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We all know that using our smartphones and social media platforms can be detrimental for our mental health and well-being. But we can't just stop using them, can we? After all, we do live in the 21st century.
So, how can we use these genius, digital innovations consciously, so that our humanity, peace and calm are not compromised?
According to bestselling author Cal Newport, we can ask ourselves: Am I using this phone to serve a value within me? If so, is this the BEST way for me to use it?
Sounds simple enough, but values and best practices can get lost in the multitude of options available through our devices.
So, how do we regain control of our values and well-being? By asking these six questions to ASCEND to a higher level of smartphone consciousness.
1. IS THIS GOING TO CONTROL MY BRAIN THROUGH POLARIZATION?
A friend and I had a disagreement in regards to a parenting topic. Later that day, I went home and scrolled though my social media platforms only to see several posts that further re-confirmed my side of the topic. I felt myself nodding my head. Self-righteousness started to flow throw my bloodstream. As I took a step back, I wondered if my friend also just went home to find the same echo-chamber that supported her opposing viewpoint.
Our feed is customized to our own unique "user" data. This creates an inauthentic experience for us in which we feel that everyone around us is like-minded and thinks similarly.
This is why we are often surprised when we realize that all people do not think like us.
Sadly, this divides us and breeds hate and intolerance. I am well aware of all the good it is doing. But polarizing our minds to believe we are "RIGHT" may be just as detrimental as polarizing our minds with thoughts that are "wrong". The truth lies somewhere in the middle. But when we live in the echo chambers of our rights and their wrongs, we lose the ability to hear each other, understand each other and respect our differences.
Here is the catch 22 of polarizing thoughts. When our beliefs and thoughts are constantly reinforced, we achieve a false sense of control that makes our brains see our world in a distorted and untrue way. And once we face the harsh truth of our world, we lose our bearings because the safety net of our all-or-nothing mindset has just been pulled from underneath us.
Real life is more nuanced than the black and white pictures we create in our brains. It requires an intricate balance of surrender and self-discipline. It teaches us that we can only control the way we react and we cannot control what happens to us.
Polarized thinking manifests as a fixed mindset that creates a controlled fallacy, making it very difficult to accept undesired or unexpected occurrences in our lives.
But there is hope. You can create a TRUE sense of reality in your brain by:
The real world needs us to be more comfortable with having our thoughts and beliefs challenged.
2. AM I AVOIDING SOLITUDE?
I am walking around the house, performing random tasks with my phone in hand. Laundry. Dishes. Emails. Bills. Phone picked up and put back down throughout. I notice images entering my mind space. A happy mom, perfectly dressed with a perfectly clean home and a perfectly worded caption. A story of an abused child and his father in jail. A Thanksgiving dinner table set with fancy meals I don't know how to cook. A friend of a friend of a friend at a party with celebrities my ego wishes it was invited to. The day goes on much like this. In and out of real and digital life as I try to process a bombardment of images and captions.
A few days later, I make a conscious effort to keep my phone away and only use it as a tool that I get to pick up when I need it. I am standing by my fridge, filling up an empty glass of water. I see the water flowing into the glass. It feels like it's taking forever. I sense an itch to walk over to my phone and scroll through social media until the water is done filling up my glass. I notice that thought and realize the addiction is real.
I sit with my thoughts and look at the water. Another thought enters my mind space. I remember something my husband said during an argument we had yesterday. A new perspective enters my mind. I smile. The argument was a gift. I get it. I know what he needed me to say. My cup is full (pun intended). I reach for the phone. Send him a text. I put the phone back down and I smile. Wow! Even just a few seconds of solitude can turn ordinary moments into liquid gold. These are the golden moments we get stripped of through the addictive algorithms of social media.
I have given my mind the empty space it needs to process the real stuff now.
Cal Newport breaks this down wonderfully in Digital Minimalism by sharing research and historical facts that prove humanity's need for solitude. People like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and so many others have had their biggest epiphanies and decision making moments during their sacred moments of solitude. Yet, we are currently living in a time when solitude feels like it's becoming extinct. The new generation of our youth hardly even knows what solitude feels like.
Just like we have basic needs to survive - food, water, air, shelter - we also have basic needs for a healthy psyche and solitude is one of them.
Solitude should not be confused with loneliness. Loneliness feels isolating with a negative state of mind. Solitude is having a positive mindset while being alone, often leading to self-awareness.
