Artful Living : Put the Phone Down, Kid

Some thoughts on responsible relationships to technology


It seems that the busier we get in our household, the more our addictions to technology flare up. We technically have less time to be on our phones, yet they become the easiest “go-to” for winding down, waking up, or just getting a jolt of dopamine to keep the energy levels up. So we end up alternating between getting things checked off “the list” and staring into a scrolling screen. This leaves very little room for real presence, contemplation, and living into one of our core values in this house – creativity.

In their book Wired to Create, co-authors Kaufman and Gregoire claim that, “A connection to our inner selves and our stream of consciousness is undeniably what makes us creative.” How do we then foster this connection to our inner selves that fuels creativity while carrying around these always-available distraction devices in our pockets? How do we shift our attention away from what draws us compulsively and toward what we more intentionally choose?

Paying attention is a lost art. It is a skill that we now must develop – like a muscle that tends to atrophy in our society of “constant semi-attention” (as Thomas Merton put it), or in the midst of what neuroscientist Richard Davidson calls our “national attention deficit.” We go to bed with our phones in our faces, and they’re the first thing we reach for upon waking. The average American is spending approximately 11 hours interacting with digital devices, smartphone users check their devices about 150 times a day (or every 6.5 minutes), and someone just invented a flashing nightlight that will alert us to any notifications we might receive while trying to sleep. Great. The busyness of our brains and the pace of our lives is affecting us in every way imaginable, including our physiology. Brain scans show that interacting with our devices activates the reward centers of our brains connected with addiction, and that the same withdrawal symptoms a smoker experiences when quitting cold turkey are present in students who abstain from using technology for only 24 hours.

The access to the mind space we need to create is denied when we’re constantly distracted. Our ability to fully concentrate or connect deeply with much of anything is compromised by our endemic “multi-tasking” – which is actually just alternating our focus rapidly, as it is neurologically impossible to do two things at once. We act mindlessly, often unaware of exactly what we’re doing and even more often unaware of why we do the things we do. We can barely attend to those things outside us without interruption, much less the deeper realities within. 

So how do we re-learn this art of paying attention?

One way is cultivating more responsible relationships with technology. 

I promise I’m no luddite. Our technology makes amazing and important things possible like staying connected with loved ones, connecting with a tribe, creating and sustaining businesses, garnering a group effort for massive social change, pure enjoyment, and making absolutely beautiful, life-enhancing art. But it is a neutral tool in and of itself (and a very young tool relatively speaking) so we must be mindful about how we’re using it and how it’s shaping us. Used mindlessly or for ill will, our devices are just as capable of isolating us to no end and being agents of our destruction as they are of making the world a better, more beautiful place to live. 

So here are a few ideas of how to foster a responsible relationship with the technology at our fingertips:

Maintain screen-free zones. Maybe it’s the dinner table. Maybe it’s your bed. But what will I do for an alarm clock?! (That was my first thought anyway.) Apparently people still sell real alarm clocks. Who knew? Maybe it’s the car. Maybe it’s the shower. There needs to be at least one zone––be it physical or time-based––that is kept screen-free as a ritual and reserved for direct connection unmediated by a device. It’s a built in element of rhythm that requires you to interact with your own thoughts, feelings, and impulses apart from the crutch of the device, reminds you that you are in fact not a machine, and returns you to the human zone of connection that requires observation, conversation, and empathy. Here’s an idea: Remember when phones were in a fixed location, corded into the wall? What if you made a “phone station” at home where you used and charged your phone, and the phone stayed there instead of being an extension of your body at all times?

Screen time limits. These are popular with children nowadays, but adults can incorporate them as well. Dealing with devices that can be addictive, we can’t rely on sheer will power. We have to set up parameters that help us to thrive, and then abide by them religiously. As someone whose vocation requires ample amounts of screen time, I’ve had to get creative with this. I’m moving as many tasks as I can over to paper that I used to do on-screen––like making to to-do lists, calendaring, and writing outlines or early drafts of a project. 

Blue light reduction. This has changed my life. Apple, Google, and other companies have created features that reduce the blue-light being emitted from your devices. Blue light is part of the visible light spectrum that has a very short wavelength, produces a high amount of energy, and reaches deeper into the eye than some other forms of light. It is being connected with damage to the retina, early development of macular degeneration, and reducing the production of melatonin––the hormone that signals to your body that it’s time to sleep. Using “night-shift mode” (Apple’s name for this feature) or wearing glasses that filter out blue light after 8pm may make your screen look more orange than usual for a few hours, but you’ll cause less strain on your eyes and sleep more soundly. Sometimes I just leave it on all day if what I’m doing doesn’t require accurate color matching.

Breathe. Did you know screen apnea is a real thing? Tech expert Linda Stone describes screen apnea as “the temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while sitting in front of screen, whether a computer, a mobile device or a television.”* Breath-holding is associated with all sorts of health problems like decreased effectiveness of the immune system, increased pain, higher heart rates, and higher inflammation levels contributing to obesity, depression, and a myriad of stress-related illnesses. It’s amazing how off our breathing gets during screen use. Just pay attention next time you’re on a device and see what happens to the rhythm of your breath. The good news is we can train ourselves into better breathing habits.

