Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Modern Mindfulness

How to Be More Relaxed, Focused, and Kind While Living in a Fast, Digital, Always-On World

Rohan Gunatillake

St. Martin's Griffin

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK


1


A VERY MODERN MINDFULNESS


 


Mindfulness needs a redesign.


There has never been as much interest in mindfulness and meditation as there is right now. A growing base of scientific research is providing substantial evidence for its benefits and effects. Leading companies are teaching it to their employees to manage stress. Elite athletes use it to stay calm and perform under pressure. Celebrities are taking it on as a must-have lifestyle accessory, and most important, people just like you are discovering how making mindfulness part of their lives can have a significantly positive impact. That’s the good news.


The bad news is that despite all this, most people who have an interest in mindfulness do not actually go on to do anything about it. There are three main barriers that stop people moving mindfulness from a nice idea to a lived reality: the time problem, the hippy problem and the digital problem. As a maker of mindfulness-related products, these are actually the challenges that get me the most excited since they can all be overcome.


I just don’t have time to meditate. This is the time problem. In an over-scheduled world with all our various commitments, finding a quiet ten or twenty minutes to dedicate to ourselves feels like an impossible task. So when we hear that to get the most out of mindfulness we have to do exactly that, of course it feels out of reach. If this is you, please don’t worry. We’ll solve the time problem.


You have to be spiritual or religious to get into meditation and that’s just not me. This is the hippy problem. Mindfulness-based meditation does originate from the Buddhist tradition. And even though Buddhism has perhaps the best PR department out of all the major world religions, the spiritual aesthetic and other baggage tied up with mindfulness and meditation is a very real barrier for a lot of people. That’s fine too. We will solve the hippy problem.


I live a very connected life and it’s just not practical for me to unplug everything. This is the digital problem. Mindfulness and technology are commonly presented as being in opposition to each other. Too often we are told that the only way to be truly present and connected is to turn everything off. But in a world where our work, our lifestyle and our economy are so fundamentally dependent on technology, when it comes to our well-being we simply cannot afford to keep demonizing all things digital. But fear not. We will solve the digital problem as well.


This is a next-generation mindfulness book. It is for the millions of people who struggle to find space in the busyness of it all. It is for the millions of people all around the world who would love more awareness, more calm and more kindness in their lives. It is for the millions of people who have never felt that mindfulness or meditation was for them. This book is for you.


Notice what it feels like to read these opening paragraphs. Notice if any particularly strong thoughts or reactions have come up. Maybe there’s some excitement. Maybe there’s some doubt.


Notice if there are any clear physical sensations present in the body. Maybe you can notice what your breath is like right now. Or what the movements that make up blinking actually feel like. Or even the simple sensations you can feel from holding this book in your hands. This is going to be fun.


*   *   *


If you are the kind of person who can easily find time in your day for formal sitting meditation practice, don’t have a problem with bald people in robes telling you what to do, and can give up using your digital devices, then congratulations. There are already plenty of good mindfulness and meditation approaches out there that will work for you. But the chances are that you’re not. The three problems I mentioned previously are often thought of as just being facts of meditation life. That’s what mindfulness is like, deal with it. This is just plain wrong and the reason why we need a mindfulness that is better designed for the realities of our modern lives.


The approach outlined in this book solves the time problem by reframing meditation primarily as a mobile activity—something we can do everywhere, not just when sitting on a cushion in a quiet space. It solves the hippy problem by understanding that while it certainly has religious roots, mindfulness has evolved and is now being used for reasons that are entirely new. It solves the digital problem by embracing the importance of technology in our lives and learning how to actually use our devices as the basis of our well-being, not its nemesis.


The alternative is that we simply carry on thinking about mindfulness in the same ways that we do today. If we do, then mindfulness will continue to be a minority sport. It will be a luxury, unavailable to the vast majority of people whose lifestyles and values do not fit with the conventional presentation. Given the growing evidence of how mindfulness practice can lead to so many different positive outcomes, that would be a real shame. Here is this awesome thing but, sorry, it’s not for you.


As well as being a shame, it would be ignoring the fact that the story of mindfulness is one of innovation and change. Later on we’ll look more closely at how mindfulness has evolved over time and also where it might go next. However, before starting out in our adventures into mindfulness, there is one big idea that it is worth you knowing. Mindfulness is a flexible tradition and it has a long history of reimagining itself every time it meets a new culture. The ways in which mindfulness is changing today are therefore just a natural next chapter as it adapts in response to things it has only recently met, such as neuroscience, psychology and digital technology.


