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Modern Mindfulness

by Erin Graham

Overwhelmed by information overload. Super-tense from hyper-texting. Stressed out by cell phones and social networking. Is our wired culture to blame for making us less grounded?

The practice of mindfulness can help us with everything from managing stress to fostering compassion to getting more closely in touch with our true nature. Research credits regular mindfulness practice with incredibly wide-ranging payoffs: It boosts our happiness, sharpens our memory, increases our creativity, and bolsters our confidence. But cultivating that presence of mind isn’t easy. While meditating, we’re drawn to our mental to-do list; while on vacation, we jam-pack each moment of freedom with activities; while eating dinner, we’re anticipating dessert.

Factor in the myriad digital distractions, obligations, and temptations that fill our plugged-in days, and the idea of being completely present can seem—so to speak—unthinkable. And it has many of us wondering: Is mindfulness harder than ever to achieve in our high-tech society? Does over-connectedness lead to a disconnection with ourselves?

Surprisingly, the answer, according to several experts, isn’t an easy yes. Chalking up our lack of mindfulness to the lure of technology and our penchant for multitasking is too simplistic, according to Kevin Griffin, a longtime Buddhist practitioner and leader in the mindful addiction recovery movement. “Technology itself is neutral,” he says. “We tend to demonize and blame technology but, really, all that matters is how you use it. If you don’t bring wise intention to how you use it, it will use you. But if you’re concentrating on trivial input from any source, whether or not it’s digital, then you’re cultivating a negative mind space.”

Seeing the Big Picture

Ken Nelson, a Kripalu scholar-in-residence, takes a similar, long-term view. “Human nature hasn’t changed,” he says. “We’re still subject to the same forces of attraction, aversion, ignorance, and addiction that we always were. The pull between the wanting and the not-wanting mind is the same, and mindfulness as the antidote to that has always been there, throughout every age.” However, he does discern a modern twist. “The digital revolution has made information and entertainment so easily available that the opportunity for suffering and distraction is also more available. Constantly being digitally connected can be a huge detraction to simply being there for one’s self, family, friends, and community—and for one’s purpose in the world.”

While Ken and Kevin connect mindfulness with Buddhist practice, Ellen J. Langer, a professor in the psychology department at Harvard University, who has studied mindfulness theory for decades, brings the idea to a place that’s removed from the meditative realm. To her way of thinking, mindfulness is a straightforward process of noticing new things—a process that’s no harder now than it ever has been.

In fact, she says, it’s not hard at all. “I think that cultivating mindfulness is easy for everybody,” she says. “When you think you know something, why bother thinking about it? Once you recognize that the certainties you have are illusory, that naturally leads you to pay some kind of mindful attention. When you recognize that you don’t know, noticing follows naturally.” This creates a nice circular pattern, since bringing mindfulness into daily life fosters conscious choices about how we do things—including how we use technology.

But if being mindful can be that simple, is it a coincidence that our society appears to be mindful-living-challenged in a time of online overload? “What happens is that technology can make people’s mindlessness more apparent to others,” Ellen quips. (Think of the person next to you on the bus shouting into their cell phone, or the texting teen who crashes into you on the sidewalk.) “But these people were probably mindless without technology. It’s like saying we shouldn’t have casinos; the implication is that if we took people out of casinos, we’d then find them in museums and opera houses, which I don’t think is the case.”

Back to Basics

For Ken, pondering the specific reasons why it’s tough to stay mindful isn’t as important as simply coming back to mindfulness. “The human capacity to know one’s self, the true self, is available in every moment,” he says. “Mindfulness, by its very nature, leads us home to a true sense of self and to a groundedness that is freedom. It’s not something we can get through any digital connection.”

According to Kevin, it’s difficult for us to be mindful because of how little space we give ourselves for contemplative awareness. “When we aren’t engaged in an intellectual activity—whether it’s reading a book, watching TV, making a call, or using the computer—there’s space in which our minds can just float,” he says. “When you stop having input and just breathe, you can say to yourself, What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is this what I want to do?”

For Ellen, the expansive concept of mindfulness can be boiled down to a simple directive: Adopting a mindful mindset means being open to possibility. “It’s the process of giving up preconceived notions, actively observing, and acting on what you’ve learned,” she says. And to her, the goal is just as uncomplicated: “The bottom line is that when you’re present, you’re there to take advantage of opportunities that otherwise you’d be blind to.”

Balancing Act

Kevin has good news for those of us concerned that we need to drastically alter our digital habits in order to live mindfully. He even suggests that it’s possible to be mindful while watching TV or updating your Facebook status. “Being engaged with technology can actually be an exercise in concentration and part of spiritual work,” he says. “For example, people listen to guided meditations while walking around Manhattan to help them stay present.” Similarly, Ellen doesn’t see technology and mindfulness as diametrically opposed. “If someone is mindfully e-mailing versus mindlessly reading a book, I think they’re better off on the e-mail,” she says.

The mindfulness tools Ken teaches at Kripalu can be used in any circumstance, time, and place. “Whether you’re driving, in front of a computer, or on the phone, you can practice being present, and cultivate a capacity for conscious witnessing,” he says. “It’s about allowing sensations, thoughts, and feelings to arise inside of awareness, and noticing that everything is a movement inside of awareness.”

The process he teaches involves five steps that are at the heart of the Kripalu methodology: breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow. “Our capacity to experience awareness can grow any time we notice that everything is moving: The breath is moving and changing, thoughts and feelings are moving and changing,” he says. “But awareness itself doesn’t change. When you notice in the foreground that everything is changing, and you begin to identify less with that foreground and more with the background, you can see yourself inside of an ocean of awareness. And you can bring a natural capacity for kindness and compassion into your relationship with whatever’s happening in the foreground.”

Of course, adopting these techniques can be easier said than done. “I’m seduced by technology as much as many people,” says Ken, who loves to play computer games with his son and listens to online TED talks. “I have to remember that these are tools of knowledge, entertainment, or information, and they can be avenues of creativity and innovation, but, like any other everyday object and device, interactive or not, they are not the stuff of life itself.”

Kevin is no Luddite, either; in fact, he’s developing content for an online coaching tool that integrates technology and mindfulness. But he’s careful about creating boundaries for himself, and recommends doing so as a general rule. “You might not read e-mail after 8 pm,” he says. “Or you could decide that you won’t turn on the computer in the morning until you’ve meditated, done yoga, or had tea.”

Ken is optimistic that if we use technologies mindfully, then we can accentuate the positives. “We can go online at any time and get the latest evidence for the benefits of mindfulness,” he says. “We have access to the many advances in cognitive science, neuroscience, and the study of consciousness itself. The digital world can give us more evidence for our shared humanity, our shared divinity, our shared spiritual nature.”

Erin Graham is Editorial Director at Kripalu.