How would you feel if your mind were free of digital distractions? Would life be better if you could enjoy breakfast with your family without worrying about the work emails flooding in (no doubt you checked your phone on waking anyway), and reach the office without updating three or four social media accounts?
Increasingly, we're being told that we need a digital detox to overcome our addiction to technology, but tech and mindfulness entrepreneur Rohan Gunatillake has a much more interesting idea: let's get tech to work for us instead. His proposition is also far better suited to the real world. We need tech to do our jobs, and it brings many benefits for our professional and personal lives, if managed well.
At the moment, he says, the web is making money by converting our attention into cash. Big companies understand how valuable attention is, but we don't seem to, and we need to wise up. "Instead of a digital detox, we need to develop our ability to change our relationships with technology," says Gunatillake.
"Moving to a desert island is a legitimate strategy in the short term. But you can't go on holiday all the time. If complete turn-off is your only tool, you'll just switch between bingeing and turning off. Similarly, meditation retreats in themselves are really valuable if they help you to go deeper, but if you spend too much time on a meditation retreat you will only be able to meditate when on retreat."
Gunatillake is making waves in the predominantly anti-tech mindfulness world for his opposition to the idea that we must compartmentalise tech, separating it from the rest of our lives. He warns against the dangers of this behaviour, known as "digital dualism", and promotes digital culture as a valid part of modern life, rather than a dangerous, untrustworthy intruder. "I dislike the term 'digital detox' because it effectively says that 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 pathologise them. It is a highly unsustainable solution."
The alternative, he says, is "mobile mindfulness". This is a technique Gunatillake discovered when he moved to London in 2003 to work as a management consultant. He had begun to develop an interest in mindfulness and meditation and had met and studied with a number of teachers in what he describes as "classical, medieval, monastic institutions".
"But I was still enjoying my London corporate life, and my own challenge was how to make those things work together," he says.
So he started practising mindfulness exercises while on the train in the morning or while walking around the city, which led to the creation of his popular app Buddhify. "I made it for my friends who had come to me and said, 'I'm really interested in this mindfulness stuff but I don't have time, and it's too hippy.'"
While reading This Is Happening, Gunatillake's new book, which expounds his controversial approach, it is hard not to reflect on how much longer it takes me to read a book than it did a few years ago. Whether I'm reading on the bus, the sofa, or in bed, my phone is always with me, as is that damned reflex to check it on an absurdly frequent basis. Is that a text? Maybe my editor's replied to my email. Am I missing some brilliant gossip on WhatsApp? Who's posting what on Instagram?
I could go on. The technological distractions that interrupt my life and my work would make a very long list indeed. And even while I'm trying to ignore them and focus (focus!) on this book (which, by the way, is really interesting), I can't fully escape the niggle at the back of my over-busy brain that something is happening elsewhere that I need to be aware of.
I'm sure you empathise. Apparently, most of us check our phones around 85 times a day, twice as often as we think we do, and spend a third of our waking lives online in some capacity, according to a study from Nottingham Trent University, published last autumn in the online journal Plos One. What's more, the mindfulness bit adds even more time on top of getting through the text. Gunatillake is asking me, throughout the book, to take notice of all these distractions, to observe and accept them, and then try to return to the task in hand: reading. This is mindfulness, really – the popular technique that has wrought meditation from its spiritual master and given all of us access to ways to relax, detach from unwelcome distractions, and focus. Mindfulness is "knowing what is happening in our experience at any one time", writes Gunatillake.
This Is Happening works like an extension of Buddhify. It is full of useful mindfulness techniques, but as a book it has also provided Gunatillake with the space to share his theories on how to keep our tech use in line. I seem stuck at step one: I'm still reaching for my phone all the time. But at least I am being mindful of this behaviour. "Checking your phone frequently comes from a feeling that we're lonely, sad, distracted or restless," says Gunatillake. "The technique of watching the process of going to check your phone, and giving more attention to that emotional state, is a good start. When I was writing the book and required a lot of focus, I would check my phone a lot when I was frustrated with my work. The more literate we become with our emotional state, the more able we are to let those things be."
If this sounds like you, try the Inbox Addict exercise, which focuses on being aware, mentally and physically, of the actions leading up to checking your phone or email.
Is he fighting an uphill battle? The concept of the "digital detox" seems to be growing in popularity, but Gunatillake displays a Tigger-like positivity for our future relationship with technology. Not only does he promise that we can learn to control technology, but he sees a future where genuine human needs will be designed into everything on the market – a stark contrast to the current model of today's online "attention economy" where advertisers make money out of our fickleness.
The current generation of coders, developers and designers has, says Gunatillake, grown up with the constant buzz of tech in the background, and is primed to create products that will leave us happy and healthy. "As users, we need to be more vocal, too. If Google can build autonomous cars and put wifi on balloons, but says it can't solve bigoted comments on YouTube, it's not that it can't, it's that it's decided not to," he says.
And what of the older generation of meditation and mindfulness teachers, who Gunatillake respects, though he disagrees with their all-or-nothing approach? He is buoyed by the advice of a monk he met in Thailand: "I live in the forest so I teach a way that works in the forest. You live in the city and so you are practising in a way that works well for the city. Don't try and practise as if you lived in the forest when you don't. The forest style and the city style are both good. They take different routes but they both lead to where you want to go."
'This Is Happening: Redesigning Mindfulness For Our Very Modern Lives' by Ronan Gunatillake, (Bluebird, £12.99) is out now
Try the mouse Sweeper method
This technique is a game you can use when you want a break at work. Its genius is that it actually looks like you are still working.
Move the cursor around using your mouse or trackpad. Keeping your eyes, jaw and face relaxed, keep your attention on it as it moves, letting your ability to track the cursor be the most important thing in the world.
Then, while you're doing that, move your awareness out from the local detail of the cursor to the global container of the screen. Try not to look at anything in particular, resting instead with the sense of the screen as a whole.
Switch back and forth between the single-object focus on the cursor and the field-object focus of the screen. You can make the exercise more interesting/harder by doing this on a screen where you normally find distractions, such as a news homepage or your Facebook news feed.
Remember that meditation is about learning to fully understand what distracts us and what doesn't.
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