Referring to the history of mindfulness and how it changes doesn’t need to feel abstract. What we are actually talking about are individuals like you and me taking what has gone before and working out how best to apply that to the realities of our lives as they are right now. My own big breakthrough was when I discovered how to meditate in a time-poor world. It not only changed my understanding of mindfulness, it went on to change my whole life.


Finding the future of mindfulness on the way to work


I got into meditation during my last few months at university and upon graduation I moved back to London to begin work with a large technology consulting company. It was an exciting time all round. I was enjoying the energetic corporate lifestyle, making decent headway into my student debt, and my interest in mindfulness and meditation was really starting to take off. I had begun to look for classes and groups near me, and I was even considering going on a weekend retreat.


The problem was that I didn’t have time to fit it all in. I’d had no such problems in my student life, where I could happily find a spare half hour. But it was entirely different now that I had been fast-tracked into the long-work-hours corporate culture. Even when I did find time for dedicated sitting meditation, I was often so tired that the quality of my attention and energy was such that I could not do it justice. So I was surprised when I found the solution to my problem on the Northern Line one Monday morning.


While all the routes of the London Underground have their challenges, the Northern Line is probably the most soul-destroying. And it is in the mornings that it is at its worst. Cities get a bad rap as lonely, disconnecting places at the best of times, but it’s perhaps most clearly felt when traveling deep underground in a confined space, surrounded by strangers but very much alone. Most mornings on my half-hour ride from south London into the City, what I most clearly felt was the shoulder of another anonymous worker squashed expertly into my unsuspecting face.


On top of the normal frustrations of commuting, I was now particularly resentful of the Northern Line because it was taking away from my meditation time. Mornings were my favorite time to do sitting meditation. Not only was there the freshness of the recently woken-up mind, but mornings also provided me with a reliable sense of routine since I often had to work late and so didn’t know what time I would be home. The problem now was that I was on a project that consistently required me to be in the office very early, and I just didn’t have any time to do my sitting.


By some miracle that morning I had been able to snag a seat. So there I sat, wallowing in the woe-is-me story about losing my favorite time to meditate. The mind does love snowballing a tiny thought into a giant catastrophe, so I was of course also convinced that my job, which I loved, meant I would never be able to meditate properly again. It was all over.


The style of meditation I was doing at the time was one which is very commonly taught to people starting out. You pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath, and whenever your attention gets distracted, you just bring it back, developing both awareness and stability. The problem I now had while doing that on the Underground was that even with my eyes closed, there were just so many other physical sensations going on. All the shaking, noise, heat and constant bumping into my fellow passengers meant that I was not able to even find the breath at all, let alone stick with it. Frustration ran riot. I’m useless. The Tube is useless. Everything. Is. Useless.


It was in the middle of this self-pitying funk that the cartoon light bulb popped above my head. Since I was on the Tube at the same time of day that I used to do meditation at home, why not just do my meditation on the Tube instead? The journey was the same length as my normal meditation, and I was also sitting down. Who cares that the circumstances were a little unusual for meditation? Inspired by that insight, the next twenty or so minutes went on to completely change my understanding of what it is to meditate.


Just like that, the frustration disappeared. My realization that I could meditate anywhere if I really wanted to has underpinned my approach to mindfulness ever since. When keeping the mind on the breath, it is the mind—and our ability to keep our awareness present and in one place—that is the important thing, not the breath. When that became clear, I stopped worrying about holding my attention on the breath and was just aware of whatever was most tangible at the time. I became aware of what it was to sit in that moment. I felt the vibrations of the carriage and discovered angles and sensations I hadn’t noticed before. I felt the way that my muscles reacted to how we were accelerating and decelerating. By taking care of how I was being aware rather than what I was being aware of, there was a natural level of non-distraction.


I then opened my attention out and began listening to the sounds around me. With my mind open and relaxed I noticed how the various sounds came into my awareness without me having to do anything, just as they did when I would do my more conventional formal meditation. Opening my eyes and looking at my fellow passengers, I even noticed that there was a quiet sense of gratitude. I recognized it as the same feeling I had at the end of a group meditation class—because, although they may not have meant to, they had played their part.


My understanding of meditation had changed forever.


Defining the M word


There is often a lot of confusion about what mindfulness and meditation actually are. Are they the same thing? Are they different? Are they both the same and different? Oh dear.


The two words are used in various and entangled ways in all sorts of contexts, even in such respected places as clinical research papers. No wonder it is confusing. As someone involved in the presentation of the stuff, I do have to take some responsibility. So let’s clear it up once and for all.


