Techno-zombies, listen up

Put your device down. Lee Elliott needs to give you a piece of his mindfulness

What is the role of mindfulness in the modern age?

Going for a walk anywhere these days is a practice in dodging distracted people. Headsets in and eyes lowered, people are walking about without paying any attention to what is going on around them. It is amusing to watch two techno-zombies bump into each other, upset with being interrupted from their screen. I have seen two people with their heads down trying to avoid each other, fail by bumping into each other, and, still with their eyes glued to their devices, both try to go the same direction and collide again.

The distraction doesn't just affect in a harmless, comical way either. Where I live in Ontario, the provincial police reported in 2016 that three of the previous four years set records for the number of pedestrian fatalities. It is possible that a combination of distracted drivers and distracted pedestrians have led to this increase.

My grandmother used to call the television the "idiot box," but I think we may have a new contender for that moniker. People are so focused on the tiny screen in front of them that they do not take the time to look around, pay attention to their surroundings or enjoy the moment they are in.

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment, where you are and what you are doing. It is a chance to look at the people, the scenery, the world around you. When you are with friends, be with them. Not paying attention to the world around you has consequences. Not only for you but for others as well.

In Toronto, my friend watched as a mother, with her face immersed in her device, rushed off the subway train and left her toddler behind. Whatever was on the phone was more important than her child. My friend saw what happened and got off at the next stop with the little guy and brought him to the subway agent. The agent told him this is not the first time she had seen this happen!

How often have you been at a dinner where the people you are eating with are on their screens instead of conversing and connecting with the others at the table? Is it more important to brag about the fun time you are having as opposed to actually having a fun time? Do we really need a play-by-play of time you are spending with others while we are not there?

All the electronic devices in our lives allow us to respond from anywhere at any time, yet we use them to respond all the time. Far from making things more convenient, they have taken away the easy aspects and replaced them with stress.

When will we learn that multitasking really isn't – multitasking really means doing several things poorly instead of one thing really well. Many mistakenly believe they can multitask effectively, but study after study has shown that the human brain is simply not able to juggle so many balls at once. I've been in far too many meetings where one or several people are typing away on their computer or fiddling on their device and they grind the meeting to a halt when asked a question.

"Sorry, can you repeat that?" they say when what they should admit is: "Sorry, I wasn't paying any attention to what you were talking about because I was distracted with something I think is more important than all of you, so please indulge me and repeat everything you have been saying again while I waste even more time."

And how often do you hear, "I need to respond to this right now"; "What did he post today?" or "Just let me read this one thing." The device seems to demand your time at this instant. But does it really need to be answered right away?

This need for instant gratification and connection has even manifested into a psychological phenomenon. "Phantom vibration syndrome" has been much studied by researchers with data published in medical journals such as the BMJ. Phantom vibration syndrome is the feeling that your device is vibrating in your pocket even when it isn't there.

But once you learn to leave the device alone or only check it at certain times, you will naturally be more present and relaxed. The best part of mindfulness practice is the peace of mind it brings.

Over the past several months, I have stopped checking my phone all the time. I have put the electronics away and spent time with people. I have become more in the moment. It can't be coincidental that my stress level has decreased and my happiness has increased.

When I first started my mindful practice, I thought it was going to be some jive hippie stuff or some pseudo-religious ceremony, but it really wasn't either of those things. Taking some time each day to be in the moment was actually more freeing than I had expected.

We all have busy lives juggling work, family, friends, health, hobbies and a myriad of other tasks. So how can you find time to be mindful? Put the phone down. Focus on your breath for five to 10 minutes just as you wake up or go to sleep. Simply be part of the world around you.

You don't have to stop and smell the roses, but you can at least notice that they are there.

Globe and Mail Wednesday Oct 25 2017

Lee Elliott lives in Bolton, Ont.