June 24, 2019 Feature

Mindful Technology: Can Well-Being Be Improved with Tech? (Or Is That Just Crazy Talk?)

Patrick Palace

Let’s talk about technology for mindfulness. But before we do, let me just put this out on the table: Those two words do not belong together. Technology is the reason we need mindfulness. Tech isn’t an answer, it’s the cause of the problem. Seriously, tech for mindfulness is like “yelling for silence” or “sex for chastity.”

Can technology be used to help save us from, well, technology?

Can technology be used to help save us from, well, technology?

Mindfulness is often defined as the practice of returning to the present moment, or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, mindfulness involves “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Then there is “technology” like our smartphone, our beloved apps, smart gadgets, and all the games—the endless array of the online and offline gaming that so many love. This is our new reality, a critical part of our lives, but far from tools for mindfulness. Tech tools and toys are more like distractors or time occupiers to avoid sitting with a resting mind.

So, can mindfulness and technology commingle? Oil and water? Perhaps. After all, how do you return to the present moment when you are too busy playing your iPhone. Let’s be realistic. Who has time to be right here, when we are always playing there? I mean, this whole process of being pulled to your smartphone is increasing with better and bigger smartphones that integrate with everything and ping, ping, ping every second with e-mails, texts, tweets, Snapchats, and more. Can this really lead to improved well-being?

Liza Kindred, CEO of Mindful Technology, reminds us that since 2014, more people in the world have had access to mobile phones than toilets. Really? And that 90 percent of Americans have their phones within reach 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Indeed, Kindred says that “Scientists are working every day to make super addictive apps. It’s changing the biology of our brains, getting these dopamine hits” (Erin Griffith, “Tech Addiction and the Business of Mindfulness,” Wired, May 14, 2018).

There is even a new mental health diagnosis being made to describe what is happening to us because of the technology that brought us smartphones. Curious to see if you have it? Okay, start by answering these four questions:

  1. Do you play video games on the Internet in excess?
  2. Are you compulsively shopping online?
  3. Can’t physically stop checking Facebook?
  4. Is your excessive computer use interfering with your daily life—relationships, work, school?

According to Christina Gregory PhD, if you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be suffering from Internet addiction disorder (IAD), also commonly referred to as compulsive Internet use (CIU), problematic Internet use (PIU), or iDisorder. She says that somewhere between 8 percent and 38 percent of the entire population has it.

The troubling thing about this disorder is that we are all endlessly surrounded by technology. It’s E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E. There just isn’t enough sand for us to hide our heads in, and, frankly, who wants to? I like my addiction, but I realize it may be getting a bit out of hand with no end in sight. iPhone XS? How do I say “no”? Do I have to?

So now what?

Well, wait for it. . . .

Mindfulness. Mindfulness is currently being explored by researchers as a possible treatment for technological addiction. But even if you don’t think you have it, mindfulness just might be an answer for you anyway. Sure can’t hurt. Just ask a mindful person. Look for the one person not on her iPhone, yet looking calm and happy.

But seriously, this raises a really interesting question: Can technology be used to help us achieve greater mindfulness? Let me be more precise: Can technology be used to help save us from, well, technology?

The idea of mindfulness and technology teaming up is new, and, I think, more than a little ironic. But, nevertheless, it’s catching on fast. How fast? According to WebWire, the U.S. meditation market was estimated to be valued at $959 million as of 2015, growing to $1.08 billion in 2016, and $1.21 billion in 2017. Marketdata forecasts 11.4 percent average yearly growth, to $2.08 billion by 2022 (WebWire, September 26, 2017). Move over peanut butter and chocolate, there is a new odd couple taking over.

Mindfulness without tech improvement is already used to help relieve physical conditions such as stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties. Mindfulness meditation is also used to treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Positive Psychology: Harnessing the Power of Happiness, Personal Strength, and Mindfulness, a special health report published by Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).

It turns out that because of tech tools, mindfulness is also currently being explored by researchers as a possible treatment for all types of technological addictions.

So back to you for a minute. Let’s just say that you probably don’t have IAD, CIU, or PIU, but if you are like me and exhibit those Type A personality features so many lawyers have, then you may need a little help. (Remember that “yes” answer to one of the four questions above?) The good news is that there is a thriving industry betting that you will need them and ready to give you mindful tech tools for better health and focus.

So, finding a path to mindfulness, it turns out, can be improved with technology. Mindful technology comes in many forms. There are wearables, smartphone apps, and even virtual-reality platforms. Here are a few you may like.

