Technology has made teens obsessed with the present moment. With feverish intensity, they post the latest happening on Instagram or Tumblr, marching around like paparazzi, holding up their phones to flash and capture every little detail of their lives unfolding.
Ironically, the commitment to the present moment is at the core of mindfulness practice. Noted mindfulness guru Jon Kabbat Zinn defines mindfulness as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment."
In a humorous yet poignant way, Kabbat Zinn often asks, "What time is it?" And his response is, "Now."
The New "Now"
Teens are highly tuned in to the "now," just not in the way Kabbat Zinn imagines or defines.
Any parent with a teen will share a story of how time disappears when teens are engaged in Xbox or other video games like Minecraft. The teen engrossed in the game loses all conception of time, blocks out the rest of the world, and gives undivided attention and focus to the game, so much so that it might take a parent four or five attempts to garner his or her attention. Or the teen might be fully absorbed in a stream of group and individual texts.
The teen in the game or virtual environment is "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment."
The tricky part of the mindfulness definition for teens living in virtual worlds is to be "[nonjudgmental] to the unfolding of experience moment to moment." Texts can be hard to decipher for tone and intent, and often the words in texts can have a sharp edge, leaving digital wounds for the receiver.
Of course, mindfulness practice as envisioned by Kabbat Zinn exists in the real world, not the virtual one, with careful breathing, centering and focus as its cornerstones. Mindfulness is about blocking out extraneous thoughts and keeping the mind clear and available for the present moment. Teens want to be in the present moment and can't stand the idea of missing out on anything.
Authentic Connection and Reflection
In a recent New York Times article, Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone, comments: "Nobody can think anymore because they're constantly interrupted. Technology has enabled this expectation that we always be on."
The "always on" and the "now" go hand in hand. Thoreau once said, "All men lead lives of quiet desperation." In the digital age, teens are living lives of public desperation, struggling to find digital quietude.
Technologists and mindfulness practitioners are looking to each other to begin figuring out how to marry the "present" moment of "always on" and "now." At Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco this past February, leaders from Silicon Valley and the mindfulness community joined hands in an attempt to "discuss how to use technology more wisely," as Tony Schwartz writes in How to Be Mindful in an "Unmanageable" World, an article for Harvard Business Review. He explains how the tension point revolves around "digital connection, instant gratification, and the cheap adrenalin high of constant busyness."
The languages of mindfulness and technology are not that far apart from each other, both aiming to capture the "now," but in vastly different ways. The challenge is how to block out the digital flotsam that plagues teens and adults who are wrapped up in digital devices.
And, for educators and parents, the key is how to find windows for teens to enter into device-free spaces to forge "authentic connection and reflection," as Schwartz writes.
It does not have to be all or nothing, but the conversation needs to happen so that teens can make room for unplugging from the virtual "now" in order to find peace in the physical "now."
What are ways that you have tried to balance mindfulness with technology?
Note: For previous blogs in this series, start with Do the Right Thing: Managing the Digital Lives of Teens.