Last week, my 10 year old son came home with a great report card. To celebrate, I let him take the next day off of school and we rode the train downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago.
When we got on the train, he immediately asked if he could play on my phone. I tried not to grimace as I said no, we should just enjoy the experience of riding the train. He reasonably responded, “Mom, look around. Every other person here is on their phone. Come on!”
I looked around. Every spot was taken. And every single person in every single seat was indeed staring at their phones. I rubbed my hands over my face and groaned.
“Danny, I get it,” I said. “This is the world we live in. But I don’t have to accept it.”
We spent the rest of the ride having a really cool conversation about graffiti.
And as wonderful as that was, I was still disturbed—not just that everyone was plugged in—but that I paused before saying no to my son plugging in too, and felt an overwhelming need to defend my decision, even though I knew it was 100 percent right.
As much as I try not to let devices define my life, I can’t deny it—their pull on me is like the pull of the moon upon the ocean tides, just not nearly as poetic.
The upside is, I can staunch this technological tsunami. I’m not throwing my phone out (yet), but here are some things I will do.
1) When I am speaking to someone, I will look them in the eye and focus on each beautiful syllable forming on their lips.
I will notice their demeanor, and the quality of the silences between their words. I will think about who they are, and why they are telling me the things they are telling me. I will take care with the words that I return, making sure that they are true, and kind and compassionate.
I will do this for everyone I possibly can, from the deaf cashier at Target to the nice UPS man, to my dentist and his assistant, to my husband, my children, my students, my friends and everyone in between as often as possible.
I will remember that the more I do this, the more I will do it, and that cultivating awareness is, in great part, about cultivating good habits.
2) I will notice the natural world around me.
When I feed my dogs, I will listen to the quickening of their breath as they wait for their food. I will see that they are practically wiggling out of the skins and I will not be annoyed, but amused. I will stroke their soft ears and set the food down gently, stepping away so they can attack it in a flurry of canine enthusiasm.
When I walk outside to get the morning paper, I will breathe deeply. I’ll feel the ground rise up to meet each step, and see the sky arcing overhead like a cosmic arm, thrown casually around my shoulders. The fading moon, the streak of tangerine in the east and the insistent chup chup of a plain sparrow rooting in the dirt will feel like the gifts they are, and I will pause in gratitude.
3) I will allow my thoughts and emotions to enter and leave me freely.
When 5:00 p.m. rolls around and that nagging voice in my head pops up: “I want a glass of wine! Go get one…and step on it!” I will listen, and I will keep listening until it fades away and the next thought comes up.
I will watch all these thoughts calmly as they cycle through, and I’ll realize, they are not the meat of me, they are just the noise that sometimes surrounds my head.
Like children, if you pay attention to them, they tend to become much less diabolical and much more delightful.
4) I will rest when I am tired.
I don’t need to follow the frenetic rhythm of this brave new world, inside me, the ancient rhythms still beat loud and clear.
Even if I can’t lay down and sleep, I can close my eyes and breathe. I can rest in the oasis of myself, opening the doors to the sacred cathedral of my soul, allowing everything else to fall away.
I can stay there as long as I need to, gathering whatever wisdom, energy or resources I might need. Inside, time is meaningless, and within the space of just a few breathes, I can find myself full of light once again.
5) Perhaps most importantly, I will develop the power of resistance.
I’ll seek out times that are technology free, and court them like I would court a lover. I will be as mindful not to gorge on the virtual world as I am not to gorge on chocolate. I will choose to have actual experiences, rather than imaginary ones.
I will create, not just react.
There are few among us who are immune to the siren song of social media, touch screens, electronic games, and instant messaging.
It does not make us weak if we acknowledge their powerful lure. But if we allow ourselves to get sucked in, we risk becoming flat, dimensionless, non-beings who learn nothing, become nothing, offer nothing.
The difference between a well lived life and a poorly lived one is simply a matter of attention. To live well, all we must do is be present.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Marc Smith/Flickr