Of the two, meditation is the easiest to define. Meditation is the use of techniques to direct our attention in order to help train us in positive qualities such as concentration, clarity of awareness and acceptance. There are many different mental qualities that can be trained. There are also many different techniques by which to train a single quality. Meditation can be done in a very formal way, such as in the classic sitting posture with eyes closed for a dedicated period of time. Or it can be done in a more dynamic, mobile style alongside our everyday activities, as will be emphasized in this book. All of which means that meditation is an overarching umbrella term which covers a universe of techniques from all kinds of traditions and used for all kinds of outcomes.


Mindfulness is a touch more difficult to define. The technical definition of mindfulness is knowing what is happening in our experience while it is happening. It is the reason that this book is called what it is. When we are aware of what is happening in our experience at any one time, be it physical sensations in our body or thoughts or emotions in our mind, then there is mindfulness. The quality of mindfulness is an absolutely central part of meditation, especially in what is known as insight meditation, which is the particular style from which the modern mindfulness movement largely derives.


The reason that definitions have become a little bit confusing is that there was a point at which using the word meditation became very unfashionable. Meditation first came into public consciousness during the sixties and seventies. Members of the so-called “hippy” generation became enamored with the romantic spiritual traditions of Asia and brought what they had learned back home once their visas and money finally ran out. Ever since then we have suffered from what I call the “hippy hangover.”


Ultimately, whether we call it mindfulness, meditation, or anything else, what we are talking about is the deliberate and active use of our mind to improve our mind.


Meditation began as a primarily spiritual practice. That has changed in the last forty years. Meditation, and in particular mindfulness-based meditation, is now being used in a whole range of very different contexts, from the workplace to dealing with clinical mental-health conditions. Despite meditation having moved on from its spiritual roots, the perception of meditation as being something that was still very much the domain of the alternative scene proved hard to budge. People therefore found that it was much easier to get funding for medical research and sign-off for training programs from multinational companies when they talked about mindfulness rather than meditation. And it sort of stuck.


In this book I will use the words meditation and mindfulness interchangeably since that is the most common way they are used today. There are many different technical definitions for mindfulness but I think those are best saved for the more academic literature. Ultimately, whether we call it mindfulness, meditation or anything else, what we are talking about is the deliberate and active use of our mind to improve our mind. That’s really all we need to know.


*   *   *


I have been practicing and studying mindfulness for more than twelve years. In the last few years I have also gone on to make mindfulness-based apps and products. My personal and professional adventures have shown me that there is an exciting new mindfulness game in town and that game has new rules. We’ve already met the first of them on that fateful commute into work on the Northern Line.


Rule #1: Make mindfulness first and foremost a mobile activity


People who say they don’t have time for mindfulness or meditation are not necessarily wrong. But they are not seeing the whole picture. The key is understanding the difference between formal and informal practice.


Formal practice is the most common idea of what meditation is. It is what happens when we sit down in a quiet place, close our eyes and dedicate a period of time to our technique of choice. Whenever meditation is presented in pop culture this is what it looks like. Someone sitting cross-legged, often with their fingers in the OK-sign, hands balanced on their knees. There may even be an “om” or two thrown in for good measure.


Formal practice is incredibly important. It allows us to deepen the quality of our mindfulness, encourages a sense of complete stillness and can result in insights that can really support us throughout our life. However, to get the most out of formal practice we need to dedicate quiet time for it, and you may well have noticed that time is an increasingly scarce resource in our modern world. What price is a spare quiet hour on a weekday afternoon with no distractions?


In response to this so-called “time poverty,” we find formal meditation being presented in a way that constantly reduces the time commitment required. Twenty minutes of meditation is all you need. No, actually scratch that, ten minutes of meditation is all you need. If you don’t have time for ten minutes, that’s OK, here’s a power-packed five-minute meditation you can use. There are even apps for one-minute meditations. And even shorter still.


While it absolutely is possible to carve out time for formal meditation practice when we really want to, it is just a fact of twenty-first-century life that most of us struggle to find quality quiet time. If this was the whole picture, then that would be incredibly bad news for mindfulness because despite all its well-documented benefits, the one resource needed to make it happen is harder and harder to find. This is where informal practice comes to our rescue.


Informal meditation practice is what happens when we make the decision to use any activity we happen to be engaged in as the basis for our development of awareness, calm or kindness. It is a mobile and real-time style of meditation for a mobile and real-time world. It is also very effective. All we need is a basic understanding of core meditation techniques, and the will, energy and confidence to make them part of our everyday life. This is what this book will give you.