Solitude is when you reflect.
Solitude is when you allow your brain to rest.
Solitude is when you process the stuff in your life that needs to be processed.
A study tracked the activity of our brain while resting (as in participating in a leisurely activity not involving passive consumption from movies, phones, tablets, etc). It revealed that when our brain is at rest, a specific part of our brain is activated which is actually in charge of processing all of our social stuff. This is when we get to reflect on what happened earlier in the day or week and make sense of our social interactions and networks. So, if we deprive ourselves from solitude, we are actually depriving our ability to advance as social beings. How ironic!
Some people use their phones to avoid loneliness. However, socializing at the cost of solitude is mentally and emotionally detrimental. Our brain needs to be "social" and to "rest". Before the invention of the smartphone, this balance in our brains was provided naturally since social interactions were not available at the tip of our fingers. But now, we need to do the hard conscious work to maintain this integral balance.
In his podcast, Eckart Tolle talks about how pre-smartphones, we would have several pockets of time in our days when we would be forced to be stuck with ourselves . Yet, now we would do anything to silence our inner wisdom by the shiny distraction of our smartphones. We can't go on a walk without our phones. We don't want to run errands without some sound playing in our ears. We feel strange with rest and stillness. Instead, we feel an urge to "do" something - check an email, do some work, text, etc.
What are we revealing about our inner world when we do this? We are showing our inability to sit with ourselves: our thoughts and emotions. We are avoiding the hard work that can transform our state into presence. Presence depends on how comfortable we are with our solitude. Such presence connects us to our inner power of knowing. It allows us to be creative and form original thoughts. Our smartphones are competing with our truth. Our presence. Our higher state of consciousness.
Brene Brown also talks about a similar concept in Gifts of Imperfection. She shares that humans often participate in mind-numbing activities to avoid difficult parts of our emotions and life. Mind-numbing activities look like binge watching TV, over/under eating, or indulging in drugs, alcohol, social life, productivity etc. When we do these types of mind-numbing activities, we are literally ceasing to grow - emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and socially.
However, we can challenge our desire to use smartphones to numb the hard stuff by doing something else instead. Newport calls this High Quality Leisure Activities. Unlike passive consumption such as scrolling on social media or watching a Netflix series, High Quality Leisure Activities require us to use our brain or body - such as mowing the garden, reading a book, dancing, painting, fixing stuff around the house, biking etc. This is how we can feed two birds with one seed... avoid mind-numbing activities and reap the essential benefits of high-quality solitude.
3. WILL THIS ACTIVATE MY EGO?
I was in my kitchen, making lunch, when I grabbed my phone to respond to a message I received on Instagram. As soon as I logged in, an image popped up on my screen. One of my favorite influencers (who is very positive and spiritual) had posted her favorite chai recipe. I read the post and was immediately enticed. I felt my fingers navigating to Amazon and ordering the ingredients I needed to make this chai. $37 dollars later, I had to take a moment to remember why I opened Instagram in the first place. And then I accessed my inbox and responded to the message as I had initially intended to.
Wait a minute… What just happened? Did I really need this chai recipe? I love the teas I have at home. Why did I buy those ingredients so quickly? Who was in control of all those actions?
Well, hello Ego. My long, besotted friend!
If my ego could talk to you, here is what she would have said:
Amna, you admire this girl. She shared her favorite chai recipe with you. So I made sure you got those ingredients so you can upgrade yourself - the positive and the spiritual. It was just a few dollars and took only a couple of minutes. Now you are set and have something to look forward to this week. You can thank me later!
I sat with this for a few seconds and then I reached deep within to talk to my consciousness. And here is what Madam Consciousness said:
You were about to respond to a message. Your mind space was interrupted by an image of something that your physical self feels attached to. This image was brought to your attention by another human being who has created this app with an algorithm that saves your likes and dislikes so it can only show you what you like. You did not make a conscious choice to allow this chai recipe to enter into your life. This chai recipe is a rude guest that came to your sacred mind space uninvited. It doesn't matter how spiritual or positive this person may be. What matters is that you were not in control. You were controlled by an algorithm made by another human as well as a system of consumerism that is trying to make money off of you. You do not need this chai recipe. Maybe you can do a quick meditation so you can be grounded with presence again.
So, guess what. After I researched this some more, I found out that the creators of apps and social media actually don't let their own children use the devices they created. I wonder why?
