Do you reflexively reach for your phone when you’re stuck in an annoyingly long line at Starbucks? I do.
How about when waiting to get on your flight and you’ve been relegated to boarding category 4? Guilty there, too.
Don’t worry: this isn’t going to be another article about how technology is engineered to be irresistible (for the record, it is; I wrote it about here). Nor is it about how important it is to learn how to go off the grid from time to time.
No, I’m more focused (interesting word, that) on exploring the idea that our abilities to quiet the mind and control our impulses amid a distraction culture and instant gratification economy are not just being eroded; they’re so increasingly rare that being able to do so will soon seem like a superpower.
First, the obvious: we’re out of control. We compulsively check our phones an average of 80 times a day. We spend over 8 hours in front of screens — 12 if you count multitasking media (checking your phone while Netflix and chilling, for example). In contrast, we read, on average, one book — a year.
Now the next set of statistics might not be causally related, but one sociologist believes that mobile phone and internet ubiquity has contributed to an explosion in mental health disorders. According to a study of the smartphone generation, they spend less time than previous ones hanging out with friends, are more anxious, more likely to feel lonely and less happy. But other than that, they’re doing great.
Individuals are suffering, but so is society at large. We live in echo chambers of our own choosing (MSNBC + NY Times or Fox + Breitbart) that are then supercharged by social media content and its underlying algorithms (the filter bubble phenomenon).
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex problem set (declining mental health, social media replacing socialization, increased distraction and political polarization), there seems to be one promising antidote to all of these ailments: stillness.
Now before you think that I’ve gone off to join a monastery, I don’t mean that kind of stillness (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Rather, I mean the “small s” variety that invites with it other salutary activities.
It’s worth revisiting what stillness is. The dictionary defines it as:
- the absence of sound or noise: quiet, silence;
- an absence of motion or disturbance: calm, peace, serenity, untroubledness.
Sounds kind of nice right now, doesn’t it?
These are simple yet surprisingly critical 21st-century skills; developing them, however, is harder than we realize.
Being still requires one to resist the lure of a pinging smartphone. Solitude is not easily enjoyed — even for introverts who crave it. It doesn’t automatically translate into tranquility. A quieted mind sounds like nirvana, but one must learn what to do with that mental bandwidth if you’re lucky enough to recover it from society’s clutches.
When you think about it, stillness is the opposite of what we tend to do today. Stillness of body stands in stark contrast to the fidgeting teenager furiously texting in the back seat of the family minivan, or the illusion of ‘controlled’ chaos we try to project at the office in our multitasking between mobile, laptop and conversations with colleagues.
Stillness of mind is even more evasive. Our monkey brains bounce from thought to thought in pinball-like fashion, but we only ever glimpse that frenetic quality when trying (often in vain) to be mindful.
This is why I see stillness as our ultimate super power. When we live in a world that constantly pulls us in every direction, the ability to stand unwavering becomes a special skill.
It also brings valuable benefits. Spending time alone, disconnected and unplugged — in other words, in stillness — leads to contemplation, inspiration and insight. There’s a reason why we have our best ideas in the shower (I know that I often do). Subtraction from the whirlwind of contemporary society prompts self-knowledge, invites gratitude, and diminishes social comparison.
I’m more convinced than ever that stillness can’t be a stolen moment of mindfulness provided by the Headspace app; rather, we need to constantly and consciously seek it out in ever larger chunks.
Of course, stillness comes more easily to some than to others — but even for those of us who find it hard, it’s worth the effort. Like willpower and decision-making, it’s a muscle whose strength that we can build — with practice.
And build it we must. Access to a serene state of mind and body should move from being a luxury to being a utility, from an indulgence to a practice.
Our devices aren’t going away; if anything, they will likely proliferate and accelerate. Stillness will become an ever more elusive space. Think about it: we can barely control ourselves with a little smartphone in our pockets and 4G connectivity; how do you think we’ll fare when faced with the ubiquitous presence of VR headsets and 5G just a few years from now?
So start cultivating your powers of contemplation now. Resist that reflex to reach for your phone when you’re confronted with a moment of boredom. “Lean in” to solitude. Practice mono-tasking.
Watch people walk by. Listen to conversations; perhaps even start one with someone else in line.
Try not turning on the radio in the car, or the TV as soon as you get home. Read real books — not just because they’re superior to the online fare (but let’s be real; the good ones really are), but because they are blissfully free of hyperlinks, pop-up ads or the siren song of your Inbox sitting just one button away.
Stop the endless scrolling of your Facebook or Instagram feeds after a certain allotted time. Better yet, don’t open those Pandora’s boxes at all.
The antidote to the stress of modern life can be found in slowing down to embrace silence and tranquility from time to time. But it’s the secret to success in a warp-speed world as well. Stillness will be to the 21st century what John Adams said of education in the 18th century: it teaches how us to make a living but also how to live.
Far from being a simple tonic to the travails of modern life, this ability to find and maintain stillness on demand will become a differentiator, a mark of distinction and a source of competitive advantage.
In other words, it’s a super power.