Matthew Brensilver, PhD

Mindfulness in our Technological Reality

Tristan Harris holds up his phone to Anderson Cooper and says “This thing is a slot machine… this is one way to hijack people’s minds.” They spoke on 60 Minutes about “Brain Hacking.”  Harris goes on to say that every time we get a ‘Like’ on Facebook or Instagram, a new follower, a cute emoji – all of this reinforces the habit of compulsively checking our phone. Most technologies are not designed to truly help us – they’re designed to capture our attention, because if advertisers can capture our attention, our money is not far behind.

Value and Costs
As mindfulness practitioners, how should we relate to this? First, I want to acknowledge how much I appreciate my smartphone! Sometimes when meeting people at a concert, on vacation navigating an unfamiliar city, or just looking for a good restaurant – it’s hard to imagine life before smartphones.

But of course, technology cuts both ways and there are true emotional and attentional costs. When I’m checking my phone frequently, it has the effect of creating a scattered feeling. I’m not really landing in the moment and when the day is over, I don’t feel like I was fully alive. My experience feels blunted. The vividness of mindfulness is gone.

Our technology use often fits into a pattern of subtle avoidance. We use our phones to keep certain emotions at bay. For example, at even the smallest sign of boredom, smartphones provide an ever-ready source of entertainment. Sometimes when walking, I’ll come to a stop light where I must wait. Almost instantaneously, the thought arises, “I could check my phone while I wait – that would be better than just waiting.”

Louis C.K.
I’m reminded of something Louis C.K. said once on Conan O’Brien’s show. He was describing a feeling of sadness dawning on him as he was driving. As the sadness arose, he had the impulse to pick up his phone and write ‘hi’ to fifty people.

“I was reaching for the phone. You know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness stand in the way of it…sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings, because when you let yourself feel sad your body has like antibodies. You have happiness rushing in to meet the sadness. I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true profound happiness. It was such a trip, you know? The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with like a little phone…you never feel completely sad or completely happy.”

What Can We Do?
Our technology, it seems, takes the edge off of sadness – but also blunts the joys and poignancy of being alive. What are we to do? Below I’ve listed some strategies that have been helpful.

  1. Choose message notification settings that support your well-being. Not all notifications deserve to interrupt the flow of your day.
  2. Clarify expectations regarding the speed with which you will respond to messages.
  3. Sometimes, leave your phone at home or turn it off and have it only for emergencies.
  4. Notice the arising of boredom – be mindful of that feeling, rather than trying to medicate it with more stimulation.
  5. Delete apps that lead to large amounts of wasted time.
  6. Have dedicated technology times.
  7. Have a period of an hour or two before bed when the phone is turned off (we can still use alarm clocks!)

Experiment and see what supports your well-being! Let us know how it goes…probably, through Twitter or Facebook…


Mindful Schools transforms school communities from the inside out. Founded in 2007, Mindful Schools’ graduates have impacted over 750,000 children worldwide. Learn more about our course offerings, Mindfulness Fundamentals and Mindful Educator Essentials, and our Year-Long Certification Program.

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