The Attention Epidemic

By William J. Furney

The people at my gym can’t go without mental stimulation and rewards for a second, and their sweaty workouts — there’s no aircon, only a window breeze — almost get in the way. They seem to rush through their bench presses, deadlifts and barbell curls so they can once again snatch up their precious phones and see what’s going on. 

They text like they’re in the maelstrom of a crippling emergency, make calls so apparently urgent and desperate that you’d think they were in immediate peril — and this week I spied over the shoulder of one workout warrior to find out why he was glued to his phone between sets of leg curls: a soccer game he was playing.

Where was my phone? In the locker, where it belonged while I was concentrating on my workouts. 

And what’s with the constant attention-seeking that’s bordering on hysteria or even an actual epidemic since smartphones entered human culture over a decade ago? Can people not be still and un-zombie-like for a moment? 

You only have to go on echo-chambers Twitter and Facebook to see what embarrassing dross people post about their empty lives. No one wants to know! (Reflected in the general lack of retweets and likes; yet still they persist.)

It’s an existential, primal scream into the indifferent cybervoid. 

A Guide to Happiness

Gelong Thubten says that with mindfulness and meditation, we can control our racing thoughts and erupting emotions and, ultimately, transform the ways in which we react to life and its many events. My friend and colleague James Speyer introduced me to the British monk this week, by way of Gelong’s book A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, and it’s a refreshing revelation. 

Way back before he became a Tibetan-Buddhist monk — in Scotland, of all places, and in his early 20s — the now-meditation teacher was a well-heeled actor in London and New York and living life to the max. But he wasn’t happy and eventually crashed and burned, and ended up in a Scottish monastery, where he learned to control his thoughts and become happy. 

He has a new book coming out in May, Handbook for Hard Times: A Monk’s Guide to Fearless Living. It promises to “guide us to understand that happiness, kindness and resilience can be cultivated through embracing life’s difficulties as opportunities for transformation,” the blurb says. 

James, who lives in Kent, England, and runs wildlife travel site Xplore Our Planet, told me that, recently, rising levels of anxiety and long bouts of insomnia had led him to question the way he used technology. 

“It was quite a sudden realisation. I was speaking to a colleague, just generally about some recent anxiety I’d been experiencing,” he said. “I can’t really remember the exact thing he said, but I became immediately aware that my phone was like this sort of attention crutch. The moment my mind wandered from what I was doing, my hand would be in my pocket and I’d be on my phone — just checking emails, scrolling news feeds, Reddit etc. Doing nothing other than filing space.”

It then occurred to him — his realisation — that “my phone was fueling a deep impatience and lack of focus in my head. Whether it was the cause or a byproduct of an inability to hold attention and find mental stillness, I don’t know. But I was definitely obsessed with my phone. I wouldn’t be on it loads more than other people, but it was always in little obsessive chunks. Hundreds of times a day I’d just check it, essentially for no reason.”

Taking Control Over Tech

So did James chuck his phone out and live a much more mentally quiet life? No, but he started to ration how he used the device and stopped it from essentially controlling his life — he was exerting power over technology, rather than being a slave to it. No longer were there random, mindless checks of the latest social media and other feeds; instead of the phone being a constant obsession, James was using it as a tool — something to assist him when he wanted something, like using Google Maps to find somewhere or to listen to an audiobook or podcast.

“I didn’t want to lose the communication a mobile provides, or the convenience it offers in accessing things that actually help you, like recipes, weather forecasts and whatnot, but I was done with being tethered to it, like it was an extension of myself,” he said. 

Going tech cold-turkey — a digital detox — is not as easy as it sounds, because all those apps are designed to be as addictive as drugs. “It’s as if they’re taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back,” Aza Raskin, a former Silicon Valley employee and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, told the BBC’s investigative TV programme Panorama several years ago. 

“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting,” said Raskin, whose centre declares: As long as social media companies profit from addiction, depression and division, our society will continue to be at risk.”

Tuning into Yourself, Dropping Out

There’s even a company called Digital Detox, an American enterprise that aims to help people to “be more present and improve the balance with technology use in their lives.” It runs summer camps for adults, “unplugged nights out” and mystery trips, retreats and workshops — all without smartphones or other tech.  

So how did James cope with dialing down his phone use?

