Today I turned off my phone. For a whole hour, in the middle of the day. Yes, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds, but give it a go and see how you do.
As a freelance writer, I’m wedded to my mobile inbox. My phone hasn’t been off – except when I’ve run out of battery – since it arrived on my doorstep looking all sleek and innocuous and Appley.
The familiar buzz of an incoming message reassures me I’m in touch with the world, that I’m needed and have a job to do. And the buzz isn’t just a literal one, it’s a metaphor for the rush I get from doing; doing more, doing it better, solving a problem, creating something of which I’m proud, getting the words to say what I really mean.
But today I turned my phone off. For a whole hour, while I had lunch. And the reason? I can’t remember the last thing I ate for lunch and really tasted what I was eating, and that shocked me. Perhaps my phone isn’t entirely to blame – I often combine eating with editing, reading, writing or meeting – but the majority of the time, I’ve got a sandwich in one hand and I’m keeping up with incoming messages with the other, even if I’m sat out in the garden.
And how do I know my phone should bear the brunt of my off-switching finger? For starters, the strength of the inbox-bound pull I felt after barely five minutes. What was I missing out on? What vital message was sitting there demanding I answer it, that couldn’t wait the remaining 55 minutes I’d promised myself? What if a client was trying to get in touch and needed something now now, very now? Would it be cheating if I went up to my office and happened to glance at my email while checking the news headlines?
The sense I was missing out on something was overwhelming. I had almost convinced myself to go back on my promise, to return to the distracting comfort of my laptop and phone, when I became aware of the taste of the food I was eating (nothing particularly fancy in case you were wondering – pasta, parmesan and mascarpone, and an apple). I became present, for a few moments, to the growing heat of the sun on my arms, the gentle breeze keeping it at bay, the sound of the gulls wheeling over the tilted boats in the creek below and the smell of the creek bed at low tide.
After almost five years of practising meditation, it shocked me just how unmindful I’ve become, how in among all the doing I hadn’t realised I’ve been confining mindfulness to a patchy and inconsistent ten or 20 minutes a day. The sensation of missing out returned over and again throughout the hour, but as I watched the thoughts rise and fade back, I remembered I have a choice as to when and where I listen to those calls (and aside from that, that my mind has some truly creative argument techniques if it needs them). I had to bring myself gently, again and again, back to what was instead of what could be, and it made me wonder about the amount of time I spend not really present to my experience.
When I returned to my desk and turned the phone back on (somewhat reluctantly by this point), I found my career still intact, and that I was better prepared for the emails and messages (of which there were nowhere near as many as I had built them up to be in my head, nor were they of the magnitude of seriousness I had imagined). It was a welcome reminder of the little I already know about mindfulness from my on/ off practice, that I’m less anxious, more level headed, less swayed by knocks and setbacks throughout the day when I meditate. And while I’m not sure I can quantify it, I’m pretty sure I’m sharper when I’ve taken that time off from doing just to be.
If you’re interested in the possibilities of mindfulness, there are worse places to start than Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, which was the start of my journey into mindfulness – a journey which, as my wake-up call today confirmed, is still very much in its infancy. My mindfulness Feed led me back to this book that has influenced my practice since it was first released, and it’s the place to which I’ll be returning as a result, effectively starting over again, and trying to remind myself that mindfulness isn’t just for a patchy ten or 20 minutes a day – it should be something I bring into everything I do.