Some of us are fortunate enough to clock up eight hours of sleep every night. We may also be virtuous enough to do ten, twenty or even thirty minutes of sitting practice every day. That still leaves the best part of sixteen hours which we’re effectively writing off from a mindfulness perspective, aside from hoping that the effects of our formal practice somehow leak through into the rest of our day. This is why informal practice is so important. It uses the time we already have rather than asking us to create some more time that we can’t.


However, the danger of calling one style of meditation formal and the other informal is that it can make us think that formal is more important. This distinction is a mistake and is the number one reason people subscribe to the time problem. Both informal and formal practice are as important as each other. My argument is that since the time we have for informal practice is perhaps fifty to a hundred times more than what we have for formal practice, it should become our priority. So rather than call it informal meditation, we will call it mobile meditation or mobile mindfulness. You could also call it on-the-go meditation or out-and-about meditation.


Both formal and mobile practice have been part of the mindfulness tradition since the very beginning. In fact, the distinction between the two was never originally made and the cultivation of qualities such as stability, curiosity and compassion were encouraged at all times and in all situations. As the various meditation traditions developed and evolved over the centuries, they each gave different levels of emphasis to mobile practice, with some making it their primary style. The overall idea of mobile mindfulness, therefore, is neither new nor my own invention. It is, however, one whose time has arrived for a comeback.


Formal meditation is often considered as having trickle-down effects. It is said that if we do formal practice then the benefits of that will somehow transfer to the rest of our life. That may well be the case but given that the rest of our life is so much bigger, this book will turn the whole idea of prioritizing formal meditation on its head. It will present a picture in which we primarily train our mindfulness alongside our everyday activities. We will still use formal practice, but it will be in a secondary role as a way to support and deepen the benefits rather than as the main event. As a result, we no longer have the excuse of not having time. The main problem then becomes knowing what techniques to use and remembering to use them. And those problems are much easier to solve than making time in an already too full schedule.


This change, from formal to mobile, is one you will already be very familiar with from personal computing. If you are at least twenty years old, like me you’ll remember a time when if you wanted to work, play games or check your inbox, you had to go to a specific room in your house and sit down in front of a large beige box. Today we have all that power and more in our phones and tablets, which we can use wherever we happen to be. We still use desktop computers for the things that we can’t quite do on our phones, but we now live in a mobile-first world.


It’s time for mindfulness and meditation to move there too.


Incense sticks not required


I never thought that I would end up making a living from creating things which helped bring mindfulness to so many people. One of the real pleasures of making mindfulness stuff is that I get the chance to engage with people who have found it useful in their lives and are moved enough to share their stories with me. Jennifer is one of those people who recently got in touch with me. She is an ambitious lawyer with a young son and the story she shared with me is one I have heard all too often.


There are two main reasons why people get into meditation: crisis or curiosity. If you’re like me and came in through curiosity, then you will mainly be motivated by an interest in how your mind works. You have an inkling of how big an impact your inner life—your thoughts and emotions—has on you and the people around you. You have a sense, however small, that taking care of that inner life is fundamental to your well-being. So you turn to mindfulness as a way to support that.


Curiosity, however, is the much less common of the two entry points. For most people it is crisis which sends them knocking on the mindfulness door. People come in via crisis because they have had one or more truly difficult experiences in their lives and are looking for anything that might help them out. Crisis comes in a range of flavors. It can sometimes look like a condition such as depression, anxiety or chronic pain. Or it can look like something much less clinical but just as powerful such as work stress, the inability to sleep or the end of a relationship. Or it can simply be the feeling that we just can’t cope.


It was this sense of not being able to cope that led Jennifer to try meditation. When we spoke she told me that she felt she was drowning under the pressures of work, home and family. I was losing myself in the storm and I wasn’t sure if I could take any more. Something had to change.


Jennifer had heard of how effective mindfulness can be in managing stress and so signed up to the only available class near her. She called in a favor from her mother to help manage childcare so she could make the sessions after work and was really excited to attend that first class. Finally she was going to get some support and learn how to develop the skills to deal with it all.


It was heartbreaking when I heard what actually happened. Jennifer hit the hippy problem and she hit it hard. It had started pretty well. The class began with a simple guided meditation all about paying attention to one’s breath. And while she didn’t find it easy or straightforward, given all the different thoughts and distractions which came up during that short period, she got the sense that there was something to this meditation thing.


