In my October Newsletter I wrote about the concept of mindfulness, that moment-by-moment awareness of your surroundings, thoughts, and feelings. A sense of presence and acceptance, which can help a mediator facilitate between parties whose perceptions are blocked by the difficulties of conflict.
Once a conflict takes root it might indeed be necessary to call in a third party to provide a new perspective – but before that happens, our own mindfulness practices can reduce the chances that we will get caught up in an escalating torrent of emotions and reactions in the first place.
After reading this article about the popularity of mindfulness in the tech industry, however, I was reminded that we are living in a world which constantly discourages this positive behavior. Mindfulness is often referred to as the practice of being present: living openly in the moment without projecting yourself constantly into the future, the past, or now in the case of globalization, to the other side of the world. In the digital age we are encouraged to respond constantly to stimuli that remove us from our immediate surroundings. This post is about pausing for a moment to recognize the challenges to mindfulness in our digital lives, and using that awareness to make better choices for mindfulness practice and conflict management.
Click, swipe, ding, zoom; everyday the tech industry offers us a new way to touch, hear, and see our world through technology. Have a problem? There’s an app for that, the Apple slogan goes. All of this is supposed to mean more convenience for us, but the corollary is that our devices seem to belong in more and more spaces of our lives. We can’t complete a task without swapping between two or three screens, much less make it through a conversation without one. Enter the preferred catchall term for this hectic arrangement: multitasking.
Multitasking seems terribly exciting sometimes – to be engaging with so many sleek tools, communicating constantly with our friends, families, and colleagues. Funny texts pop in during our work and make us smile; we catch a problem and make a quick decision when we might have otherwise missed it. We can do so many things at once!
But this is a misleading picture. As Ilya Pozin points out, there really is no such thing as multitasking. No amount of apps and screens will increase the amount of attention you can invest in a myriad of tasks at once: instead, you will do more tasks, but invest less attention in all of them. In fact, Pozin cites research findings that indicate multitasking has extremely troubling neurological effects, an argument that Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, has been making for a few years now.
When it comes to mindfulness, this multitasking rhythm acts as a constant interruption to our sense of presence. You’ve tuned in to your moment, your surroundings, your sensations, thoughts, and feelings, perhaps someone whom you’re in conversation with, until a text comes in. Until a push notice from the New York Times buzzes in your lap. Until a new email window pops up in the corner of your open laptop. Until the television switches to a bawdy advertisement.
Perhaps the most troubling element of this arrangement is that even when those stimuli don’t appear, thanks to neuroplasticity our brains have become accustomed to looking for them. We get antsy when we try to focus and just be present in our surroundings. We feel naked without our cell phones in close proximity. These tendencies can have serious consequences for our sense of mindful presence, affecting our listening practices, our dialogue practices, and our sense of reflectivity about our interactions. All of these can lead us into unintended and unnecessary conflicts.
Multitasking acts as an interruption to our state of presence. But along with those interruptions comes another challenge to mindfulness, that of projection. Part of being in the moment is not constantly fantasizing about the future, the past, or some other space – it’s about being here now.
With the onset of electronic communication, beginning with the telegraph, a number of thinkers announced that traditional notions of time and space had, for practical purposes, been obliterated. Now our digital stimuli can constantly transport our consciousness into different temporal and spatial realities that are far removed from all the input our immediate surroundings are offering us. Being in the present doesn’t mean never thinking about the future and the past, but it does mean being aware of those experiences as thoughts and not realities. The immediate character of information technologies can make it hard to keep track of that.
There’s a lot to notice in our immediate surroundings, a lot to be mindful of both around and within us. Each conversation is full of subtle signals: tone of voice, nonverbal indications, a carefully chosen word. Perhaps the signal is your own: a quick intake of breath, a tightening in your chest, a sense of exhaustion. Being mindful of these indicators helps us to make decisions that make sense – perhaps it’s time to take a break from the conversation, for example – and to avoid reactionary responses. It’s a mediator’s practice to mindfully facilitate dialogues when things have gotten tough, but each of us can contribute enormously by making our own commitment to mindfulness. So it’s time to develop a critical eye to the wonders of the digital age, and choose carefully how and when we want their influence in our lives.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.