It is no surprise to the Shine Offline team that as the mobile technology and the associated digital distractions in our lives increase so has the trend for mindfulness meditation in the West. Here Laura shares her own experiences of how both are working hand-in-hand in a world of information overload.
We’re all distracted. The problem is everywhere. On trains, in restaurants, in homes, in business meetings and at conferences the temptation to check your inbox, tweet your thoughts or research something is too great for most people. It’s normal now for people watching TV in the sanctuary of their homes to be invited to “get involved” with the movie or programme rather than just sit back, relax and be entertained. At work, laptops are the constant companion of most people in team meetings and the distraction of new emails coming in or tweets disturbing the conversation is paramount. What does this mean? Our attention spans are shorter, we feel overwhelmed by the constant stream of information, our productivity is suffering and ultimately we don’t know whether we’re coming or going.
This isn’t going to go away. Technology is continuing to develop at a faster and faster rate and it is up to us to take responsibility for our own wellbeing, our own tolerance for information, and make the appropriate changes to ensure we can get balance and control rather than it starting – or continuing! – to control us.
Back in 2010 my anxious state when it came to my work, income, etc became too much. Always a bit of a “stress puppy”, as one person once labelled me, I was in desperate need of something to help me to manage my stress and associated panic attacks. One evening I googled “stress anxiety management” and came across Jon Kabat Zinn‘s mindfulness lecture at the Googletech conference (watch it here). I was sold. His calm, charismatic way, and the fact that the room was full of Google staff, convinced me that this could be the answer.
I was always very wary of meditation and never really understood what it was. Having been a regular church-goer from 3-16 years old I had decided that organised religion wasn’t for me and assumed that meditation was linked to Buddhism, which as a belief system meant I had to become a Buddhist to practice. No siree! But Kabat Zinn’s talk, and my further research, de-mystified this belief and I began to try and meditate for a short time every day, using the Headspace app and Andy Puddicome’s easy-listening tones. I then discovered there was an 8 week course you could register on to learn with a teacher how to practice mindfulness and decided that it was worth the investment. The regular meetings and group dynamic made it a challenging but enjoyable way to learn and I became very excited about the impact this new hobby was going to have on my life.
The tough part came when the course was over and I discovered how difficult it was to meditate on a regular basis. They call it practice for a reason and it really is like going to the gym. If you want to see the benefits of mindfulness you need to train regularly – some say even 5 minutes a day of focused breathing is better than nothing – but being responsible for doing this myself, and always having something more important to do, meant that the meditation became less and less frequent to the point where I wasn’t practising at all.
Meanwhile, my work life was becoming increasingly unmanageable and I had been making some small changes to how I used my smartphone to try and stop work infringing on my personal life so much. Facebook always made me feel a bit rubbish and after lots of umming and ahhing I took a leap of faith and came off it as a personal user. A lot of my clients were relying on me to manage their social media pages as part of their communications campaigns, so I wasn’t free of it entirely, but I no longer had lots of “friends” many of whom I hadn’t spoken to in years, telling me how wonderful their lives were. And that definitely had a positive impact on my sense of wellbeing.
And then I hit an “all time low”. My 9 month old daughter being diagnosed with a rare fitting condition, alongside having very little support locally and far too much work on my plate, drove me into the ground and after 10 weeks on prescribed sleeping tablets I changed to a more caring GP and sought help. Waiting for a CBT referral, and knowing that I had dabbled with meditation in the past, he suggested that I try and find a local meditation group as the proven health benefits of mindfulness were making their way into the mainstream. That afternoon I googled “Twickenham meditation group” and that evening found myself sitting in a candlelit church hall surrounded by about 25 men and women of all ages, creeds and colours, all there to meditate. When I found out the session was 2 hours long I nearly took a “buckle in the eye” as my mum would say, but with it consisting of lots of shorter meditations the evening flew by and I knew I had found something truly special.
Being part of a community, attending on a regular basis, and hearing other people’s woes and worries and reasons for attending all played their part in making it easier for me to stick to the meditation, and be motivated to practice throughout the week in the lead up to the following Tuesday. The sanctuary created with no mobile phones anywhere to be seen felt really special and triggered something in me about what has been lost in this age of less chatting, face-to-face contact, pausing and daydreaming.
And then I had my light bulb moment on an early morning train surrounded by people on their phones. New to the world of commuting, I took the opportunity to either gaze out the window, do a short meditation, or listen to a podcast by a mindfulness teacher (Sharon Salzberg has a special place in my heart!). But no one else seemed to be doing anything except staring into their various screens. Taking time in the day to meditate and pause has the great benefit of allowing you to really see your thoughts and daydream, and I truly believe had I been as hooked on my smartphone as I could have been the idea would never have occurred to me.
The positive impact mindfulness had had on my life was obvious to me, and the focus and attention I had built up as a result seemed to run parallel to the distractions all around me. I researched the proven benefits of mindfulness further and was shocked and thrilled to discover that not only had the mental and physical benefits continued to show themselves, but that well known businesses such as GSK and EY were starting to include mindfulness courses as a wellbeing benefit for staff. Eureka!
Things have moved very quickly – the idea only came to me 6 months ago – and the somewhat frantic pace that the business is speeding along at now should by all accounts have sent me back into the regular panic attacks and sleepless nights of old. But at Shine Offline we practice what we preach and not only are we managing how we use digital technology in the office (email on offline mode when working on a deadline, lunch eaten with the laptop closed and phone on flight mode, no phones in meetings) but we are also committing to meditate for at least 10 minutes every day. Yes I have moments of panic and feeling overwhelmed, but rather than those manifesting themselves in a panic attack and tears (Anna once told me I was doomed because I hadn’t worn waterproof mascara one day about 3 years ago!) I am able to take a step back, breathe, acknowledge how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking much quicker and make some adjustments to the moment to manage my stress.
Ruby Wax talks about how she focuses on her feet on the floor or her breath when she feels the stress-associated adrenaline to start to sweep across her body. And having read her last book – must buy the latest one! – I now do the same. It only takes a few minutes but it is remarkable how quickly I’m able to bring myself out of my head, into my body and back down to earth.
So, mindfulness is central to the Shine Offline ethos. We understand the impact digital distractions are having on people’s lives but also know that this is the world we live in and that it is up to us as individuals to each manage the role it plays, how we deal with it and how much we can handle.
We are running the first in a series of Mindfulness for Our Digital World courses from our office in Twickenham in a few weeks’ time. Find further info here. If you know that you don’t have a great handle on how you use your smartphone, how you manage your inbox and how much social media interrupts your day then we invite you to join us and start an offline adventure to discover how you can be a shinier happier person. It’s time to Shine folks – offline!