Then it all started unravelling. Despite being billed as a secular class, the teacher began to introduce things which were explicitly religious. There were statues, incense sticks and ritual bells. There was even chanting. Jennifer squirmed her way through the rest of the evening, left before the tea and biscuits and never went back. She was attracted to the promise of meditation but her upbringing, personal history and values meant she was full-on averse to anything outwardly religious. It was just too high a barrier for her to overcome. If this is what meditation is, then it’s not for me. So she turned her back on mindfulness and just muddled through, not giving it another thought. Then she had her second child two years later and, while she loved being a mother, the day-to-day logistics of life became even more of a struggle. She remembered her original interest in mindfulness and, even though she was scarred by her first experience, she decided to give it another go. This time she started with an app she’d been recommended by a friend and that is how she ended up getting in touch with me. She had finally found a way in where she didn’t need to take on any spiritual baggage and the lowering of that barrier meant she could start making mindfulness real and enjoy all the benefits that come with that.


Unfortunately, this is a common experience. It takes a lot of bravery to go to a meditation class for the first time. We are recognizing that maybe we don’t have all the answers right now and could do with some skills and support to get through. That means we have to show some vulnerability and that takes real courage. That’s why I find stories such as Jennifer’s so heartbreaking. Due to a bad first experience, many people are so put off that despite an urgent desire to deal with their difficulties and face their inner lives, they end up not doing anything about it for years. Some people even have such a negative experience that they are put off for life.


Nowadays, thankfully, there are many different ways into mindfulness that do not require you to subscribe to a spiritual or religious point of view. However, the hippy hangover still runs deep. Meditation is still popularly perceived primarily as a spiritual practice that is limited to something you do on a cushion. The truth is that it is much more than that and always has been. Understanding that is the second rule of mobile mindfulness.


Rule #2: Mindfulness should be led by what people want, not by tradition


There was a time in the history of mindfulness when the only way to get into it was through religion and spirituality. That has now changed. The spiritual motivation for meditating does exist and is still an important part of the picture but it is now only one part, not the whole kahuna. Nowadays people have completely different motivations for getting into mindfulness. Workplace stress, medical conditions, performance under high pressure and the everyday ability to deal with everyday difficulties are just some of them.


The mistake made most often is to bring out the holy steamroller and start from a spiritual or religious position irrespective of what people are actually interested in using mindfulness for. So what typically happens is that a style of meditation that has worked well for a spiritual motivation is adjusted to fit a newer, different motivation. The problem with this approach is that certain ingredients of how meditation has been presented for spiritual reasons—the language, the aesthetic, the ritual elements, the methods of practice—are so baked into that presentation that they are not remotely in scope for change, even though they can put off a significant proportion of the potential audience. Well, that’s just how meditation is, so if you don’t like it, then it’s nothing to do with the way we’re presenting it, it’s just that you’re wrong.


This is where good design comes in. If people don’t want the religious wrapping paper but still want the gift of mindfulness, then the obvious solution is to switch things up. What we need to do is wrap the gift the way that is most likely for someone to want to open it and make sure the gift is what the receiver actually wants. I know you wanted a bike for Christmas but here’s a Buddha statue instead.


So the second new rule of mobile mindfulness is all about starting with where you are and letting meditation meet you there instead of you having to go out and change before you can even get through the door. If your most pressing need is to calm down in stressful situations, then you should be able to access that part of mindfulness right away. If you are struggling with difficult experience such as anxiety or other emotional issues, you should be able to get support aimed specifically at that. And it should all be presented in such a way that feels natural to the realities and aesthetics of your life here and now. This seemingly obvious idea is why this book is structured like it is.


The journey from mind-full to mindful


If you’ve ever used your phone or another device to track your sleep, calorie intake, steps or even your heartbeat, then whether you know it or not, you have been part of the so-called “Quantified Self movement.” This geeky term is what’s used to talk about anyone who uses technology to track and analyze information about the details of their personal life. The idea behind it is that tracking all this information is a positive force that allows us to make better decisions about how we live our lives.


Tennessee-based Chris Dancy is a leading figure in the Quantified Self movement. Once labeled by the press as the most connected human on the planet, Chris is an extreme tracker. He has set up systems that can track tens of thousands of different data points across all parts of his life and at any one time will actively monitor and analyze over fifteen hundred. And you think you suffer from information overload?


