Full disclosure: I'm one of the zombies too (or at least a part-time zombie). I have a small device with a glowing screen that I carry with me everywhere I go. It connects me to my work. It connects me to my friends. It connects me to my family and my partner. It connects me to my teachers and sources of inspiration on the path. But it also, at times, disconnects me from all of these things and becomes an annoying distraction from the things that are truly important. As my friend Mario put it, "I would feel lost and isolated if it wasn't for my cellphone; but I've also felt lost and isolated because of my cellphone, if that makes any sense."
Smartphones are a powerful, mind-altering technology that is transforming the way we interact, the way we work, and the way we live. We've become addicted to the constant buzz of activity and the never-ending flow of communication and information that streams invisibly through the air and into our pockets, our purses and our hands. Like Pavlov's dogs, we hear the ping or feel the vibration of an incoming stimulus, and we salivate. We reach instinctively to take in the stimulus, often acting on auto-pilot. We don't pause to think. Buzz buzz buzz, we react.
It doesn't matter where we are, or how inappropriate it is to be interacting with a glowing screen. The buzz comes, and we need that fix. It might come during a romantic dinner, and we are lured away from the beauty of the present moment because we have to check to see if that email was important. It might come during yoga class, and we are drawn away from our practice because someone commented on our Facebook post about going to yoga class. It might come while we are driving, and we are distracted just long enough by that text message that we run a red light and crash into another car.
These are not made-up examples. These things happen in real life, all the time. And they are fueling a growing backlash against our societal addiction to smartphones. There are laws now against texting while driving because too many people died or killed others while doing it. Even the number of people injuring themselves while walking and talking on their cell phones is soaring; one expert estimates it may be as high as 2 million people per year. There are pleas before every movie not to use your phone during the movie, because some people are so self-absorbed that it doesn't occur to them (without being told) that a glowing screen or a phone conversation in a silent, dark theater might actually bother the people around them. I've been to yoga classes where almost everyone in the room sits up from the final relaxation posture and reaches immediately to check their smartphone, without even standing up first. One yoga teacher I know makes a habit of going around the room and turning people's cell phones face-down (because they apparently don't think to do it themselves), so they don't actually stop in the middle of a yoga posture to see the photo of what their friend is eating for dinner.
Like any other mind-altering technology, smartphones have their usefulness. I love mine. Actually, I recently got a new one and have been experiencing a renewed phase of immersion as I get to know the device's features. But I also struggle, like many people I know, to find the right balance. How do I use my smartphone in a way that is actually smart, a way that modifies my experience for the better? How do I avoid becoming lost in the trance of technology and information? How do I respond mindfully to the constant buzz buzz buzz that tugs at my attention and pulls me out of the present moment and into a glowing, virtual realm of stories and news and pictures and comments and videos? How do I avoid becoming a smartphone zombie? There are no easy answers.
One of my colleagues at work — a programmer, someone who works with technology for a living — carries an archaic flip-phone that isn't good for much more than phone calls. Pecking out a text message on it is so time-consuming that it becomes an unattractive proposition. She refuses to upgrade to a newer, smarter phone. Perhaps that is her way of fighting the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps she knows that once you go down that rabbit-hole, it's hard to find your footing again. It's a slippery slope. Once you start spending as much time photographing your afternoon cupcake with your smartphone, enhancing it with digital filters, and posting Instagram pics of it as you spend actually enjoying the cupcake, you know you have a smartphone problem. (And if you use hashtags like #cupcake and #booyah to describe your cupcake, God help you. You've gone all the way down the rabbit hole.)
Life Without Smartphones?
When I lived in the monastery, we were in a very remote, rugged place, an hour's drive away from the nearest cell phone signal. And I have to admit that, after the initial detox period, there was a tremendous feeling of liberation that came from having no cell phones around. No annoying chirps or musical ringtones to shatter the silence, no incessant little tug at your attention, no relentless stream of largely useless and pointless information, no buzzing in your pocket that calls you away from your meditation session and into the realm of other people's distractions. One thing you find out pretty quickly is that you can manufacture plenty of distractions to keep your mind occupied, all by yourself, without any assistance from a little glowing screen that follows you everywhere and feeds you a constant diet of sensory and intellectual stimuli.
Now that I live back in New York City, smartphones surround me once again. And to be honest, I think having a smartphone makes living in a city like New York easier. This is not the monastery, and my obligations and activities are very different. I don't relish the idea of living here without one. But it's a double-edged sword.
My friend Mario was riding the tube in London recently, with another friend, and he looked around to realize that almost everyone else on the train was staring into the glowing screen in their hands. He was reminded of this scene from the film Wall-E, which seems alarmingly like the dystopian technological future into which we are all heading.
Getting a Grip on Your Smartphone
Lately I've been working with a couple of simple practices to help me develop a bit of mindfulness — and do some harm reduction — around my smartphone habits. Sometimes when my partner and I sit down to dinner, we put our phones face down on the table — or, better yet, leave them in the other room — and agree not to check them until we've finished our dinner together. Some people have adopted even more extreme measures: when you're out to dinner with a group, everyone stacks their phones in the middle of the table, and the first one to check their phone picks up the tab.
Another thing that I find helpful is something the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa recommended to his students when they watch TV: he told them to try, while watching TV, to maintain an awareness of the physical space between themselves and the TV set. I try to do this sometimes with my smartphone. Just to be aware of that two or three feet of space between me and the glowing screen in my hand helps me step back and frame the experience, rather than getting lost in it.
As with any addiction, the first step towards getting better is to admit that there's a problem. So let me be the first to say it.
My name is Dennis, and I'm a smartphone addict.