Yael Shy invites millennials to bring some mindfulness into their digital lives.
If you are a millennial (between the ages of eighteen and thirty-six) you probably spend an average of eighteen hours a day consuming media, with approximately five hours of that time engaged in social media and peer-created content. Those hours are consumed across a variety of platforms and may include simultaneous consumption of media. For example, if you spend two hours per day on Facebook, three hours texting, and an hour watching television, that adds up to six total hours, even though it may only translate to three or four “real” hours in your day, if you are doing some of those things at the same time. Media consumption includes texts, surfing the internet, binge-watching Net-flix, and playing games on your phone. I reach for my phone at nearly every pause in my day, from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. Our phones are extensions of ourselves, connectors to others, portals to the world, and addictive tools. If we are going to take our goal of living a mindful life seriously, we have to consider our very intimate, ubiquitous relationship with our devices.
The key to mindful living “off the cushion” is building in a pause to check in with our intention, our body, and our heart before we reach for our favorite distractions. Nowhere is this more palpable and powerful than in our relationships to our devices. When do you reach for your phone? When do you click on social media sites? How do you feel right before heading to your page on the site? What happens in your mind while scrolling or posting? How do you feel afterward?
For me, that initial reach toward my phone usually comes when there is any type of pause in the action. Aside from just being addicted to stimulation, some part of me suspects there might be loneliness, disconnection, and sadness waiting for me in the silence of phonelessness, and I am scared to face it.
The endless scroll allows my brain to zone out from my life and float away.
Once I open my time-wasting app of choice—perhaps with some mindfulness, perhaps on autopilot—I immediately begin to tumble down the rabbit hole of posts, tweets, photos, videos, and memes. After twenty minutes (or more) of scrolling along, I begin to realize that I am lost in a scroll-and-click universe where I have the capacity to ingest endless thoughts, photos, and virtual lives of friends and acquaintances, post my own, and wait for the “likes” to roll in.
I deeply understand the pull of social media. I find pleasure reading about the goings-on of friends and family who live far away, appreciate the notifications about events and interesting articles, and I like getting affirmation for my posts and photos. I am pretty certain, however, that I could obtain all of those pleasures in about one hour on the site per day, or less. What I do instead is spend hours of my life scrolling, getting lost in articles, comment conversations, and other people’s photo albums. Like staring blankly at a television screen, the endless scroll allows my brain to zone out from my life and float away.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this zone out, but after a certain period of time, I notice that—like a junk food binge—I feel pretty sick. I feel alienated and lonely, exactly the opposite of the reason I signed on in the first place.
There is a Zen chant that includes the words:
“Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by
and opportunity is lost…
Wake up! Wake up!
This night your days are diminished
Do not squander your life.”
Every time I chant this, I think of the hours and days I have spent on social media. I think of the precious time I have squandered after I have checked in on my friends and loved ones, after I have checked my messages and invites, and after reading any interesting articles. The time spent endlessly scrolling. It makes me sad. It makes me want to be more aware, and to wake up from the social media trance and interact in real time again.
One of the other dangers of too much social media is engaging in what Buddhists call “comparing mind.” This is exactly what it sounds like—comparing our lives, our looks, our achievements, and even our meditation abilities to others to see how we stack up. Everyone engages in comparing mind sometimes, but in the world of social media, where people only publicize the rosy moments, the filtered photos, and the happy news, it is particularly easy to think we are the only ones having a hard time.
I remember one particular day of college when I made the mistake of Googling a young woman with whom I was planning a conference. Even though this woman was only a few years older than me, I found hundreds of articles she had written, awards she had won, and other accomplishments staring back at me on the screen. Tears streamed down my face as I compared it to what happened when I typed in my own name: Nothing. Nada. No results whatsoever. I am a nobody, I remember thinking, my comparing mind in full force. I will never be as accomplished as this woman. I will never amount to anything. I carried around this dreary view of my own worth all day, long after I had shut down the computer.
Comparing mind starts from a place of insecurity. It rests on an assumption of deficit or lack (I’m not lovable, I’m not worthy) that then looks to the outside world to prove or disprove that flawed assumption. “If I am better looking than Lilly, I am good looking,” the logic goes. “If I have achieved more than Jim, I am successful.” The trouble with comparing mind is that, resting on that shaky foundation of insecurity, it is never satisfied. It never successfully answers the question of whether we are lovable or successful. Even if we come out “on top” in one particular comparison, there is always someone who seems to have more or be more than us.
Additionally, even if we were to be deemed the best looking, the most lovable, the most successful by others, when the affirmation comes exclusively from the outside world and is tied to our sense of self, we will suffer.
The “self” is always changing, and is completely interpenetrated with everything else in the universe. Its very nature is instability. When I recognize this, how can I take credit for the good things “I” do, since “I” am constantly being influenced by the people and landscapes around me? How can I compare myself to anyone else in the world when every force in their universe and every force in my universe came together in very different, yet interpenetrating ways?
“Self-ing,” the project of continuing to try and reify a separate, permanent, unchanging self, is a delusional project that I find myself trapped in over and over again, and it is what lies at the heart of comparing mind. In many ways, it also lies at the heart of social media, where we are all continually branding ourselves, polishing our images, curating our lives, and then comparing ourselves to the “brands” of others.
Sometimes, to break out of comparing mind while scrolling through social media, or just looking around the room at a party, I ask myself, “What if I am okay and enough right now? What if the only standard I have to live up to is my deepest, most authentic self?”
The first step in mindful technology consumption is to pause and recognize the power these devices have over us, to check in with ourselves before we reach for them, and to build in pauses, breaks, and (emotional) rehab when it all becomes too automatic, too addictive, and too much. The magic of mindfulness in the “in-between” moments of our life is that we don’t need any special gear, quiet space, or complex instructions to practice it. We can bring meditation to meet us wherever we are, whatever we are doing, right in the middle of our crazy lives.