planet, and I’m enthusiastic about what the internet has done for us and the way it has opened up our world. Of course not everybody’s mind will work in the same way, but I am concerned about the impact of my iPad on my already addictive predisposition. From now on I’m going to try to limit time spent on devices like this. I will try and use my iPad only for specific tasks and not indulge the compulsive urge to binge on information. In fact the next blog post will be written on paper. Er, no hang on, that won’t work…

Sent from my iPad.


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