You're having dinner with a friend, and she gets up to go to the bathroom. Be honest: How quickly do you reach for your phone? Was there something specific you needed to look at, or was it just a reflex?
This reaction reveals something about us: We're addicted to distraction. Put another way, we're afraid of facing an undistracted moment. 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."
We sit on the subway and play dumb phone games. 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. We do whatever we can to avoid a moment empty of content.
There’s a desperate quality to the way we binge on distractions. 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.
Our fear of an empty moment also makes us self-sabotage. I used to feel a huge resistance to going to bed and would fill my time with pointless activity just to put it off. I'd check email and social media, or watch TV episodes I'd already seen fifty times, just to postpone the moment when I'd have to put all my distractions away, turn off the light, and be alone with myself.
I think the most essential meditation practice for the smartphone era is simple non-distraction: being quietly where we are, without reaching for some distraction or entertainment to fill the quiet. No complex technique, just noticing when the urge arises to do something, consume something, fixate on something, and politely saying "no, thank you."
This practice is the rehab for our addiction to distraction. It's how 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 find a simple contentment waiting under all the noise, a sense of being fundamentally okay.
Opportunities for Practice
The next time you take the subway, try not pulling out your phone, a book, or any other distraction from the time you board until you reach the next stop. You might rest your attention gently on the sensations 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 okay. You can treat that as just one more interesting thing to observe.
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.
Declare content-free zones where you'll refrain from reading or using your digital devices. I discussed this in a video last week. As a reminder, the bathroom and the bedroom are good candidates for this routine.
Practicing non-distraction can be deeply rewarding, but it's not always fun. Sometimes it feels pleasant and peaceful, and so it's easy to stick with. Other times, the mind is twitchy, and resting in the quiet of the moment is a challenge.
Non-distraction doesn't promise a good time. It doesn't guarantee the quick endorphin squeeze we've gotten used to from social media and our other instant-gratification fixes. Sometimes it's boring. You may experiment with non-distraction and wonder, after a few seconds, "Is that it?"
My suggestion: do it anyway. Remind yourself that practicing when it doesn't come easily is how you make the peace of non-distraction more and more accessible. The benefits are worth the slight effort involved.
Our distractions can be fun sometimes, but being an addict is no good. It's much better to be free. Freedom doesn't advertise itself as aggressively as distraction, but that says a lot about which one you should trust.