July 18 2019

Contemplating the Smartphone Dis/Connect

by Daniel A. Hirshberg, University of Mary Washington

Since the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, smartphones have become not only ubiquitous, but a near constant in our waking environment. Even when we are not on our own device, several people around us usually are, which often compels us to check our own. This is sufficient to demonstrate that their effect on us as individuals, whether attentional, psychological, or physiological, is determined not only by our own device and usage but by that of others around us as well.

While we may have some sense of how our lives have become more and more lived through our devices, we rarely take a moment to more closely consider the range of impacts they exert on the psychology and general quality of our experience. Some are predominantly innocuous if not amusing: most users report “phantom vibrations,” thinking that a notification has arrived only to reach for their smartphone and discover that there is none. Other impacts may be fatally literal, such as texting and driving (or even walking) in which our affinity for multitasking proves itself to be a high-risk misnomer: studies show that not only do most multitaskers perform worse on both tasks, they tend to believe that they have actually performed better!1

While many educators express concern about our “digital native” students, who are defined by Gazzaley and Rosen in The Distracted Mind as those “who eagerly embrace attention-grabbing technologies without taking the time to recognize and appreciate how they might best engage with them,”2 I would suggest that few among us, regardless of when we were born, have more deliberately explored the maladaptive behaviors of our technology usage and consistently applied alternatives to remedy them.

Among many other enriching applications, contemplative pedagogy offers a unique opportunity to help students (and ourselves) become cognizant digital citizens, gaining insight into the subtle impacts, blind spots, and mistaken beliefs of our technology usage by directing our attention to them in a focused, well-structured learning environment. In this essay, I present the first of a series of “Smartphone Dis/Connect” exercises as a means to not only introduce contemplative pedagogy more generally, but also its specific application towards an especially poignant, stubborn, and potentially dangerous target. While a range of contemplative exercises are needed to focus on each impact, the symptom I wish to address here, and one in which a contemplative exercise proves immediately illuminating, is anxiety.

Smartphones remain so new that extended studies on their long-term usage are not yet available, but the initial waves of research are deeply concerning, especially with regard to the children and adolescents who are our future students. Even if we are not “that kind of doctor,” anyone who works with undergrads is not at all surprised to learn that anxiety recently surpassed depression as the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder among college students. The human brain evolved over tens of millions of years to become the preeminent information processor in existence; over the course of a decade, some of its core functions have been superseded by a device that not only provides nearly instantaneous access to an inconceivable range of information, but also is designed to draw the brain’s attentional systems away from more immediate tasks and more important goals. In what is now abbreviated as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), alerts and notifications trigger the fight-or-flight stress response in the mind, body, and brain; this may not be as pronounced as when provoked by the proximity of an actual predator, but alerts indeed initiate the same physiological processes, with quantifiable and subjectively observable symptoms. Functioning as “brain hacks” by design, alerts may be unleashed in a calculated barrage to hijack our attention away from competing stimuli, whether analog or digital, and regardless of whether the “threat” is real, imagined, or merely a deliberately coded deception to increase our screen time.

So what is contemplative pedagogy? And how can it be applied not only to instruct students about the lived consequences of their technology usage but also help them to make real changes to their behavior?

Key Perspectives in Contemplative Pedagogy

We know that contemplation has been employed as an educational component since ancient Greece, and yet it remains nascent as a distinctive pedagogy in the modern academy. Among its most distinguishing (and, according to Louis Komjathy, “subversive”) features is its high valuation of first-person content and discourse: students explore their own subjective experience as a legitimate object of critical inquiry. Attentional meditation training with meta-awareness empowers the subject to defuse their mind from mental content; that is, students observe thoughts with a sense of separation, thereby empowering a clearer cognizance and evaluation of that content rather than automatically and uncritically identifying with it. Contemplative pedagogy acknowledges the fact that total objectivity with regard to our internal machinations is impossible––but it likewise asserts that this is no less true of the lens through which we perceive the normative, “third-person” textual sources that dominate our syllabi. The latter remain essential but are no longer privileged, and empirical content becomes equally and uniquely relevant for an inquiry into the nature of self, phenomena, and our lived experience as human beings.

In addition to first- and third-person modes of content, contemplative pedagogy employs second-person approaches to underscore and enhance the value of dialogical interaction, not only in the inherently hierarchical relationship between an educator and their students, but especially peer-to-peer. An ascendant feature of technological disconnection is the fear and avoidance of direct, face-to-face interaction with our fellow human beings, so contemplative pedagogy seeks to address this concern by inviting further opportunities for dialogue and relationship-building in the classroom.

