“Use me, check me, check me, use me.” My iPhone is communicating with me telepathically, from deep inside my pants pocket. It gets lonely, apparently, and it’s been, I don’t know, 17 seconds since I last cradled it in my palm and searched for the name of the guy who played Det. Ron Harris on Barney Miller.
“Use me, check me, check me, use me.” Last month, I finally gave in and exchanged my clamshell phone for a sleek iPhone 5s, so this makes it my first vacation with a smartphone. I’m no Luddite, but if anyone asked, I had a list of good reasons for not needing a smartphone: I am never far from a PC or laptop, and when I am not near a computer I am probably driving. Besides, I don’t want my e-mail or Facebook friends to follow me everywhere.
Except when I do. We were in Colorado Springs for a few days, and there was enough unfinished business at home that I was glad to check my e-mail — okay that assignment, forward a memo, read some reactions to an essay we published last week.
I would also check in with the kids, use the weather app to plan my day, and plug in directions for the Manitou Cliff Dwellings using Waze (which is the greatest Israeli invention since the kibbutz. Turn-by-turn directions with real-time traffic alerts? User-generated icons that tell you about hazards ahead? I feel like singing “Hatikva” every time I avoid a pothole). And did I mention, at the risk of sounding like your zayde, that there’s a camera in the phone?
So I get it, the whole smartphone thing. But then there is that little voice: “Use me, check me, check me, use me.” I am standing at the top of Mount Cutler in North Cheyenne Cañon Park, looking down on a vista of ponderosa pines and granite outcroppings, and all I am thinking is, “I wonder if I have new e-mail? Who’s tweeting? Is it my turn on Words With Friends?” My iPhone got me here, thanks to the Map My Trail app and the built-in compass. But it also takes me away from here, back to the office, to the headlines, to wherever it is that my “friends” are boasting about their kids and urging me to WATCH this video.
There’s a popular TED talk by a Harvard-based “happiness researcher” named Matt Killingsworth. Using an iPhone app (of course), Killingsworth got 15,000 people to report their moment-to-moment experiences and emotional states. The data allowed him to test who was happier: folks who were “in the moment,” no matter what they were doing, or others who allowed their minds to wander, even while engaged in pleasant tasks. “As it turns out,” says Killingsworth, “people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not.”
Which sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Sure, if I am getting a massage, it would spoil the moment if I suddenly remember that the taxes are due. But if I am stuck doing dishes, wouldn’t it help to think about the cookie I’ll allow myself later? Doesn’t matter, says Killingsworth. Even when people’s minds wander to happy thoughts, they are slightly less happy than when they aren’t mind-wandering.
“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now,’” Killingsworth and a partner wrote in Science. Their findings, like these traditions, “suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
I stink at being in the moment, if by “moment” you mean any time I am not distracted by a book, a conversation, or any other form of media, and if by “stink” you mean that I must reach for a magazine, turn on the radio, or run my mouth lest I go crazy. If anyone needs help being in the moment, it’s me.
And now I carry an amazingly powerful machine that guarantees that what is happening right now, right in front of me, is only one of myriad choices available literally at the push of a button. I’m here, and not here. I am eating dinner with a flesh-and-blood person, and I’m being summoned by a multitude of electronic stimuli. I am marveling at a black-billed magpie, even as I am itching to take a picture and send it to a bird-watching friend. Buddhists call this “monkey mind.”
This week I read about a B’nei Brak rabbi who smashes iPhones as part of some sort of penitential ritual. According to Yeshiva World News, the rabbi chanted a few prayers, “while the person looking for the Segulah took a hammer and smashed his iPhone…. Rabbi Glazer then grabs a heavy rock, and begins smashing the phone, while yelling ‘Timche Es Zecher Amalek’ (obliterate the memory of Amalek).” A “segula” is a sort of religious remedy; Amalek is the Jews’ historical nemesis.
Either this rabbi really hates social media, or he really prefers the Samsung.
I’m not smashing my iPhone anytime soon. I see what makes it indispensable. But I also see what it could do to me if I am not careful. What’s the segula for monkey mind?