Mindfulness at work

Apr 26 2019

Three weeks ago, I suggested a way to use smartphones to (ironically!) weaken smartphone addiction. And I promised that in a subsequent issue of MRN I’d “talk about why this exercise has broader application than it may sound like it has.” So here goes.

First, a quick review: The anti-addiction exercise I recommended was to hold your smartphone and, upon feeling the urge to open some app, close your eyes and examine the urge. “The more you observe feelings like this, rather than succumbing to them, the more likely you are to notice them in the future, rather than reflexively, unthinkingly, obeying them.”

The reason this exercise can bring benefits beyond the realm of smartphone addiction is that “feelings like this” is a pretty broad category. Consider this lamentably common sequence of events:

You’re sitting at your computer and you’re supposed to be getting some work done—you’re staring blankly at a Word document or a spreadsheet or whatever—and then all of a sudden, before you know it, you’ve opened your browser and you’re doing something more fun than work. (Not that fun is a bad thing!—but there’s a time and place for everything.) Maybe you’ve checked into your favorite social media site, maybe you’re checking out things you could buy (next-day delivery!), maybe you’ve surrendered your autonomy to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and are watching passively, almost helplessly, as a series of increasingly unredeeming videos parasitize your consciousness.

Well, I submit that if you really pay attention during the “before you know it” part—during the transition between failing at work and succeeding at entertainment—you’ll notice a feeling remarkably like the feeling you examined while doing the smartphone exercise.

I don’t mean it’s exactly the same feeling. Wanting to open Facebook feels different from wanting to read about a car you’d like to buy, which in turn feels different from wanting to check into a celebrity gossip website or (my personal favorite this week) wanting to check the score of Spurs-Nuggets games. In fact, if you examine your feelings closely enough, you’ll probably find that wanting to open Facebook feels different from wanting to open Twitter!

Still, there’s something all these feelings have in common: the generic feeling of desiring something. You might call this the feeling of craving or grasping. You might even—if you wanted to get all Buddhist—call it tanha. This generic craving lies at the motivational core of all these different forms of wanting.

It’s because of this common denominator that observing one kind of wanting mindfully can pay dividends when it comes to taming another kind of wanting. Whatever kind of wanting you’re observing, the observation has to involve the generic core, the tanha. That’s why, the more you pause to observe the yearning to open your smartphone’s Facebook app, the more likely you are to notice whatever yearning is trying to carry you away from your work later that day.

The point of this practice isn’t to eliminate all wanting. It’s just to give you enough perspective to see the emergence of, and pre-emptively veto, some of the wantings that you’ve decided are problematic. Which wantings those wantings are depends on what you want out of life.

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