A meditation teacher’s 5 tips for breaking your screen addiction once and for all.

We’re all internet addicts. Here's how we can get clean.

I first realized I was a junkie during a meditation retreat in the California desert.

It was a silent retreat, so we turned in our phones and pledged not to speak for 10 days. Every morning, we walked to the dining hall just as the sun crested the mountains, and I paused for a few minutes to enjoy the sunrise. It was one of the highlights of my day — drinking in the beauty of the desert with no sense of hurry and nowhere I needed to be.


Image via iStock.

On the final morning, the retreat leaders announced that we could pick up our phones in the dining hall. As always, we walked to the hall just as the sun was rising. I glanced at the desert sunrise, gorgeous as ever ... then thought, “%*@$ it” and speed-walked to the dining hall to reunite with my phone. I mean, I might have texts!

As I hurried along, trading the glory of the desert sky for the chance to hunch over a tiny screen, it hit me: I was a junkie. And seeing my fellow retreat-ants trot alongside me with eager looks on their faces, I realized I wasn’t the only one.

Smartphones are amazing — I barely remember life before the poop emoji — but it’s time to admit that we have a bit of a problem.

Think about the last time you had dinner with a friend, and she got up to go to the bathroom. Be honest: Did you reach for your phone? Was there something specific you needed to look at, or was it just a reflex?

Most of us are addicted to distraction.

It's as if going a single second without something to occupy our minds would be intolerable. There's a compulsion to fill the empty space with something to read, watch, listen to, eat, etc.

This is a very old human problem. Scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal nailed it back in the 17th century: "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

There’s no denying that the internet, especially our phones, have made the problem worse.

Photo via iStock.

We sit on the subway and play Candy Crush, which might be the biggest waste of time ever invented. We procrastinate on Facebook when our work gets a tiny bit boring. We scroll through Instagram while ignoring the friends we’re with. We leave Netflix on in the background while we try to fall asleep.

There’s a desperate quality to the way we binge on distractions, too.

We're so scared of a content-free moment that we maintain a frenzy of activity to stave it off. It's agitating and exhausting, but we've gotten so used to living this way that we barely notice.

How do we quit our addictions?

As a meditation teacher, I often teach the simple practice of non-distraction as a way to meditate: being quietly where you are, without reaching for some distraction or entertainment to fill the quiet.

This isn’t a complex technique; you just notice when the urge arises to do something and politely say, "No, thank you."

Here are five ways to practice this in your daily life:

1. The next time you take the subway, try not to pull out your phone, a book, or any other distraction from the time you board until you reach the next stop.

Instead, you might rest your attention gently on the sensation of breathing, observe the people around you, or do nothing in particular. See what it feels like to go just one stop with nothing to fill the moment.

This could be you someday, riding a packed train with joy and zen. Image via Anita Tung, used with permission.

While you're playing with this, the urge to do something might bubble up. That's OK. You can treat that as just one more interesting thing to observe.

2. When you need to walk somewhere, experiment with leaving your headphones in your pocket.

Decide not to listen to music or podcasts. Don't look at your phone. Enjoy the simplicity of walking without distractions.

3. Let's keep it real: You probably read on the toilet.

I'm not judging, but there are compelling reasons not to do this:

  1. Hygiene
  2. Risk of dropping phone in toilet
  3. It's gross (see point 1)
  4. Opportunity to practice non-distraction

So maybe try declaring your bathroom a non-reading zone...

4. Make your morning device-free.

Try staying away from your phone and computer until after you’ve washed up and eaten breakfast. You’ll start your morning in a mindful place and set a solid precedent for your day.

Pro tip: Put your phone on airplane mode the night before. That way, if you need to briefly use your phone (to check the time or the weather or something), you won’t get hit with a zillion notifications.

5. Speaking of notifications, do you really need to hear about it every time someone Snap-grams your Yik Yak? (I’m old.)

It’s hard enough to keep our noses out of our phones without them actively interrupting us to say, “Hey, look at me.” I’ve found it helpful to consider what notifications I could do without and then turn those off.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how anxious do those unread notifications make you feel? Photo via iStock.

I still get notifications for texts (of course) and for Twitter replies, but I turned off my email and Facebook notifications. It works for me.

Practicing non-distraction can be deeply rewarding, but it's not always fun.

Sometimes it feels pleasant and peaceful, so it's easy to stick with. Other times, your mind might feel twitchy, and resting in the quiet of the moment is a challenge. My suggestion: Do it anyway. The freedom you’ll discover is worth the slight effort involved.

Freedom doesn't advertise itself as strongly as distraction does, but it has far more to offer.

By letting go of distraction, we discover that a content-free moment is something to savor, not something to fear. When we drop the exhausting effort to fill every moment, we don't tumble into some hideous void.

Photo via iStock.

Instead, we might find simple contentment waiting under all the noise: a sense of being fundamentally OK.

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


Capital One

Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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