“For a while it was tougher than it sounds,” he said. “I’d find myself with my hand in my pocket, going for my phone, every 10-15 mins or so. Sometimes I’d be tapping my pocket to check it was there, like a subconscious twitch; but eventually that all went away … I quickly changed my relationship with my phone and I know I’m better off already.”

Monk Gelong, who spent four years meditating all day in his monastery in Scotland and was astounded at how society had changed when he eventually emerged from his soul-searching seclusion, seeing people walking the streets like automatons while staring at their phone screens, says most people don’t understand what meditation is. 

They think, he says, that they have to totally clear their minds, and they find it impossible and give up. That’s because they’re going about it the wrong way, he says, and it’s not about emptying your head of thoughts at all — more about allowing them to flow as they do, and being aware of them but not letting them take over; rather, you can train your mind to control your thoughts. He offers a helpful analogy of standing at the side of the road and watching the traffic go by: your position is your mind and the vehicles your thoughts, coming and going. 

Meditation Done Right

The correct way to approach meditation, the monk advises, is to focus your attention on your something, like your breath or a distant object, and to be aware of your thoughts; and if they take you away from your meditation, that’s just fine — all you need to do then is acknowledge that and return your focus to your breath or whatever else you were concentrating on. Doing this daily is the key to happiness, Geylong says, and he defines happiness not by what you have but by “complete freedom” and says it’s a choice everyone has and can transform the world. 

As a newcomer to mindfulness and meditation, is James finding it a benefit in countering always-on society, and how did he go about it?

“I started mindfulness by just starting. I started meditating. At first, I did it for the same reasons other people do — to clear my mind. That didn’t work, but I began to be able to sit still longer, so I figured something was changing, and kept at it,” he said. “Over time, I started to not only meditate using apps and just from what I knew, but also learn about what it actually means to be mindful.”

He said he soon started to realise the profound impact that meditation can have on the mind, how it can influence your life in a vastly positive way, by helping to banish unhelpful and even damaging thoughts. 

“It became very obvious that my thoughts were entrenched in quite toxic ideas, things I’d trained myself to think were good and positive: obsession with what’s next; an addiction to trying to acquire more. 

“I lived in the past and in the future, trying to learn from previous experiences and plan for the next stages of life, be that tomorrow or years away. I have a distinct memory of a trip to Sri Lanka. I was in a safari jeep in the middle of a field, just me, my partner, the driver and two elephants. A mother and her young calf. The calf was playful, digging at the ground, and the mother was rooting around for food. We’d approached and stopped some 100 metres away, but they’d slowly wandered over, careless of our existence, just foraging. 

“By the time they were at their closest, I could have reached out and touched the skin of the mother with my hand. It was an awe-inspiring, amazing experience, for about five minutes, and then my mind was thinking about what’s next: When were we leaving? What time was it? Was it going to be dark soon? Were those rain clouds? How long would it take to get back? What was for dinner? What was the plan tomorrow?

“I was living a once-in-a-lifetime moment and I wasn’t in the room. I didn’t think this was a problem. I’d trained myself to obsess because I believed that is how I’d be happy, how I’d find the next moment like this. But I was missing the moment, because I was thinking about the next. 

“Through learning about mindfulness I came to understand a lot about my own mind, how I externalised happiness and strived to be a part of everything. Our culture loves the idea of FOMO — fear of missing out — to the point we’ll go to great lengths to not miss things, things we think we want because other people do them, or other people have them. 

“I had this a lot growing up: always desperate to join my friends on nights out only to stand on a club dance floor wondering why I was there and wishing I was somewhere else. Mindfulness taught me these thoughts are impulses of a brain seeking a high; they weren’t actually roots to being happy. 

“Our fast-paced lifestyles of constant stimulus form addictive habits and thought processes that we believe belong to us but are actually trapping us in a loop of constant demands for more. It’s like we build a tolerance to happiness and fulfilment in our current state, so we have to search for more ways to be better because more is the only thing that will make life what it should be. 

“I’m still new to the practice — I still falter and follow thoughts longer than I should — but I can see now how our brains trick us, and how true happiness is not a fleeting high but a sense of contentment that follows you constantly, whether you’re on a walk alone or on a Zoom call with all your best friends.”

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