Although third-person content and second-person dialogue is of course quite standard, this rubric highlights the inclusion of first-person perspectives as definitive of contemplative pedagogy, as has been articulated and advocated by Harold D. Roth of Brown University. More recently, Roth has introduced a fourth category of “no-person perspective,” which signifies numinous experience transcending self-identification and self-reference. That is, subject-object duality dissolves in the absolute immediacy of the present moment. While this merits its own discussion, “zero-person perspectives” are neither applied in the present exercise nor listed among its objectives. As such, the remainder of this essay focuses on the integration of first-, second-, and third-person content to acutely explore how anxiety is provoked by our smartphone usage.

Contemplative Practice as Teaching Strategy

You are welcome to download and print the complete “Smartphone Dis/Connect: FOMO” contemplative exercise, which is designed as a single printout to be read aloud by the educator and distributed to every student as a worksheet.

By way of introduction, this exercise employs contemplative pedagogy to personally explore how smartphones provoke anxiety right now in this moment, and to more deliberately consider how this affects our experience more generally, whether we are on the phone or off. While some of these techniques are drawn from contemplative religious traditions, and in this case Buddhism especially, there is nothing inherently religious or philosophical about its focal objects or objectives; this exercise simply employs the concentrative faculty of mind to pay close attention to experience. Both contemplative pedagogy and contemplative studies celebrate interdisciplinary dialogue, as between religious studies, psychology, and communication in the present discussion; individual disciplines are enriched through the inclusion and exploration of diverse perspectives on a single topic.

The total structure of the exercise is straightforward: it proceeds through a narrative introduction and guided contemplation session, and then concludes with written and/or dialogical reflections. The duration of each section can be adjusted depending on how much time is available, but I would suggest no less than ten minutes for the introduction and guided meditation itself, as students need to settle in, attune to the environment created by the exercise, and investigate their subtle reactions to it.

Ideally the educator will have some familiarity with basic attentional meditation, but anyone can proceed by mindfully reading through the exercise while simultaneously engaging the contemplative foci as directed in the narrative. In this the educator is a full participant and thus equally prepared to participate in a conversation about the experience, sharing their own observations. As always it is best to gain familiarity with content before teaching it, so an educator should complete the exercise and gain some insight into it themselves before leading a class.

It begins with simple attentional meditation on the breath, then the main section relies on a technique more akin to “open monitoring” or “open awareness” practice. In this the breath functions as a centering anchor of attentional focus while awareness relaxes and expands, incorporating the range of internal and external experiences as they arise and cease in each moment. Rather than labeling anything but the breath as a distraction, the full content of experience becomes the focal object of contemplation. Concentration maintains a degree of stability and continuity by retaining a sense of the present and relinquishing discursive thought processes that obscure or ignore the acute phenomena of the waking state for the meandering diffusion of daydream. This is no easy task, but students are only asked to try contemplative “practice” rather than somehow perfect it. Following the narrative and returning attention to the designated foci as best they can, such genuine engagement with the exercise is sufficient to gain insight. This is good practice.

To this point, the exercise is fairly standard in contemplative terms as it sets the ground for greater cognizance of experience. It shifts when students are asked to slowly and deliberately take out their devices and watch whatever feelings arise as they light the screen and encounter the information displayed upon it. As they proceed, they are reminded to keep breathing deeply and retain a sense of the breath. Having mindfully engaged that sequence, students are asked to open the settings on their devices, turn on all alerts and notifications for all apps, and set the volume to full blast. Then––and this is key––the device must be placed out of reach: under their seats if in a standard classroom or pushed an arm’s-length away when sitting on the floor. The impulse to silence (and check) incoming notifications is remarkably powerful, especially when surrounded by peers in a context that ordinarily forbids it, so devices must be out of reach, and students must be reminded to keep their hands in their laps.

Depending on the size of the class, a digital cacophony of alerts and notifications will arise almost immediately. And we all have to simply listen in total stillness, breathing while watching and thus enduring with cognizance the range of tightly restrained impulses, reactive hopes and fears, and stress-induced physical symptoms such as muscle tension and perspiration. This is a somewhat hellish but not intolerable or unamusing experience, especially since it tends to inspire a strong sense of camaraderie by suffering through it together, which aids enthusiasm, candidness, and authenticity in discussion later.

Once the more meditative section concludes, students are instructed to retrieve their devices, set them to “airplane mode” such that no more alerts can arise, return them to their bags, and then respond to three sets of reflective questions on the second side of the sheet, which help students clarify and crystallize their physical, conceptual, and emotional responses to smartphone alerts respectively. Depending on time and preference, these can be explored silently in writing, in partnered or small group discussions, in dialogue with the entire class, or some combination thereof. Following the exploration of these impacts, the last question asks students to consider how they might skillfully adjust their smartphone usage, which should be pursued in a full-room discussion such that creative solutions may be shared with and further refined by the entire class collectively.