Does it have anything to do with the fact that they have created a system to unethically monetize our Ego's need to "fit in" and belong - a primal need within all of us which is easily influenced if we are not aware. These devices are controlling what we look like, act like, think like and even spend like. So it shouldn't be surprising to realize that the majority of humanity in the 21st century is being controlled by a tool in our hands to do silly things like buy random chai ingredients and so much more...
Here is the thing though, we can't just abstain from Ego enhancing activities. That is not real life.
However, being aware of your Ego makes you more powerful because that is how YOU get to be in control. For instance, sometimes I literally talk to myself by saying things like "Amna - you are about to activate your Ego," as I proceed to scroll through consumer focused feeds on my phone.
This simple type of awareness that allows me to pause and say "Whoah, that just activated my ego" can be life-changing because you have just created space between you and your actions and thoughts. Such space is called awareness. Try it and enjoy the magic.
4. IS THIS GOING TO MAKE ME CRAVE A QUICK DOPAMINE HIT?
A thought comes to me. I get super excited.
I spend an hour creating the perfect visual image for the idea I just had.
I post it on my feed. And then I wait. I walk two steps. Check my phone. No likes.
I give the cat her food. Check phone. One like. I feel a rush. Big smile.
I go for a run. Come back home and check my phone. Two likes. Neutral face.
I am having lunch with a friend. I check the phone. Five likes. Smile starts to droop.
This goes on and on until the end of the day. A whopping six likes. Disappointed face.
My inner self-talk: Wow! What a bust. I should have said it all differently. It must be the image. I should have used the other template on Canva. I should have never even posted it.
Welcome to a very busy day, in which I worked super hard to strengthen my addiction to my phone and my ego.
Anything that gives you immediate, short-term gratification over and over again, or lack thereof, is addictive.
Our phones are meant to be a tool. A tool is something that we use, such as a car. I get in my car when I need to go from point A to point B. I do not feel an itch to get in the car while I am bathing my baby at home. Unlike our phones, which take us from point A to B to Z in a matter of seconds, while we completely miss witnessing our baby take their bath.
Social media's algorithm is intentionally created to release the same chemicals as the ones released when humans are gambling or doing cocaine. Don't take my word for it. Look it up.
This goes deeper though. Our smartphones, apps and social media have been made to intentionally tap into the vulnerabilities of the human psyche - such as our need to feel validated and our need to belong.
Our vulnerabilities are being monetized and making some people extremely rich. Now, I have nothing against extraordinary innovations or financial wealth. However, I do have strong feelings about integrity and ethics.
These dopamine hits targeted to manipulate our vulnerabilities can also be experienced with unconscious texting.
For instance, have you ever written an emotionally charged text to someone and then read it over and over again as you continue to wait for them to respond? That is your Ego craving it’s dopamine hit.
Every time I chose to text such information that makes me feel vulnerable, the rest of my day is no longer mine. Instead, my brain is constantly checking the phone to get the validation it needs via a response in the form of a text from someone else. Welcome to a world full of distractions and lack of focus. Ladies and gentlemen, Presence has left the building.
The first step to freedom (and consciousness) is to turn those texts into real life conversations.
So, now, when I have something vulnerable to share, I pick up the phone and call that person. Or better yet, I say it to them in person. There is no quick rush of a dopamine hit. There is only authentic communication and natural connection. And guess what, you still feel a natural domaine rush when you allow yourself to receive the positive feelings through delayed gratification. This in natural. So next time remember to text information - NOT emotion.
Instant Gratification nurtures Addictions and creates Negative Habits.
Delayed Gratification nurtures Self-control and creates Positive Habits.
Re-examine your unconscious relationship with your phone and avoid actions that feed your addiction to instant gratification. Instead, use your smartphones to create more natural experiences that usually require delayed gratification.
… you call instead if text when you are emotionally charged.
… you publish a post and then master the self-discipline to not look at it again for at least 24 hours.
The more you can detach yourself from needing instant validation, the less addicted you will be.
5. CAN I REPLACE THIS ACTION WITH A NATURAL EXPERIENCE?
Let's say you had a really hard day at work and you receive a post that shows you how awesome someone else’s work day was. You may create negative self-talk around how you are not as good as others. Or you may not even realize you had such a thought but all of a sudden you just don't feel good at all. These are the things that are happening every single second through instagram, facebook, and other such platforms.
