Do you remember when smartphones were fascinating, even magical? Since then, we’ve seen a backlash against tech, and for good reason: among other things, its power to distract us doesn’t make us happy. But technology still has much to offer, even spiritually.
For our culture, after becoming too excited about these devices, then exhausted with them, the next step in having a mature relationship with technology is to use it appropriately — for us to use it rather than let it use us, and to let it improve our inner lives. The good news is that this is becoming easier and easier.
In this article, I’ll share a number of ways you can improve your spiritual life with a smartphone or tablet. If you have other strategies, leave a comment at the end and share it — that way others can read it and we’ll all be that much better equipped in a challenging world.
Good News, You Say?
In this first article in a series, we’ll take a look into several ways to improve our spiritual lives with the judicious use of tech. The series will cover how to develop good habits and improve your digital environment; finding and choosing uplifting entertainment; filling empty space with inner joy; and share some tools to help us relax and unplug.
This first article is about our relationship to our smartphones, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.
Smartphones Can Be Our Worst Enemy or Our Best Friend
“When the self is the friend of the Self, it is its greatest friend. But when the self is the enemy of the Self, it is its greatest enemy.”
—Bhagavad Gita (replace “self” with “smartphone”)
Have you ever found yourself doing something that you knew wouldn’t really make you happy, but had a hard time stopping? Maybe browsing Facebook or Instagram (do cool people call it “Insta” or did I imagine that?) long past the point that it’s enjoyable, or aimlessly opening your phone throughout the day, hoping there will be something worth seeing? I know I do these sorts of things.
Step 1: The First Step Is Admitting We Have a Problem
It’s no secret that smartphones are made to be addictive. Social networks apps, for example, feed on core drives such as our desires to be liked and noticed.
In some respects, their feedback loops are similar to slot machines: put something in (a post or a message), and wait for an unpredictable result (comments, replies, and a number of likes). The experience sometimes even includes tiny, happy sounds, each one triggering a chemical response in our brain, which our nervous system treats as a reward.
This activity loop creates a habit, which eventually we might find ourselves repeating without any conscious intention whenever we open our phone. Notifications, always a dangerous friend, reinforce this pattern. Their continual distraction, to adapt a phrase from Paramhansa Yogananda, drills holes in the bucket of our peace.
Agreed that this is concerning? Let me invite you to try something, which I first heard on the “Note to Self” podcast by Manoush Zomorodi, part of an experiment called “Bored and Brilliant.” If you wish, take a moment now and remove the most-used waste-of-time app on your phone.
It’s OK, I’ll wait!
All done? For me, that app was Facebook. It was hard for me to make that choice — but now, over a year later, the app is still gone and I don’t miss it at all. Its absence is a relief. I’ve also managed to do a similar thing on my computer with a piece of software called Cold Turkey that blocks certain websites.
I’d also invite you to go into your device’s notifications settings and turn off notifications from any app you don’t need. (Or in the spirit of Marie Kondo, any notifications that don’t bring you joy.) Why not do it now?
You can go a lot farther in this direction, as those who practice digital minimalism do. And you may find that it helps your spiritual life — I have yet to do anything too extreme, myself, I have to admit. But whatever you try, I’d love to hear about it!
This type of self-improvement, removing the triggers of a habit by deleting an app or turning off notifications, is a digital expression of Paramhansa Yogananda’s maxim, “Environment is stronger than willpower.” We could say that the apps on our home screen are stronger than willpower.
Of course, apart from helping us remove bad habits, technology also now has more ways than ever to help us build new ones. We can use them to support our spiritual lives as well.
Step 2: Get Support with Good Habits
I’ve found success with a habit tracker app called Streaks (iOS only, unfortunately — but I’m sure there are many similar Android apps).
Streaks lets you do all kinds of things, including tracking the amount of time you do an activity, which I’ve used for meditation, and creating negative tasks for when you want to strengthen your power to avoid a certain habit. I’ve opted to create positive tasks that I want to do every day.
This is not an easy fix. Streaks is probably the sixth or seventh habit app I’ve tried, and although I’ve been using it for a year, sometimes I’ve been using it effectively, sometimes not. But it’s simple, easy to use, and it’s helped, especially for keeping me on track while I’m building a new habit.
A few things I’ve found effective:
- Starting with the habits I care most about
- Not tracking habits to the point where it feels constraining or like a chore
- Mixing up the habits regularly and removing ones that I’m not really doing, even if I wish I was — that way I can bring them back later with fresh energy
- Focusing on developing a strong meditation practice and balanced life — I find many good habits come naturally when I have the right consciousness
This last point is interesting. I included it because I’ve noticed, in my own life, that there are some habits that make the rest easier. Call them “keystone habits,” since they help to hold everything else together.
Meditation is one, certainly; but for me, the most important may be waking up early (and not staying up too late). When I do that, I find that I have more time for meditation and all the rest.
Step 3: Make It Easy to Access Inspiration
What I personally use to the most benefit these days is this: a tool that randomly plays one of the spiritual talks on my phone. It has an icon on my home screen and it only takes a few seconds to start it, so I do it often when I’m out walking, when I’m getting into my car for my… ahem, very long one-mile commute, and when I’m cleaning up around the house.
If you want to have this magic power, yourself, make sure you have a lot of spiritual talks on your phone:
- Add all the spiritual talks you care about to a playlist called “Treasures” (or whatever)
- Tell Siri or Google to “Shuffle the ‘Treasures’ playlist”
Your device will randomly play one of the tracks.
For my own setup, I actually used the iOS Shortcuts app, which means that I don’t need an internet connection and don’t have to talk to my phone: there’s just an icon that starts playing a random talk by Swami Kriyananda when I tap it. The exact setup is a bit involved — here’s a screenshot — but if you want more details, just leave a comment!
One more thing — you might enjoy joining the hundreds of listeners of Ananda’s many podcasts. Just search for “Ananda” in any podcast app to see what is available.
There’s more, actually — but we’ll have to save that for the next article on entertainment and media and how it affects our consciousness.
Have any tips, yourself, or questions? Please share them in the comments below!
P.S. I sometimes wonder how long blog posts will stay around for. Are you, perhaps, reading this 600 years in the future, after the robots have taken over and humanity is living underground?
If so, I’m sure that working with technology appropriately has a very different meaning for you than it did for me. But it’s true that there is one type of technology that will never change: the technology of spiritual techniques like meditation and Kriya Yoga. Find a person or group you can learn them from! They are, I’ve found, the most reliable solution to life’s problems.
Ananda Meditation App
A free app with guided meditations and techniques, based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda. Go deeper in the joy of your own Self.Download the app