Smartphones, mindful phones?

Smartphones, mindful phones?

A 2012 post about whether it’s possible to engage with smartphones mindfully.

Along with my very recent arrival in the world of social networking I have been behind the curve in upgrading to a smart phone. I only managed this last week (one week after my Dad which is indicative of something).

So finally I understand what the ‘smart’ in smartphones is all about. For the uninitiated (or anyone whose taking even longer than me to figure it out) they are about more than just being a computer in your pocket that is able to do more than a mobile (take photos, listen to music, check email, surf the web, tweet, play games, watch movies, read books, get directions, etc.).

A big element of their appeal is that from the basic piece of technology that you receive you can effectively design your own perfect machine, tailored to yourself in every way. Obviously you can download the specific programmes, games and social networking devices that appeal to you, and collect together your favourite photos, movies, etc. But beyond this you can also download apps and widgets (basic software) specific to your individual needs.

For me, the first few days of owning the device has been a process of realising what I would like my phone to do and then finding an app (or managing the settings on an existing app) to make it do that. For example, I thought it’d be useful to sometimes take notes on the phone so went through all the available notepad programmes to find one that suited me. I downloaded an app which flashes different coloured lights when people contact me in different ways (text, voicemail, email, etc.). And I went through the wallpapers and found a one which mimics maple leaves falling on water with remarkable accuracy. In fact I’ve spent more time on poking my phone to create water ripples than anything else so far.

Of course, where previous mobiles were relatively static once you had got them up and running, a smartphone can be a work in progress as you continue to develop it to meet your own changing needs and to draw on developing technologies.

Potentials and limitations

This is not a post about the technological possibilities of smartphones. Obviously as a new user I’m completely unqualified to write such a thing. Rather I wanted to raise a possibility which I haven’t seen many people writing about yet but which seems important from what I’ve heard and observed, and now experienced myself, with smartphones.

As with so much in life, smartphones have potential to enrich our lives and also to limit them. Over the holidays I was struck by ways in which they did both things. Hanging out with family and friends it was wonderful that our conversations on politics, science and media included the possibility of immediately checking any fact that we were missing. All our usual ‘who was it in that film?’ questions were quickly answered by somebody prodding their phone. I felt that our chats developed in whole new directions with this possibility of checking information, or even bringing people easily into the conversation who were temporally or geographically distant (What does wikipedia say? What do people on twitter think?)

On the other hand, there were moments over the holidays when I sat in a room full of people silently poking phones or pads and wondered whether this was really the best way to spend the few days of the year when we got together. At times when there is a lull in conversation it is very easy to reach for email or facebook when previously you might have been forced to break through into companionable silence or to move from small talk to something deeper. There’s an innovative game which responds to this particular issue here.

I’m not saying that we should necessary prioritise face-to-face communication over online communication. Technological shifts helpfully challenge us to rethink what counts as a real relationship, connection or conversation in all kinds of ways. However, I’ve spoken to several people who struggle when partners and friends seem to be constantly in thrall to the buzzing or flashing of the smartphone such that every interaction with them is punctuated by them drifting off to check facebook or stressing over some email they’ve received.

Mindful phones?

It is here that I think the concept of mindfulness might be useful. At least I have found it to be so. Mindfulness is the Buddhist idea, recently taken up by psychotherapies and the self-help industry, about cultivating awareness. Mindfulness emphasises listening carefully rather than giving things a fraction our attention. It suggests responding in ways that are aware of all that is going on rather than taking cognitive shortcuts, making assumptions, or jumping to conclusions. It is also often linked to compassion for both ourselves and for others.

As I’ve written elsewhere mindfulness isn’t inherent in certain activities (e.g. yoga or meditation) and impossible in others (e.g. watching TV or eating fast food). We can do all activities in a more or less mindful way, and the only person who can really judge that is ourselves. Someone might appear to be mindfully meditating when inside they are seethingly rehearsing the put-down they should’ve used in a conversation yesterday. They might seem to be mindlessly emailing when actually they are compassionately engaging with a query they’ve received, reflecting on what they are writing and how it might be experienced by the reader.

Playing with my smartphone I’m struck by the potentials that this aspect of designing it yourself has for more or less mindful engagement. For example, when I initially set my phone up it automatically flashed a green light each time I received an email. Now I know that I receive a high number of emails (perhaps a hundred a day because of all the networks I’m on). Also I find it hard not to respond when I know that somebody has contacted me (what might it say? Is everything okay?) and I have a slightly obsessive desire to maintain an empty inbox. So I turned the light off. Simple. In a similar vein I downloaded an app which enabled me to set the times during which my phone would automatically be on silent. So now it can’t disturb me between 10pm and 7am.

A lot of the time I think we assume that because we can be contactable, we should be contactable. But it is fine to be unavailable at times. I would never have my phone on when I’m seeing a counselling client, so why would I leave it on when talking to a friend, attending a meeting, or taking some time out for myself?

Another aspect are the kind of self-improvement apps which are so popular. There are apps to record calorie intake, to record the amount of exercise you are doing, to encourage ‘positive thinking’, etc. etc. Again it isn’t that these things are inherently anti-mindful, but I suspect that it is easy to let them fuel the kind of self-monitoring culture which has us constantly judging ourselves, beating ourselves up, comparing ourselves to others and trying to be better, rather than accepting our inevitable imperfections and treating ourselves gently.

Searching my app market for ‘mindfulness’ there are apps you can download to send you mindfulness quotes or to ring a pleasant bell at random times of the day to remind you to breathe and to spaciously expand your awareness. But as Barry Magid and Pema Chödrön both remind us in their writing, it is easy to slip into doing such ‘mindful’ practices with a secret underlying aim of self-improvement that says we’re not good enough as we are. As such I’m cautious of engaging with mindful apps so far (although I do seriously love my zen wallpaper).

Perhaps a useful filter to apply to each new design decision we make about our phones is ‘what is the mindful/mindless potential of this choice’? Sub-questions could include:

  • Will I be tempted to use it as a distraction from other things that are worthy of my attention or will it help me to focus or maintain that attention?
  • Will it draw my awareness away from what is going on around me or increase that awareness?
  • Will it increase or decrease my connections with, and compassion for, others?
  • Will I find it easy or difficult to tear myself away from this?
  • What is the desire to share this information/image/idea/experience with others about for me?
  • Do I find myself feeling calmer or more irritable after engaging with this app in this way?


Of course your questions might differ from these and your answers to them may well change over time. Perhaps you could make your own list on a notepad app. Or not.

This post is really an invitation to consider new technologies such a pads and phones mindfully. They can open up a wonderful window to the whole, world making it constantly available to us, but it’s worth being cautious if this means that we stop looking outside the actual window.

Find out more…

You can read more about mindfulness in my book Mindful Counselling & Psychotherapy.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).