Conclusions and Extensions

In perusing aggregated research discussions on the impacts of technology usage, such as The Distracted Mind, my first impulse is to lock my iPhone in a drawer whenever possible––but such an action only addresses my own usage. In so many ways the public environment remains dominated by them. Even if our own device is out of sight, someone else’s almost always is–– and then not even ours is fully out of mind. Smartphones are not going away, at least not until they are superseded by new technologies that will likely be ever more deeply integrated. While we seemed to have been doing just fine a decade ago without all these apps, we have to admit that some are quite useful now, so we must resolve to be more deliberate about their use such that a more generalized anxiety, among other negative impacts, does not reach epidemic proportions due in part to their prevalence. Only time will tell whether anxiety already has reached this level among Digital Natives.

To help mitigate this possibility (or reality), it is reassuring to recognize that, as educators, we are empowered to exert a high degree of control over the learning environments we create for our students. In my experience, the consistent application of contemplative pedagogy within them adds not only a distinct potency, but also a strong sense of community by forcing students off their devices and back into direct dialogue with each other regardless of whether class has begun or not. “Back in the day” we might have tried concealing ourselves behind a book or losing ourselves in doodling or whatever when feeling awkward in confined public spaces; these days students are almost constantly absorbed in their devices, and the depth of separation from their present environment and immediate peers is far more total.

Regardless of the course content, such absorption in distraction inspires the deployment of structures derived from contemplative pedagogy, and more specifically what I have learned through my own contemplative practice. For one, I ban devices of any kind at any time in my classrooms (except by vetted accommodation), whether class has begun or not, and whether I am there or not. Admittedly, this temporarily expels a scattering of digital castaways to continue their swiping outside the room before class, but a much larger group enjoys conversation within, such that the learning space becomes vibrant and alive rather than deadened by the dull taps of disconnection. This vibrancy is especially pronounced in classes where contemplative exercises are offered daily; students steadily build relationships by dialoguing about content that is inherently personal and thereby establish genuine friendships by means of it.

When teaching religious traditions to undergrads especially, so much of their interest is inspired by larger questions about the nature of self and the sacred, about ethical values and existential meaning. This is what drew me to the discipline as an undergrad and to the profession as an adult. College is such a potent time for self-exploration, -discovery, and -definition. For the field of religious studies especially, and for the humanities in higher education more generally, the application of contemplative pedagogy can serve as a unique resource that extends well beyond the relevance of the discipline as an allegedly post-subjective, third-person field of inquiry. In these exercises emphasizing the value of one’s own experience as human beings, students find a deeper relevance precisely because their discoveries are personal and subjective, and because they are encouraged to explore their own beliefs and perspectives while appreciating and respecting the fact that others see things differently. In this, contemplative pedagogy teaches a genuine pluralism that openly engages diversity and difference. Moreover, it directly addresses a driving interest of our students and thus a primary responsibility of our teaching religious studies in the first place.

1 L. Mark Carrier et al., “Multitasking across Generations: Multitasking Choices and Difficulty in Three Generations of Americans,” Computers in Human Behavior 25, no. 2 (March 2009): 483–489. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2008.10.012. Also available without paywall at http://www5.csudh.edu/psych/Multitasking_Across_Generations_Carrier_Rosen_Cheever_Benitez_Chang_2009.pdf, last accessed June 2019.

2 Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016), 144.



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McMahan, David L., and Erik Braun, eds. Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Roth, Harold D. “A Pedagogy for the New Field of Contemplative Studies.” In Contemplative Learning and Inquiry across Disciplines, edited by Olen Gunnlaugson et al., 97–115. (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2014).

———. “Against Cognitive Imperialism: A Call for a Non-Ethnocentric Approach to Cognitive Science and Religious Studies.” Religion East & West 8 (October 2008): 1–26.

Wallace, Alan B. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards A New Science of Consciousness. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Daniel HirshbergDaniel A. Hirshberg is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Mary Washington, where he serves as director of the contemplative studies program and associate director of the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies. Specializing in historiography, hagiography, textual revelation (gter), and cultural memory, he received his doctorate in Tibetan studies from Harvard University in 2012. He also holds an MA in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from Naropa University and a BA in religion from Wesleyan University. His first book, Remembering the Lotus-Born: Padmasambhava in the History of Tibet’s Golden Age (Wisdom Publications, 2016), focuses on the formulation, emendation, and persistent relevance of narratives describing Tibet’s 8th century conversion to Buddhism. It won Honorable Mention (second place) for the E. Gene Smith Book Prize from the Association for Asian Studies in 2018. He has also published in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaine and Marginalia, among other academic and popular forums. He teaches several courses in Asian religions and contemplative studies, and leads study abroad programs in Nepal and Japan.