When we are not ready to receive a certain piece of information and it's forced into our mindspace we become defensive or shut down.
This is true even for positive and inspiring messaging. If we are not ready to receive a lovely mantra or inspiring piece of research at this specific moment in time, then it can create toxicity in our inner world.
Alternatively, there are natural ways to receive signs and information from our world that we can more confidently trust to enter our mind space. For instance, a meaningful book that is right in front of us at the moment we needed it. Or the thought of a friend that may be the perfect person we need to speak to right now. Or the innate desire to actively seek some articles that can give us specific insight into whatever struggles we just experienced.
Such natural experiences strengthen a wealth of inner resources within us like our intuition, instinct, resilience, communication, vulnerability, courage, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, etc. Yet, our phones are trying to weaken such invaluable inner human resources with its very unnatural and superficial programming.
In fact, there is a huge underground movement of CEOs who have dumbed down their smart phones to flip phones so that they can be naturally connected to their own intuition and well-being (and away from biases). Ironically, these CEOs are mostly from the finance world. They are moving millions of dollars around without the need to feel constantly connected though apps and smartphones.
The influx of mindfulness and meditation services available today are a result of our inability to declutter our minds naturally. We are addicted to passively consuming technology and activating our egos at the expense of solitude and natural experiences which strengthen our consciousness.
So, next time you are about to pick up your smart phone to do something, ask yourself: Can I replace this action with a natural experience instead?
Here are some examples of what a natural experience may look like:
6. IS THIS SHORTENING MY ATTENTION SPAN?
A research study found that the average human attention span has fallen from twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today. Goldfish have a nine-second attention span. So, our human attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s.
I credit my short attention span to the trendy platform of quick and short passive consumption via my smart phone. A ten minute Ted-talk is simply too long for me to watch. I can't read a long article without skipping over several paragraphs and sentences. I tell myself that I just don’t have the time. Yet, I can totally scroll through images and videos on instagram for thirty minutes or more.
This bleeds into my professional life as well when I speed read a text message about a 2:00pm meeting, which I miss because I thought it said 2:30pm. Then I respond to a coworker’s email asking her a question that she clearly addressed in her "long" email.
We are unable to consume real, thorough, thought-out information anymore because we want to get it as quickly as possible. We are reading physical books less and less while listening to audio books or podcasts as we multi-task more and more.
I have been subconsciously strengthening my short attention span. But, now that I am aware of this fact, I get to make more conscious choices.
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport challenges our way of thinking by advising us to prioritize Quality over Quantity. We live in a world of hyper information, consuming a multitude of information in short, quick bursts.
You can make a change by choosing to receive your information from the best of the best. For instance, you may choose to subscribe to ten of your top thought leaders’ blogs instead of browsing through a 1000 different motivators on instagram or Facebook daily. Or create a very focused instagram profile following only a handful of carefully selected profiles. Small, intentional changes like this may create space for you to read the books you have been wanting to read and increase the quality of your information through thorough, well researched, and easily searchable sources of information. Who knows you may even be able to watch a 30-minute Ted talk without feeling antsy!
I am not advocating for no media or smartphones. We cannot deny the world we live in. There is an immense amount of advantages that these devices have brought to our lives. Yet, the fact is we live in a world with incredible technology and innovation that is not created with the best interest of our humanity. As a result, we need to make informed decisions in how we choose to use these tools consciously.
I am fortunate to know the times before cell phones. I know what it can be like to not have it. I can be more aware of what it does to my days. However, there is a whole new generation of kids and young adults who know nothing else.
The youth of today have confused physical reality with digital reality.
They feel that being influenced by billions of people is normal.
Looking at likes for self-worth and validation is normal.
This is not how we are meant to evolve.
We are meant to evolve by being influenced by our physical communities and people - not hand fed, unethical, unregulated programmed data. Kids of this generation feel more comfortable texting their thoughts than saying them out loud. There are more kids diagnosed with anxiety in this generation than every before. There are more suicides today than ever before. All of these are highly correlated to the way smartphones have taken over the human experience.
You know your own truth. So, do what feels true to you and make sure to advocate for your mental health and sacred mind space FIRST.
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My Outer-Self: B.S. from USC in Industrial & Systems Engineering, owner of Amna Dance, Co-founder of Hatch Brighter and You Matter Too.