Soon after starting his personal regime of full-scale tracking, Chris began to notice real benefits from being aware of all that he was doing. Seeing the connections between what he did and how he felt had helped him lose a significant amount of weight as well as improve how he managed his moods. But three years in, it started to get a bit too much. Googling your name is just about OK. But when you can google your entire life, it becomes overwhelming. I don’t think you’re supposed to browse your life. You’re not supposed to be able to bookmark your emotions. It even got to the point where just by looking at his data, he could predict when he was going to feel depressed. It was too much. But he didn’t stop tracking. Instead he turned to mindfulness.


It’s the stillness. In a digital world, being still is often perceived as a problem, that something is broken. But it’s stillness that we need to be human. We need the gaps. We’ve created all this technology but instead of it helping us become more human, we are in danger of becoming too much in its service.


When practiced consistently, mindfulness gives us the clarity required to see the connections between things. All the technology that Chris engages with on a moment-by-moment basis gives him information he can then analyze over time, and with that longer view make changes in his life for the better. But without the stability he is able to develop through his meditation practice, Chris says he could not necessarily have all the inner resources to deal with his information-laden life. He now considers the integration of technology into his life as so natural that he describes himself as a mindful cyborg.


While Chris is perhaps on the extreme end of things, his number one piece of advice to those of us looking for a more balanced digital life is relevant to everyone: avoid digital dualism. Coined by Nathan Jurgenson, “digital dualism” is a term used to talk about the separation we make between the online and the offline, between the so-called virtual and the so-called real. But there’s just life. When we create this dualistic view, we place the human in conflict with the machine, when actually it should always be just about being more whole.


The act of drawing a line between the online and the offline, the digital world and the “real world,” is highly problematic.


I agree. The act of drawing a line between the online and the offline, the digital world and the “real world,” is highly problematic. Firstly, it is not what our lives are actually like. As soon as we put a smartphone in our pocket, the division between online and offline disappears. This distinction is now increasingly redundant as more and more objects, from cars to fridges to trainers, become connected to the internet.


There is, however, a more dangerous consequence of perpetuating digital dualism—conflict. If my meditation has taught me anything over all these years, it is that whenever we draw a line and separate one thing from another, we are also creating conflict. Just the language of calling one thing “virtual” and the other thing “real” creates an enormous value judgment. Millions of people around the world find meaning from social interaction through digital channels. Is it fair to tell them that it is not real, not genuine? I don’t think so. Thankfully this problem will be solved by time, in that there is still a significant proportion of us for whom this digital thing is entirely alien and therefore a threat. That will change.


This is a book that understands the dangers of digital dualism. So while digital technology is very much a major theme throughout, it is presented as just being a part of modern life rather than a special thing in itself. The theme of dealing with various aspects of our connected lives runs all through the book. It would be a mistake for a mobile mindfulness book to treat our digital lives as a special thing deserving of its own section or chapter since that would just be making yet another division and we’ve already got enough of those.


Speaking to Chris Dancy got me excited about how we can take more control over what benefits we get from all the technology that we engage with on a daily basis. His message is that we all have a big opportunity to use information and technology in service of our well-being so that it actually starts to nurture us as people. Chris calls this trend of technology transitioning from being an alien force to a nurturing one as moving from Big Brother to Big Mother. And that leads us to the third new rule of mindfulness.


Rule #3: Make technology part of the solution, not the problem


All a meditation teacher can do is teach what they know. Part of the reason that mindfulness and technology are so often considered as being the opposite of each other is that the great generation of teachers who brought mindfulness to the West, and therefore catalyzed its rapid development to where it is today, didn’t grow up digital. Now that our most influential senior mindfulness teachers and experts are in their fifties and sixties, they are of a generation which are, on the whole, late adopters of our otherwise mainstream digital culture, if indeed they adopt it at all. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of them were part of the hippy movement, which while not anti-technology was at least suspicious of it.


It is therefore no surprise that since mindfulness has been transmitted to us through this generation of teachers, the technologies that have arisen as part of the digital revolution of the last fifteen years are often framed as the enemy, something against the natural order of things. To even say “technology” in general indicates how crude the sentiment can be, for we’re of course not talking about technologies such as traffic control systems or supermarket supply chain software. When technology is criticized in the context of modern behavior we are mainly talking about personal, mobile, networked computing. That has led to a popular school of thought that the best way to deal with our perceived sense of information overload is to escape. We have to turn our phones off to be mindful. We observe a digital sabbath where all our devices are put away for a day a week. We may even spend a dedicated digital detox weekend that is as hipster as it is hippy, sewing and crafting in the woods, connecting with others, our phones checked in at the door.


