Slaves to our Cell Phones?

I recently heard a group of radio heads talking about ways to avoid the constant “stress” of cell phone notifications — yes, studies have shown it: Our Pavlovian response to the notification sound increases our stress. We can find ample advice on how to mitigate this takeover, such as electronic curfews, device holidays, and cold turkey cell phone detox. The radio heads were discussing cell phone abstinence and cell phone Shabbat.

I’ve never been a fan of abstinence — why waste a perfectly healthy impulse? For me, phone notifications are an itch in the day — and itches are great cues for mindfulness meditation.

When we’re instructed to sit very still in meditation, practitioners always want to know, “What if I have an itch?”

The instructor usually says, “Make the itch part of your mediation.” 

Basically, the instruction is to observe the itch. We also hear, “Go into it,” or, “Sit with it.” These “sit with it” type instructions assume we are directing a certain quality of attention to the subject. We’re paying very close, “curious” attention, not just to the itch, but to our responses to the itch. We cultivate a kind of focus or curious intensity and we train it on the whole neurobiological quandary caused when an itch interrupts our meditation.

What is our reward for this, we ask? We are a culture that wants something to show for our troubles. In truth, we want the itch to go away. And sometimes it does!

Other times, however, the itch may grow sharp as an insect bite. In fact, it may occur to us that an insect is biting, and almost involuntarily, we scratch or rub.

“There! The itch is gone.” Do we feel relief, victory, or failure? The aftermath of “giving in” to the itch will depend on what we expected from our meditations. For example, if I pride myself on being able to remain immobile for 20 minutes, then the moment I scratch, I’m going to feel like a failure. I won’t give myself any credit for working with the itch.

Generally, though, any experience you’ve been in the room for (rather than in your head for) is a successful meditation.

Failure and the Notification Itch

In terms of learning more about what makes us tick, cell phone abstinence gives us a sort of A/B comparison test to ponder. Cell phone connectivity looks like A; cell phone detox looks like B. It’s useful feedback to be sure. But often times we don’t even study the two states very closely before we are ready to beat ourselves up for failing to disconnect. As a people, we seem to be lost without reasons to beat ourselves up — even as we coach ourselves to relax, we add the stressful concept of wrong relaxation. Soon disconnecting from our devices becomes another unchecked box in the should-do list, calling out to us in judgement, “Bad, bad, bad!”

But say we want to develop curiosity. This is an “active” psychological state related to Flow, according to psychologists. It’s never a bad thing. Or perhaps we want to learn something specific — for instance, more about the nature of our connection to the phone — and the keyword with all these devices is connection. Or perhaps, like me, you just feel abstinence is overrated.

In cell phone notifications we now have a wonderful opportunity to practice what monks in monasteries worldwide have done for centuries: meditation. In monasteries they often used bells. They may have lacked all the synthesizers, musicality, and variety of our phone notifications, but monastic bells are sonorous with long-lasting resonance.

In meditation halls near and far, bells still call practitioners to mindfulness. 

So now we have more wonderful things called cell phone notifications. And like monks, we have spent years being trained to the sounds of our phones. Every sound our phones make is imbued with meaning, and every meaning is a pathway for self-learning. It would be a shame to waste such good programming in abstinence.

Five Easy Steps to Notification Meditation

So here are the steps I use to gain illumination (if not enlightenment) from my phone notifications.

1. Treat each notification as a moment to watch your reactions.

We don’t need galvanic electrodes on our skin to know we are stressing out. It may take some quieting down of the thought machine to reach that awareness, but it’s there.

2. Do a physical and emotional check-in.

“Do I feel hopeful or anxious? How is my body reacting? Are my shoulders tensing?”

3. Make a note of your actual thoughts.

Thoughts direct us to the personal stories that define our lives. Where does my mind go when the notification sound goes off? Do I picture my significant other? A bill collector? A sales bot? A new friend? An angry boss?

4. If you’re not in an emergency situation, continue to let time elapse without responding to the notification.

Perhaps it sounds again (or has continued sounding). Ask yourself, “What if I don’t answer?” and let your mind free-associate. Make a note of the responses.

Are they fearful, impatient, annoyed? Is it dread that something bad has happened or fear that you will miss something good, or is it more about how the caller might perceive your lack of response (impolite, irresponsible, lazy)?

Obviously, we don’t want to delay long if we are “on call” or awaiting news. But if we can develop the ability to focus our attentiveness quickly, this check-in need only take a second or two, no longer than the time between the first and second ring tone.

Once you’ve checked in on your response to unidentified notification — you’ve observed something and taken a mental note — move in to the next phase:

5. Check the identity of the call, text, email, or calendar item.

Bring mindfulness with you as you check the ID, and watch your responses: How do my emotions change as I move from not knowing to knowing (what the notification is about)? How am I physically responding to the ID, the news? Honest curiosity almost always brings insight.

It’s five easy steps, but following them generally leads me to some interesting self-discovery.

A cell phone notification can be our nasty tech overlords chipping away at our humanity… or it can inform us about how we view the world and then connect to it. Whether we discover an inner responder who is hopeful, anxious, burdened, delighted, or hungry, unpacking the layers will guide us towards choosing our responses more freely.

With meditative practices, I’ve found there are always more layers to come! That’s kind of good news. As we peel through the layers, increased self-awareness helps us dump bundles of baggage that make us knee-jerk reactors, and gain more freedom to respond with clear, true choices.

From the perspective of longstanding meditative traditions, we are not slaves to our phones, but slaves to our minds. 

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  • Marianne Messina

    Editor and Journalist

    Editor and journalist Marianne Messina spent 10 years covering performing arts for Metro Silicon Valley, CA. At the same time, as a marketer, she developed and managed four online magazines for a matchmaking website, created a web community and magazine for the arts, and led the rebranding and migration of a college website. She currently covers wildlife and conservation issues, most often for Mongabay, and writes  "recreational" opinion pieces on impulse.