One practice that helps with this is contemplative sitting.

The 20 minute sit is a standard meditation practice encouraged by many teachers and spiritual leaders in varying traditions. There are many ways to approach your sit, but here are two of the most basic options. Firstly, you can focus attention on your breath by finding a comfortable position, feeling your breath as it enters cooly through your nostrils and exits warmly seconds later, noting when thoughts or feelings arise, and each time they do, gently returning your attention to your breath. Or secondly, you can engage in the same process by centering your attention on a sacred or meaningful word rather than simply the breath. Some common choices might be mercy, love, God, gratitude, peace, unity, etc. The great news here is you don’t have to begin with a full 20 minutes. You can work up to that in small increments. Try 5 minutes for a week, then 7 the next week, then 10, 15, and eventually 20. It’s important to remember you can’t be “bad” at meditation! It is far more difficult than it might sound at first, and it is challenging even for experienced practitioners. “Success” is only found in strengthening your muscles of attention by returning constantly to your breath or word, and in what you might discover as you notice what arises in you without judgement.

As we strengthen these muscles of attention we gain the power to more freely choose how and when we engage with our devices, and how and when we don’t – making space for attending to the moment at hand, our inner lives, and the creative work that is ours to do each day.

The above text is an edited excerpt from my in-progress manuscript about artful living through the lenses of creativity, connection, and community. More excerpts to follow in this blog series titled "Artful Living."

The first step to a non-violent society is...

...wait for it...self-awareness.

That's right. Now, if you really stop and think about it, it makes so much sense. However upon first hearing it, this did give me pause. Partially because you don't often hear deeply personal things like "self-knowledge" and "change of heart" mentioned in discussions on world peace and whatnot. And that's exactly where I first heard these claims. I remember it vividly, though it must have been 4 years ago now: I was sitting on the 2nd floor porch of the Yellow House working on a painting project with my iPad open next to me streaming a series of TED Talks when Scilla Elworthy's "Fighting with non-violence" started to play. The second reason this gave me pause was less about shock and more about excitement because, even back then, my friends and I were beginning to learn the immense importance of self-awareness work, the study of our personalities, counseling, etc. in keeping our friendships alive and the community thriving.

It just made sense. The more aware we were of ourselves, the less violent we were with each other. 

Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean that we're the kind of people that went around throwing literal punches, drop-kicks, shooting things, or putting one another in choke-holds. No, not that kind of violence. Though on some days, I could see how things could escalate to that. (I'm kidding...sort of). But in all seriousness, we can do just as much violence with our words, our silences, our body language, and in our comings-and-goings as we can do with your fists and feet and weapons.

When we're aware of how we innately react to certain things and why we do, we're a little freer to choose whether we will or won't react that way the next time a similar situation arises. When we know that not everyone is going to react the same way we are, we're freed from the pressure of putting unfair, unrealistic expectations on each other...and from the hurt feelings and frustration that follow in our disappointment when those expectations aren't met. We can take fewer things personally, understanding that rarely is an interaction with a person only what it appears to be on the surface–there's always more going on. We can be aware of when we're nearing our breaking points, when we're tired and need to recharge. And we know that different people need to recharge in different ways–one becomes a hermit with a book for the weekend, the other fills the weekend with friends & shopping–and we can willingly make space for each other to do those things. When we're at fuller capacity, we can be most present and love each other more selflessly–avoiding the harsh words, brooding, over-sensitivity and/or outbursts that can come from tired persons. When we're aware of the different gifts and abilities that we each bring to the table, we can make space for each other to contribute in those ways–functioning as body less plagued by power dynamics, where everyone plays their particular part that is just as essential to the whole thing working as is the next person and his/her particular part.

That's a brief look at the interpersonal level of the connection between awareness and non-violence. I'll let you watch the TED video below if your curious about the bigger picture. But I'm grateful to be reminded that the bigger picture only changes if each of us individually is changed. I'm convinced that maybe we can't really change the world (yes, a millennial just said that), but we can change ourselves which will change our friendships which will change our communities. And a whole world of changed communities becomes a changed global community–a changed world.

So, if society is simply a system of relationships–and I believe it is–I think we're on to something here that is radical. Not radical as in extraordinary and hardly attainable by a normal person. No, but rather radical as in what that word actually means...getting to the root of something. 

It doesn't feel extraordinary to have a conversation about why the dishes didn't get done (again)...or to confess an insecurity...or to take a neighbor-kid with a stinky cast on his arm to the ER for a few hours...or to ask the hard questions...or to bury a dead chicken...or to listen to confession of sexual struggles...or to watch "daddy issues" rear their heads again...or to feed your kid and change the diapers...or to sit with a friend through another day of grief over loneliness and waiting for a partner to do life with.

But these are all part of life together. And if we can do these things more peacefully and lovingly with the help of cultivating self-awareness, that we might be better aware of those around us, then by all means let's do it. And let's acknowledge that it's radical. It's healing and nourishing the roots of a giant tree that won't change for the better until it's roots are strong again...