Thursday, 6 February 2014

Unplug yourself

An article in TIME magazine* on Mindfulness made me think how one of my friends in particular (though she may contest this) would benefit from letting go of her smartphone for an hour or two per day.


Before I launch into what may seem like an attack on modern life and technology, I should explain what Mindfulness entails. A movement that has gained popularity over recent years, particularly in the US Mindfulness, as the name suggests, recommends that people become more aware or mindful of their surroundings through meditation and “unplugging”.

Use your senses

I can sense the dismissiveness, see the rolling eyes and hear the mutterings of ‘New Age hocus-pocus’ and ‘modern hippies’, but that would be to denigrate what I consider is a basic need to keep in touch with one’s surroundings, and not through an electronic medium. I have not been on a Mindfulness course – nor do I intend to – as for a good part of my day I do just as the Mindfulness gurus suggest, and it does me no harm at all.

I have a smartphone, two laptops, an i-pod, an MP3 player and a Kindle, all seen (to some degree) as necessary accoutrements to modern life; I do not, however, utilise them all the time. When I am on the train I spend time watching fellow passengers. I pay attention to their clothes, the way they walk, how they sit and whether they interact with others.  I look out of the window, and it is not a case of just blank staring: I notice the colours of the land, what crops are grown in fields or people’s gardens, how low the snow sits on the mountains and whether the river is flowing quickly or has dwindled to a trickle. All of this I do without the interference of music, a podcast or referring constantly to my phone. When I walk my dogs I enjoy the scenery and, as I am in the environment rather than viewing it through a window, I engage my other senses.

I sniff the air. I delight in the smell of fresh rain on the grass (though I do detest the smell of recently cut grass) and I can smell rain in the air long before it falls. When the smell of cooking wafts from windows I stop and try to discern the different ingredients. It makes me think about something other than work and concerns in the home. I let my mind empty of anything other than that odour.  I engage all my senses – I listen to the sound of bird song, sea and the snuffling of my dogs when they find an interesting scent, I taste the salty air, I feel the texture of the sand running through my fingers or the smoothness of sea-rolled stones, I watch the changing shapes of clouds – and until I read the TIME article I hadn’t considered that this is something that many people do not do. I sound almost too good to be true, but the truth is that this takes up an hour or two in my day and is part of my day, not in addition to it.

Returning to my friend whose phone is a permanent attachment - she has told me that she takes it to the bathroom – I fear that she is missing out on the basic and important things in life. Yes, she goes running, but she is plugged into her phone with music providing the back-track to her pounding of the pavement. Yes, she goes into the mountain sledging with her husband and three daughters, but she provides her friends with a running commentary through messages and pictures posted on Facebook. Whilst travelling to and from work on the train she reads articles, posts on Facebook or watches programmes on her phone and when at home, amongst the housework and helping her children with their homework, she is connected with the world electronically. My friend experiences the world only with constant electronic interference.

It’s not some modern-hippy thing

Some may argue that in order to successfully juggle career and home-life my friend does need to be so connected, but I think that she would benefit (anyway, she would not suffer) from some time away from her gadgets, and not just when she is asleep. Early results from research show that taking this time out actually helps people to concentrate and as a result they are more effective[1]. Becoming mindful of your environment is actually a good exercise for the muscle that is your brain.  Companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram attend Mindfulness  conferences or hold similar events themselves. They find that “attention-focusing techniques, including meditation” help them “free up mental space for creativity and big thinking.”[2]

As a scatter-brained person my whole life, with a mind constantly flitting from one idea to the next without ever really bringing things to fruition, I dread to think how bad I would be if I wasn’t aware of the world around me. My ability to focus would most likely improve if I took up meditation – experienced meditative Buddhist monks (with at least 10,000 hours of meditation time) have been found to have brains with more functional connectivity and more gamma-wave activity than novice meditators, indicating high states of consciousness. Neuroscientists have also found that meditators may have more “capacity for working memory and decreases in mind-wandering” than non-meditators. Within the last five years the NIH has funded 50 clinical trials examining the effects of mindfulness on health; if the effects of Mindfulness are found to be clinically positive then we can expect to see meditation move from being seen as an alternative lifestyle to something more mainstream.

Why not try it?

With such positivity surrounding mindfulness and its benefits, it would be remiss not to try and limit the number of times you check your phone during the day, to spend some time “unplugged” and to take in the world around you. If the people who create the electronic world into which you are constantly connected can afford to take time out from it, so can you.  You may just find the benefits outweigh any perceived negativities – I particularly urge my friend to do so.



*’The Art of Being Mindful’, February 3rd, 2013




[1] TIME ‘The Art of being Mindful’, p.35
[2] TIME ‘The Art of being Mindful’, p.36

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