Last year, I drove to a friend’s get-together in a remote French village. The roads were icy and I swerved into a lake. I passed out, and came back to underwater. It was dark. And cold. And I didn’t even know which way was up. This was it, I was going to drown. And then I noticed that when I opened my mouth, the air bubbles floated up, and that’s how I knew which way to swim.
This entirely fabricated story is a good way to introduce this mindfulness-themed article: when you find yourself lost and disoriented and underwater and you don’t know which way is up, it’s important to breathe. This is especially true in your 20s, when you feel that if you don’t succeed by 25 someone will literally come kill you, and you’re both terrified and relieved by that thought. This is, of course, in part due to the constant pressure technology puts on our lives, which has led to the creation of a movement aiming at the gradual or intermittent abandonment of our tech. Yet, I wonder, is there necessarily a dichotomy between mindfulness and tech?
What Is Mindfulness?
Let’s first get the theory part of this exposé out of the way. People expect too much from mindfulness and its partner in crime, meditation. There is no version of it that will serve as a quick self-actualization tool, despite what that Instagram Self-Help Guru tells you. Much of Buddhism isn’t about knowing ourselves, it’s about tolerating not knowing, and finding an inner, label-free space where we are who we’ve always been, as the body fades away, hence shedding the delusion that pervades ordinary consciousness, allowing us to see the world with a clarity that doesn’t just liberate us from suffering but transforms our view of, and relationship with, reality itself. Sounds hard and convoluted? Well, so is summarising 2,500 years of wisdom in one sentence soooo…
What are the Effects of Mindfulness?
Despite its innate complexity, mindfulness can do (small) wonders to the mind, and by extension the body, both at home and at work. It is even possible that the 1-century-old science of psychotherapy may strongly benefit from better understanding this 25-century-old art of mindfulness. In fact, there is some empirical evidence suggesting that meditation might help with a variety of inherently human experiences, such as anxiety and pain, and produce measurable changes in the brain. It is however far from a miracle cure, and there’s still a lot of research to be conducted, especially about the kind of casual meditation people may choose to partake to in the course of a busy day, and whether some types of meditation are more effective than others.
Indeed, the term “meditation” can be used to describe a breathing exercise, a silent chanting of a mantra, a focus on feelings of love and kindness, a visualization, a positive affirmation, or even a mindful minute paying attention to the taste of a raisin, all of which can be touched upon by technology in a different way.
In addition to the meta-study mentioned above, several studies have found that mindfulness exercises can provide stronger focus, help stay calm under stress, improve memory and enhance corporate citizenship. In short, a boon for a manager looking to increase productivity through various digital or physical training. Yet, one should be wary of falling under the fad du jour’s spell: as the Harvard Business Review rightfully points out, Without Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness Doesn’t Work in a professional environment, and as such will not necessarily make you a better, more efficient leader. The real kicker, though? People who are more emotionally intelligent tend to be more stressed, potentially negating many overall rewards reaped within a company. Furthermore, emotionally perceptive people are said to be more susceptible to feelings of depression and hopelessness their emotionally unavailable peers.
Nevertheless, and though it does not replace therapy (or even regular exercise), meditation has the draw of being cheap and scale-able, which partly explains why various practices are being implemented in across the western world where it was once thought to be inapplicable, with unexpected results. The other part of the explanation is the trend effect, upon which app designers, yoga teachers and… traders (?) rely to make a living, often at our expense.
Does Tech have a role to play?
You may have recently run across adverts for apps such as Headspace or Calm, haranguing you to do nothing for 15 seconds. That’s inherently stupid. I can do nothing for hours at a time. Meditation isn’t about “doing nothing”, it’s about learning to do one, very, very hard thing deliberately and repeatedly, which requires training, and calm. Let me assure everyone that “enabling notifications” appears nowhere in the Noble 8-Fold Path. Neither does “upgrading for a small fee to unlock more advanced lessons and exercises” (that’s Scientology, not mindfulness).
Yet, notifications can be turned off. Gamification is, however, more counter-productive: it exemplifies the app makers’ need to track, incentivise, and transform any and all self-improvement endeavor into a benchmark and/or a competition, whether with others or yourself, in the name of future revenues. Having meditated more than others is nothing to be proud of. Or ashamed of. Or anything for that matter. It should be baffling to all that apps encourage you to share your “achievements” on social media. Pics or it didn’t enlighten!
Beyond apps, the corporate world has also hijacked meditation for the sake of productivity. Google, Goldman Sachs, Salesforce, Volvo… all the cool kids are doing it, and it’s a safe bet that a sudden newfound respect for the metaphysics of Buddhism isn’t at the heart of this trend(one can hardly imagine a banker praising the Anatta doctrine). It’s also true that mindfulness meditation, as typically taught by companies to their employees, bears only a small resemblance to the philosophy mindfulness meditation as described by those who perfected the art.
Yet one’s rebellion against the commodification isn’t a simple, open-and-shut case wherein the benefits of spiritual endeavors are held above those of therapeutic endeavors. In fact, there’s a long, rich debate in meditation traditions about the choice between seclusion from the world or immersion in it — the argument presented being that one who achieves peacefulness in the hustle and bustle of modern life is somehow more worthy, having reached a much harder goal. Some people need to become recluse to tune out the world, while others pursue tranquility from inside life’s chaos. Smartphones and full-time jobs just confront us with the latest version of this choice.
Furthermore, the road to mindfulness isn’t strictly binary. As strange as it may sound, you can experience a small percentage of the peacefulness sought by monks simply by pursuing a simple daily meditation routine. Then, as time goes by, maybe a little more, perhaps slowly replacing a mere therapeutic pursuit with a spiritual one. Until then, you may be a little less stressed, a little bit less anxious. The main thing is to make progress over time, inevitable backsliding notwithstanding. And the first step on that path can consist of just calming down a little, even if your initial motivation for calming down is to ace next week’s sales pitch.
In those instances, some virtual assistance can, indeed, be beneficial.
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