All of these practices are good. There is enormous value in periods of abstinence. They allow us to take different perspectives and engage in activities that we otherwise may not have the time or space for. But by no means are they the whole answer.


I intensely dislike the term digital detox because it effectively says that our digital technologies are toxic. Those same technologies underpin our economy and our way of life and therefore, either as individuals or as a society, we are going to have a very hard time indeed if we continue to pathologize them. It is a highly unsustainable solution.


The idea of the retreat is historically very important to the mindfulness tradition. So when dealing with the challenges of digital life, the escape, the unplug and the detox are naturally the most commonly taught strategy. But while it is lovely to go on holiday, we can’t be on holiday all the time. What is more, have you ever noticed that when your phone is off, it is not actually off? Because even then we know that emails are coming into our inbox, friends are posting messages that we’re missing out on and major news is happening. For many of us this creates at best a sense of low-level anxiety. We live in an always-on world in which there is no off switch. Silent mode is not silent.


The opportunity that mobile mindfulness presents is to move past the binary thinking that our digital technology is either on or off, or that it’s either a force for good or all that is wrong with the world. The opportunity is to change our relationship with our digital lives entirely. To use the power of technology to power our inner lives. In the last ten years we have seen popular technologies become normalized as a way to support our physical wellbeing. From the Nintendo Wii to the Apple Watch via workout apps and activity trackers, millions of people around the world already relate to their devices in a very positive way when it comes to fitness and physical health. The next step and the invitation of this book is to bring together mindfulness and modern life, thereby enabling the same to happen to our mental wellbeing, our mental health and our inner lives.


The alternative to not changing our relationship with technology fills me with dread. It points to our living in a society trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with the technologies on which it depends. No one wants that and it doesn’t have to be that way.


Technology can definitely have a negative impact on our minds. Most money made on the web today is through advertising, and fortunes are made from the manipulation of our attention. As a result our minds have become fragmented and our distraction has become a habit. But no matter how large a supertanker is, it can be moved around. Throughout its history, meditation has always been used for breaking unhelpful habits and utilizing the difficult stuff of life as the training ground for us to become better people.


It may feel that our digital lives are so overwhelming that we will just continue to get washed along with it all. But with the right intention, the right skills and a bit of effort we can go against the stream to get where we need to go. We can turn that tanker around. And what makes it all possible is the encouraging news that mindfulness and technology are not only natural partners, they could even be best friends. Because when you look more closely, they actually already are.


Where mindfulness and technology meet


It’s a bright February morning in San Francisco and I am having a late breakfast. The cafe is full of young men and women huddled around shiny laptops. I overhear one group who are working on a presentation that they are pitching to investors later that week. There are two people sitting by the window, both of whom are writing code for their individual projects. This is a city obsessed by start-ups and everyone here seems to be working on what they hope will be the next Uber or Instagram.


The next time I look up from my toast and coffee I see one of the coders has put down his work and is clearly meditating. His back is upright, his shoulders are open, his eyes are closed and his hands are in a tell-tale position in his lap most commonly used in the Zen tradition. Ten or so minutes later he reopens his eyes, orders a muffin and goes back to work. No one bats an eyelid.


While more and more places around the world are becoming significant centers for start-ups and the technology world in general, San Francisco and the surrounding region, known as Silicon Valley, remains the global epicenter. And it is a place which is as much hippy as it is techie.


The most well-known meeting of contemplative practice and technology is in the influence that Zen Buddhism had on Steve Jobs, which led in part to the aesthetic and design principles for which Apple is so well known. This was, however, part of an ongoing story which came about thanks to a generation of leading technology practitioners and thinkers in the late sixties and seventies such as Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly who, at the same time as laying the foundations for what we know as the digital world, were also exploring Asian culture and the then exotic practices of meditation.


In the intervening years, parts of that counterculture have become mainstream and some have remained at the margins. For several years the relationship between people pioneering outer technologies and those practicing inner ones was not obvious. But today, mindfulness and meditation are back in a big way in and around Silicon Valley with many of its household-name companies and smaller start-ups running mindfulness courses for employees. San Francisco, Silicon Valley and California in general have a massive influence on today’s globalized world. Much of what we now consider normal started as small-scale ideas in San Francisco garages, offices and cafes. Modern mindfulness will be no different.


The quickest way to recognize the relationship between meditation and technology is to see how meditation is itself a technology. You may have noticed that in the previous paragraph I snuck in the idea of meditation as an “inner technology” and so I should explain that a little more. If technology is a set of tools and methods employed to solve certain problems or achieve certain objectives, then meditation is absolutely that. The key distinction is that meditation is working on primarily inner objectives rather than those on the outside.


