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.
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.
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.
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:
- Risk of dropping phone in toilet
- It's gross (see point 1)
- 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.
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.
Instead, we might find simple contentment waiting under all the noise: a sense of being fundamentally OK.