I’m totally fine with this. The women sitting cross-legged on the floor around me are passing around a wooden box and dropping their phones inside. It’s coming my way, and I’ve been instructed to jot down my feelings about parting with my phone. I’m totally fine with this, I write, which is a lie. Nevertheless, into the box goes a small rectangle containing every photo I’ve taken, every to-do list I’ve failed to cross off, every professional, personal, and romantic relationship I’ve maintained, every creepy thing I’ve Googled, every calorie I’ve logged, every step I’ve walked, every embarrassing text or IM conversation I’ve had, every secret I know.
Liza Kindred, the event’s host, closes the lid and sets an amethyst crystal on top. “If you’re someone who believes in the woo-woo, as I do-do,” she says, “amethyst is supposed to be one of the crystals that neutralizes technology, so a lot of people will people will put it on their phones or on their laptop.” So begins Sustenance Sunday, a workshop designed to teach us about authentic communication, mindful use of technology, and, because we live in the modern world, “awakened social posting.”
Kindred is an entrepreneur. She started Mindful Technology, a business consultancy offering executive education and workshops, to appeal to people and businesses who find meditation and mindfulness to be too precious and twee. Mindful Technology is for “people who are fed up, who curse all the time,” she explains, noting that her New Year’s resolution was to stop shoulder-checking people on the sidewalk. Kindred’s artfully decorated apartment, where a mason jar of tulips basks in the Instagram-friendly glow of a sunny skylight, is as serene as a Pinterest board—the opposite of fed up. Posters provide affirmation: “Allow yourself to be happy when you think you don’t deserve it,” and, “Who says the easiest way is not the best way?”
This event, co-hosted with a “mindful branding and marketing firm” called The Luminary Agency, is capitalizing on a moment. The world is waking up to the dangers of too much personal technology, thanks, in part, to the outspoken activism of people like Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, investors like Jana Partners and CalSTRS, who have implored Apple to study the effects of smartphone use on children, and scandals like Cambridge Analytica, which laid bare the data collection practices of powerful companies like Facebook.
But there’s a bit of a snag in the movement. Smartphones and social networks and apps and 24/7 connectedness are too useful to abandon altogether. Even if we conclude that they’re as bad as cigarettes or gambling, the technology is embedded in our lives. The idea of functioning without the services of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or Amazon seems so difficult that quitting them is a newsworthy sacrifice. (There’s even a burgeoning genre of stunt journalism around the idea.) And in the end, it appears that more quitters and boycotters have failed than have succeeded.
That leaves room for people like Kindred to use the very tech she’s trying to help us break free of. It’s the reality of building a business amid the complicated web of conglomerates whose services have become indispensable. The addictive qualities of these platforms make them the best place to reach potential new customers or fans. Kindred notes that she’s proud of Mindful Technology’s Instagram account. “It’s blowing up,” she says. “I think a lot of people like me are fed up and over it.”
Kindred drops some stats about technology use. Did we know since 2014, more people in the world have had access to mobile phones than toilets? Or that 90 percent of Americans have their phones within reach 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? We discuss “you are the product,” the idea that people pay for free services like Facebook and Google with their personal data. She tells us that our anxieties about handing over our phones is okay—tech addiction isn’t a character flaw. “Scientists are working every day to make super addictive apps. It’s changing the biology of our brains, getting these dopamine hits,” she says. The dozen or so women in the circle nod vigorously.
The tech industry is not ignoring this change in sentiment. Facebook has co-opted Harris’ phrase “time well spent” for its own messaging. Google introduced several “digital well-being” tools at its latest developer’s conference, touting JOMO, or the “joy of missing out.”
But grabbing our time and attention will always be ingrained in these companies’ business models. Kindred doesn’t expect the big tech companies to fix the problem. “Layering on features, aspirational and buzzy branding, or claiming allegiance to something better doesn’t change the core value systems that our devices, apps, and interactions are built on,” she says. “I personally don’t believe that technology, or technologists with good intentions, can fix the problems that were created by blind adherence to the ethos of ‘disruption.’” And, based on Congress’s softballing of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, she doesn’t expect our elected officials to help much, either. “Today is about doing more for ourselves.”
Phones neutralized beneath the crystal, our first order of business is meditation with contemplation. We close our eyes in silence while I mindfully contemplate how fucked I’d be if someone ever hacked into my phone. I hear a spritzing noise; it’s one of the organizers “setting the room” with a sage and lavender space cleanser. The spray, we’re told, is designed to help people set their intentions for any activity, be it doing the dishes, sending an email, or staging a photo shoot. (It’s available for sale.)
The moment is punctuated by the ringing sound of someone a tapping small Tibetan singing bowl. We’re told there will be time for “casual sharing” later. For now, we pair off and listen to one another talk while holding one hand to our hearts. The eye contact is intense. I resist the temptation to go into small talk networking mode with my conversational partner. The point is to be here, like really actually here. Not the “continuous partial attention thing” that cell phones and laptops create.
We’re told this is all meant to help us connect with ourselves and others, while respecting the power technology has over us. Now, we can turn that power around and use it on our own terms.
The phones are released from the box. I quickly skim news alerts about Trump administration shenanigans, an innocuous text from my mom, some Twitter replies and a couple of email newsletters. Kindred notes she’s feeling “a bit of hot edginess” in the room as a result of the phones coming back. I’m just comforted to have my little information bomb within sight again. Several attendees scroll their feeds while Kindred introduces Georgia Pettit and Anna Nydermyer, founders of The Luminary Agency.
Pettit and Nydermyer explain that, whether or not we like it, we have an online identity, so we may as well be intentional about what we communicate about ourselves and the kinds of communities we build online. I raise an eyebrow. Promoting the heck out of yourself—er, curating an aesthetic—on Instagram doesn’t seem particularly mindful, but we all have to make a living somehow.
Conveniently, they have five tips for mindful sharing on social media. For starters, don’t just suddenly drop into phone-mode around other people. Tell your companions, “I’m going to do a social post right now,” and step aside. Next, tap into your inspiration, asking yourself, “What about this feels special to me that I want to build up as part of my world?” Don’t forget to check yourself. So much of posting on Instagram can be an exercise in vanity and proving one’s self-worth; instead, pause and “find the place where you’re inspired.” The fourth tip – “have fun with it”—seemed obvious, but Instagram can be an anxiety-inducing place for many. And lastly, let it go. “There is a nice moment where you can say, ‘I kinda don’t care if anyone likes it … I’m just gonna I hit send and then move on,” Pettit says.
The duo offers to help us compose and edit our own Instagram posts, maybe even right here in this amazing skylight glow, but first—a note on hashtags. Should you use them, and risk looking shamelessly thirsty? Or skip it, and miss out on opportunities to gain new followers? Pettit explains that she’s built a lot of communities around hashtags, including around New York City, Buddhism, and women in the healing space. “The law of attraction is nothing to be ashamed of, go for it” she says.