The Lost Art of Noticing

smartphone 3 Last week, I stopped in my go-to coffee shop for a morning toddy before driving to work. Normally I dart inside with only my phone, since I try to use Dwolla to pay locally whenever possible, but that day, I just pulled cash out of my wallet and left my purse and phone in the car. (I know, Mom and Dad. Never leave your purse in the car. I'm sorry. I've gotten way too trusting during my time in Des Moines.)

I ordered and stepped to the side to wait for my coffee. Immediately and automatically, I reached my hand into my purse to ... grab my phone. Oh yeah. I didn't bring it inside.

So instead, I looked around as I waited. I looked at the people working behind the counter in their tan aprons, bustling to take change and make drinks and plate egg sandwiches. I looked at the customers, in sweatpants or yoga clothes or suits or high heels, sitting at the long bar or the small, circular tables. I looked at the people in line, waiting to place their orders.

And I noticed that almost everyone had their head down, looking at a screen. At their phone, while scrolling, scrolling, scrolling or frantically texting. At their computer, while typing furiously. At their iPad, scrolling again.

With the exception of the employees, almost all of the people in the coffee shop, whether they were alone or with another person or with a group -- almost all of them had their eyes turned down at a bright screen.

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I felt a shiver of recognition and embarrassment, too, because I do the exact same thing all the time. In fact, I wanted to do it that very morning, but I couldn't because I had left my electronic distraction in the car.

But I absolutely do it: at a stoplight, waiting for the light to change, I check social media. ("Check" it for what? I wonder.) During a lull in conversation, I look at my text messages "just real quick." At home over dinner, I catch up on my favorite blogs, side-by-side with someone I love, who is also often in front of a screen. Many nights, we watch a movie or television show -- yet another screen -- together, but not really, because we can fall into the trap of using our phones while watching something else at the same time (to look up reviews of the movie, to figure out that actress's name, to post a picture on Instagram). Sometimes I'll even be ON the phone with someone, like my mom or friend or sister, and I'm multitasking on another screen. (Because it's harmless, right? I'm still listening, right?)

I know I do all these things. I'm just like you, trying to avoid the bullshit of the busy trap, but also trying to do all the things, be all the things. Sometimes I get on my own case about these bad habits, but too many times, I don't even notice that I'm doing it in the moment.

So that day, being in the coffee shop, witnessing a collective group do what I do much too often -- it felt different. I felt sad and self-righteous and surprised all at once. This isn't what it really looks like, is it? Don't they know better? 

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***

In college, one of my favorite English professors offered a creative writing course, except it conflicted with another course that I had to take to graduate. I think it was economics or statistics or something. *Shudder* But I really, really REALLY wanted to take this class, so I outlined a proposal for an independent study version of it during a different time slot. I asked her if we could make it work, and she said yes.

We spent most of the semester working on a few essays, doing the usual writing/re-writing/editing, but my weekly homework involved bringing in my "noticings." Ms. B asked me to carry around a little notebook to capture all the things I noticed, and to be as specific as possible; looking back, this is not an uncommon habit for a writer by any means, but it served as the first time I was not only given permission to do it repeatedly but expected to report back.

I loved it. And it really helped, in terms of writing.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped this practice of noticing. I got busy. I wanted to move as quickly as possible. I paid attention to the world around me when I felt like it (i.e., occasional journaling) or when it was asked of me -- on Thanksgiving, on Christmas, on someone's birthday, on a Sunday at church -- but it stopped being a practice, an art.

Yoga, among other things, brought me back. I learned how to notice my breath, and guide others in the same way. I learned how to pay attention to my body, my mind, my spirit, and when I teach, I invite others to become more aware of their bodies, their minds, their spirits. I started to cultivate a practice of awareness, one that I fail at miserably some days, and it helped me really notice how often I'm not present and how often others are not present with me and how shitty it makes me feel in response. Trust me, when you start working at being more present in your life, you notice really quickly who is your life is the exact opposite.

You can read those lines and write it off as hippie-dippie la-la talk, but ask yourself: if you're not noticing yourself and the world around you, what is the point?

What's the point of being a human in this life if your eyes are downcast, stuck in another virtual life all the time?

What's the point of having relationships if you're too distracted to connect in the real life moment?

When did we get so focused on "capturing the moment" instead of, you know, living it?

These are not new questions. But in light of all the articles about being overly busy and how we need to stop and just put down our smartphones ... our emotional connection to technology is disturbing, and it continues. Part of this, I think, is because we're human, and one of our very broad failings is that we do things that we know are bad, ranging on the spectrum of smoking and eating poorly to lying and stealing to killing others. But being overly attached or addiction to screens, can't we fix that problem, one person at a time? I hope so.

Because when I look back on my life, hopefully many years into the future, I won't wish I had spent more time on my phone. I won't wish I had watched just a few more episodes of the Mindy Project (even though that show is the bomb). I won't wish I had Instagrammed more pictures of my pets or friends or dinners or cups of coffee (even though Instagram is fun, to be sure).

I will wish for more time with my loved ones. I will wish to see more: a bright blue sky, how the edge of a building slices into the sunshine, the wrinkles in the corners of the eyes of my parents. I will wish to hear more: the sound of my sisters laughing, the cry of babies, the pained secrets of friends, ocean waves, my favorite song on the radio, the trickle of wind throughout a forest, the hum of cars and sirens in a city. I will wish to smell more: flowers and apple pies and my grandpa's sweater and winter candles. I will wish to taste more: the lips of a lover, beef tacos, a strong margarita, mint gum, dark chocolate and red wine and cheddar cheese. These lists go on and on.

I will wish for so much at the end of my life, and very little of it will involved a screen.

Consider how it feels to look at the above photographs, of people with each other but not really. Are you paying attention to your life, to your world? Do you realized that real life is infinitely better than the siren song of our phones and computers?

(Photos -- and an excellent essay on smartphone addiction, which prompted this post -- courtesy of Babycakes Romero)