by Sammy Banawan
One of my best friends, a college roommate and a man whom I respect greatly questioned me. Somewhat unexpectedly. He is, to put it kindly, a late-adopter. Generally, when I’m rattling on about my latest new tech gadget (“You should see it! I can stream my music from my phone to my stereo!” “No, there is no optical drive.”), he does the polite nod and waits for me to finish. He tried to understand my first app, but he could only feign interest.
He’s a good friend. So I was taken aback when he had such a strong opinion so immediately. While he has an iPhone (one he had just gotten after years of using pre-paid phones with barely passable keyboards), he seemed to have already formed a strong opinion of what the smartphone could and could not do. The phone was a good tool for distraction. Getting away from things for a while. Splitting your attention. Certainly not one that could be used to enhance mindfulness.
This sentiment was recently echoed by one of my favorite comedians, Louis CK. He had an epic rant about smartphones and what they are doing to our ability to be present. If you haven’t seen it, you should have a look. I greatly respect CK as an artist and as someone who somewhat unwittingly stumbles into some of the greatest metaphors and examples that I use with my DBT groups.
But I’ve got to disagree with him here.
The tools we have at our disposal can always be used against us. I won’t get into examples of how a hammer or drill can be a problem, but let’s just say that my 6 year-old son and I know very well that something that could help build something – is essential, in fact – can also be used for less than constructive purposes. And like a hammer or drill, the smartphone is a tool and an incredibly enabling one. It’s not essential yet, but could be in the coming years.
Given that mindfulness has always struck me as an imminently practical and flexible practice, it seemed excessively rigid to try to work against the trend of smartphone-as-constant-companion. In that light, embracing new technology to help seems to be the most prudent course of action. As we can see by the proliferation of “mindfulness apps”, people use and seem to like them. Whether they are mere totems to an ideal self or genuine efforts to cultivate new and better habits, the fact remains there are a vast number of people interested in using them to help.
I’m going to put on my psychologist hat for a moment (please pardon my indecorum at wearing a hat indoors) and lay out the steps one might take to establish a new habit and what we know works to help a new habit stick. Generally speaking, we strive for consistency and regularity in practice. Initially at least, we also strive for some sort of immediate feedback about our work. We look for reinforcement from others or change in ourselves. We want the new habit to seem our own, idiosyncratic and not cookie-cutter.
Bearing these qualities in mind, it seems quite natural to expect a smartphone to be able to help us in our endeavor. Setting reminders is trivial and with the help of notes about the aforementioned reminder, we can work to give ourselves a sense that the practice was custom built for us.
“Siri, remind me to practice mindfulness every day at 8 AM.”
“Ok, here’s your reminder every day at 8 AM.”
But there’s still something missing. We can’t get away from the other obligations pulling at us. How long do we practice? What shall we use to focus on? How do we get reinforcement for the practice? There are a number of mindfulness apps that can help with those questions and more that we haven’t even answered. While there may be no ideal app for that, there is quite an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ones that could fill in many of the gaps.
Despite my bias since I created Rhythm, I feel that the smartphone revolution is upon us and that there are many useful tools that can help many people cultivate a new mindful practice. Since we would like more people to practice mindfulness, smartphone-as-companion seems like a worthy trend to embrace. I created Rhythm, A Free Mindfulness App to fill in some of the gaps seen in the current crop of apps and I hope that many people can find it useful. If not, there are a number of others that might be suitable.
As the saying goes: Embrace and extend. Mindfulness is worth the effort. You can download my free Rhythm app at the iTunes Store.