“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant, we live in a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” -Einstein
Sixty plus years after Einstein’s death, the intuitive, experience driven mind has been abandoned completely. Today, most of our attention goes to what you might call informational noise. Likes, follows, and messages have become the psychological drug of choice.
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Attention: sudden and close
The human brain can experience the world through a majestic lens. Darwin wrote, “Attention, if sudden and close, graduates into surprise, and this into astonishment; and this into stupefied amazement.” Darwin is describing the simple experience of mindfulness, an experience that opens the door to a world of boundless awe and wonder. When we truly pay attention to the outside world, we enter a state of immersion that journalist Jamie Wheal calls, “The deep now.”
But, for most of us, mindfulness is a foreign concept because the tendrils of technology pull our attention in a dozen different directions at all times. We have more distractions to drown our attention with than ever, but what if our many options have ironically robbed us of our ability to choose the best experience?
A hundred years ago, a farmer would engage all his attention on the task at hand (he didn’t have access to modern distractions). He would be focused, and because of this, his chance of entering what psychologists describe as a flow state, a state of total absorption in which an individual performs their best and feels their best, was high.
Today, in contrast, we are barraged with compelling distractions (like smartphone notifications). We are in a state of constant anticipation of the next ‘hit’, and because of this, focus is killed. Research has shown that having a smartphone in arm’s reach reduces productivity by 26%. What if our technology, for all of its benefits, is affecting our day-to-day experience in a profoundly negative way?
Imagine you’re teaching your son to drive, he’s sixteen, and unfortunately for you, your car has a manual transmission. The sounds the car makes as he repeatedly tries to start the car and pull it out of your driveway are almost sickening. Eventually he succeeds, but soon, you reach a stop sign. He hits the breaks, and moments later, when he tries to start the car again, there are multiple false starts. This happens again and again throughout the trip, making for a ride that’s not only damaging to your car, but anxiety provoking for both of you.
I think our smartphone driven world is analogous to that car ride from hell. We are like that car that can’t smoothly transition from one state to another. We start working, but then an Instagram like catches our attention, and we’re lurched out of the moment. We start walking to class, but Facebook might have something interesting in store, so we dive into our phone and ignore the world around us.
We are addicted to information, whether it be delivered through words, pictures, or videos. What if we’re immersing ourselves in a technological world of noise, when there’s an experiential world of music right in front of our faces?
Am I saying you should ditch the smartphone for a culty meditation group and some heart-opening yoga? Maybe. If you look at the data, the happiest people aren’t the wealthiest, they are the most mindful. When measured scientifically, the happiest man on earth is a Buddhist monk2, and, according to the world mental health survey, the most anxiety and stress ridden people are those living in the information driven culture of the United States.
Perhaps our lives would be more engaging and full if we let go of our digital distractions and made a conscious choice to stay engaged with this world except when our mobile technology is genuinely needed. If we did that, we might find that we are no longer on a stressful ride full of false starts, but on a steady journey filled with intuition and awe.
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- Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who has been called the happiest man on earth because research led by neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin revealed unusually high activity in the left prefrontal cortex (associated with positive emotions), and comparatively low activity in the right prefrontal cortex (associated with negative emotions.