Through this contemplative exercise participants directly investigate some of the subtle stressors caused by the ubiquity of smartphones in their environments and have an opportunity to reflect upon how these devices affect their experience more generally, when using the phones and not. Participants begin with basic attentional meditation on the breath, then proceed into an open monitoring style that incorporates a broader range of experience. They then take out their smartphones, turn on all notifications at full volume and place the phones out of reach. As a cacophony of alerts arises, participants monitor their emotional and physiological reactions while remaining still, thereby gaining insight into the stress and anxiety produced by alerts.
While we may have some sense of how our lives are lived through our smart devices, we rarely take a moment to more closely consider the subtle impacts they have on the quality of our experiences.
This contemplative exercise asks participants to directly investigate some of these impacts and to reflect upon how they might affect participants’ experiences more generally when using the devices and not. In particular, the objective is to deliberately activate the stress response via smartphone alerts such that participants can observe those responses and their effects by means of a contemplative environment. One driver of addiction and detrimental behavior is ignorance with regard to the nature of addiction and the negative impacts of that behavior. This exercise seeks to benefit participants by bringing a clearer degree of insight and awareness to the ways smartphone alerts activate the stress response in the body and therefore impact the mind. While these moments of recognition may be fleeting, they may also help participants to recognize the degree to which they are negatively impacted by smartphone alerts and to consider altering their behavior to reduce these stressors, thereby achieving better quality of life, less overall stress, and greater wellness.
In this exercise participants focus first on their breath and then sensory phenomena of the immediate environment, especially sound. There is nothing inherently religious or philosophical about this exercise; instead, it employs the attentional faculty of mind to closely observe experience.
While there have been some studies on how smartphones trigger the release of cortisol, activate the sympathetic nervous system, and provoke anxiety, there have been very few if any broader scientific studies that validate methods for mitigating these impacts.
About 25 minutes is the minimum for the exercise; with discussions it could extend to an hour or more. Preceded by the narrative introduction, the experiential component of the exercise will take 10–15 minutes, which should be sufficient to observe its effects. Further reflection while responding in writing to its attendant prompts should take at least another 10 minutes.
It is primarily intended for an indoor, undergraduate classroom environment, whether seated in chairs or on the floor.
This exercise can be done individually but is intended to be practiced in a group, which will maximize its effect. Small group discussions in dyads or triads (as convenient) is recommended, as is a larger group dialog.
It is expected that most if not all participants will have smartphones with them; however, a personal device is not required because the exercise addresses not only personal usage but also environments in which such devices are ubiquitous. No other media is needed.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with contemplative practice, there are many techniques and objects, but a very common one focuses on the breath as a basis. Please close your eyes or relax your gaze down and take three deep breaths. Pause for a few moments at the top of each inhalation. Relax for a few moments into the space of every exhalation. Rest with your awareness as it tunes into the natural process of breathing. When you notice that your mind has been drawn off to some other object, which is natural as well, simply let go regardless of the content. Take another deep breath, and begin focusing on the breath anew.
[Silent practice, 2–3 minutes]
Now, while maintaining a gentle awareness of the breath as an anchor for your experience, slowly and deliberately take out your device. Watch whatever thoughts and feelings arise as you reach for it, grasp it, remove it, activate the screen, and encounter the information displayed upon it. While taking note of the content of your experience, retain a sense of connection to the breath.
Now go into the settings on your device, turn on all alerts and notifications for all apps, and set the volume to the loudest level. Then place your device out of reach [direct according to seating circumstances in the room] and place your hands in your lap. Remain still. Keep your hands in your lap. Do not under any circumstances reach for or touch your phone.
Take a few more deep breaths, using the breath to maintain a sense of center while opening up awareness to the full range of experience. As alerts and notifications ring out, whether from your own or others’ devices, closely observe whatever thoughts and feelings arise in the mind and body while remaining completely still.
[Silent practice in the midst of alerts and notifications, 5–15 minutes]
Now, please take a final deep breath. Allow the mind to clear and then pick up your phone. Set it to airplane mode and put it away, preferably back in your bag and not in your pocket. Then, maintaining silence, respond in writing to the prompts on the back of this sheet.
Depending on how much time there is to devote to the exercise itself as well as to the reflections on the worksheet, educators can elect to devote more or less time to silent, individual, written reflection on the prompts versus collective discussion of those prompts. Ideally participants have time to compose written reflections, have a small group discussion with one or two peers, and then have a collective discussion in which students report on their experiences, observations, reflections, and small group discussions.
Distinct exercises can address distinct impacts of technology usage.
Participants experience and observe the stress response as a result of a cacophony of smartphone alerts. This exercise is not pleasant, but it can be humorous and a cause for both individual insight as well as the strengthening of group bonds through common experience, which should be skillfully nurtured and encouraged by the educator.
Because smartphones are ubiquitous, this exercise should not trigger a more extreme anxiety response (such as a panic attack), but educators should caution that the exercise is meant to be provocative and that the point is for participants to simply observe that provocation and regulate their breathing.
Gazzaley, Adam and Larry D. Rosen. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.
Hirshberg, Daniel A. “Contemplative Pedagogy and the Religion Studies Classroom: Contemplating the Smartphone Dis/Connect.” Religious Studies News, June 18, 2019. Accessed July 31, 2019.
Daniel A. Hirshberg is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Mary Washington, where he serves as director of the contemplative studies program and associate director of the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies.
This is an original exercise relying on focused attention and open monitoring techniques.