It isn’t hard to see that the general world of outer technology is accelerating away. We see rapid change everywhere we look. There are more mobile phones on the planet today than there are human beings. Apps and other software allow us to perform tasks that just a few years ago were the domain of technical specialists. Developments in medicine, home entertainment and transport point to a not-too-distant future where both lifestyle and lifespan may be very different to what we recognize as normal today.


Now what of our inner technologies? What are we doing to make sure that our inner worlds are developing in a similarly forward-facing trajectory? Even if we can’t move at the exact same pace, can we use the tools and methods available to us to at least deal with this rapidly changing world?


Mindfulness-based meditation is one of those tools. It may not tune us up to the extent where we can take on the machines in tests of pure computational power, but it will help us develop the self-awareness, patience and openness that allow us to avoid becoming overwhelmed and to be more human. It all comes down to attention.


We live in an attention economy. You should have noticed that by now. Our attention is a valuable thing. Some companies make money directly from it. Others spend loads of money trying to get it from you. There are whole industries built around it. We live in a world dominated by advertising. Both on our screens and on our streets, our attention is bombarded and seduced in the hope that it will convert into a purchase. Our attention is a precious commodity. In a society where information is now effectively infinite and abundant, it is our attention that becomes the scarcest resource. The irony is that while the multinational companies all understand how valuable our attention is, we—the owners of that resource—do not.


In a growing economy where our attention is being farmed for commercial gain, mindfulness is one of the few tools available for returning our sense of agency and control.


The way the web makes money is that it converts our attention into cash. Most commonly that is through advertising, drawing us in with seductive content and then selling the spaces around it to other companies to hawk their wares, who, thanks to the power of modern data analytics, do that in increasingly sophisticated ways. The other principal way attention is turned into money is best demonstrated by so-called “free-to-play” mobile games. Through engaging gameplay, our attention becomes fixed within a particular experience and the games are designed in such a way that once our attention is trapped we have to pay extra to get a more satisfying or more accelerated experience. Ka-ching!


Mindfulness is also all about attention. In a growing economy where our attention is being farmed for commercial gain, mindfulness is one of the few tools available for returning our sense of agency and control. We should therefore look at meditation as one of the best investments we can make right now. If we continue to invest in mindfulness over time, then not only does our inner capital grow but we also receive some seriously valuable dividends. And unlike the outer attention economy, investment in the inner attention economy is on our own terms.


There was a time when you couldn’t learn mindfulness unless you went to Asia. There was a time when you couldn’t learn mindfulness unless you were religious or spiritual—and in some places unless you were a man and a monk. But as the years have gone by and mindfulness has changed and evolved, each of these barriers have become redundant, seen through as just being a product of their time. Digital life is today’s frontier. You can’t learn mindfulness unless you turn everything off. Let’s see through that one, too.


What you will find in this book


This is a next-generation mindfulness book. At its heart is a fresh, new presentation of mobile mindfulness that meets us where we are and embraces the realities of our modern lives, charger cables and all. By the end you will have all the tools, exercises and ideas you need to go on and bring mindfulness to wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. You will also be shown how to go that one step further and design your own meditations. My ultimate ambition for you is that mindfulness might even become natural, a habit so familiar and enjoyable that it takes no effort at all.


This book is packed with practical guidance to help bring mindfulness to life. It is a book you can read in a number of different ways. If you have a specific outcome that you are interested in, such as relieving stress or dealing with difficult emotion, you can jump straight to those chapters. Or you can read the book in order and let the techniques and ideas build upon each other to give you a more complete understanding. You can read the book once and get the inspiration you need or you can keep referring to it as a guide for your meditation practices. Ultimately, it’s up to you.


For all the change that mindfulness has enjoyed over the years, the most important moment is here and now with you. Everyone who has ever engaged with meditation has by definition been an innovator. Each of us has a different life and a different set of challenges, so once we learn the basics of mindfulness as presented here, it is up to us to then innovate or apply what we learn to our particular circumstances. After all, at its heart, mindfulness is a creative discipline.


I remember when I first realized that meditation wasn’t this distant thing but a set of tools that I could learn and then use to make a difference to exactly where I was. It was incredibly exciting to discover that. I’m just as excited for you and I wish you all the best and more.


How does it feel to hear that? What is happening in the body? What thoughts have just popped into your head? Buckle up. This. Is. Happening.


 


Copyright © 2017 by Rohan Gunatillake