Wearables

Wearable technology is a category of technology devices that you can wear, which often includes tracking information related to health and fitness. These devices come in wearable forms like smart watches (Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch), smart jewelry (Motiv Ring, Bellabeat Leaf necklace/clip), fitness trackers (Fitbit, Garmin vívosmart, Lumo Run), and smart clothing (Nadi X smart yoga pants).

But mindful tech hasn’t yet been fully folded in as an add-on function to most wearables. The exception is the Apple Watch (from $279, apple.com), which now features the Breathe app, with the goal of helping you relax by focusing on your breathing. Other companies are following suit.

For now, most mindful tech is contained in a separate line of purely mindful tech wearables. For example, Muse ($199, choosemuse.com) is a headset that provides real-time feedback on your mental activity, heart rate, breathing, and body movements. It connects to your mobile device via Bluetooth. Another is Spire Stone ($79.99, spirehealth.com), a clip-on wearable that measures your breathing patterns to give you insights into your state of mind to help you find calm.

Leaf Urban from Bellabeat ($139, now on sale for $99, bellabeat.com) is smart jewelry targeted to women. The device works on the premise that shallow, rushed breathing equals stress, so it monitors your breathing and teaches you how to re-focus and calm your mind through a series of breathing exercises that you can visualize with the Leaf’s accompanying app. Oh, and it looks like an artisan jewelry piece.

WellBe ($119, thewellbe.com) looks like a Fitbit, but it monitors wellness, not fitness. It monitors heart rate levels and then matches them, through an algorithm, to specific moments and interactions throughout your day so that you become aware of your triggers and can make adjustments.

Prana ($149.99, prana.co), a mindful tech clip-on wearable, evaluates breathing patterns, takes into account the effects of posture on breathing, and differentiates between diaphragmatic and chest breathing. The app works with iOS and Android.

Smartphone Apps

Mindful tech’s fastest-growing tools are smartphone apps. Mindfulness technology including wearables are easily accessed through your smartphone. Smartphone apps, however, also offer stand-alone solutions to finding well-being, peace, calm, and focus.

Insight Timer gives you a map of all the users across the world who are meditating with you on Insight Timer. It’s a quick reminder that we are all connected. This app allows you to select from guided, silent, and timed meditations depending on your needs. There is a directory of meditations to choose from, such as body scans, introductions to meditation, intention-setting and walking meditations, meditations on healing and forgiveness, and a long list of other guided meditations. You can customize the sounds, frequency, length, and background music for your meditation. One of the features I appreciate most is the analytics. Insight Timer tracks your use, frequency, duration, consistency, and more. You can also join groups of like-minded professionals, including the “Mindfulness in Law” group for lawyers started by Scott L. Rogers.

Other popular apps include Calm, 10% Happier: Meditation, Waking Up, Headspace, and Buddhify, among others.

Smart Yoga Mats

If it’s help with a moving meditation you want, then meet SmartMat ($54, smartmat.com). SmartMat is a responsive yoga mat embedded with 21,000 sensors to detect your body’s balance, pressure, and alignment. It is programmed with dozens of yoga classes. It monitors your alignment in real time and assists with directions for better postures. It also tracks your personal analytics and progress.

Virtual Reality

Finally, let’s consider the possibilities the future may bring. Sonic Cradle isn’t on the market yet, but a group of researchers is building it. It is perhaps a glimpse into the next generation of meditative tools. Sonic Cradle enables users to shape sound with their breath while suspended in a hammock in a completely dark chamber, which helps duplicate an isolation tank. Breathing sensors are placed on the chest and stomach to provide biofeedback. The researchers behind this tool have conducted qualitative studies that demonstrate the potential for long-term psychological health by experientially introducing a stress-relieving, contemplative practice, even for new practitioners. Time will tell if this product and others like it are simply aspirational or will bring us new and better ways to live a more mindful life. I think the idea is pretty cool.

Conclusion

In a world that is increasingly noisy, interconnected, busy, and sometimes overwhelming, the simplicity of low-tech solutions may offer all that you need. Find a quiet space, ease down onto your pillow, close your eyes, and simply breathe.

But for those of you who live the tech life and want to live it even better with additional new tools, then know that there is a growing list of products that are built with you in mind. Clip on a monitor, open an app, step onto an interactive mat, and pay attention in your particular way. It may turn out that the mindfulness-focused technologies may help us be more mindful in our use of all other technologies. Pick your chicken or pick your egg, as I’m not sure which comes first here.

Whatever you use, high-tech or no-tech, may you find your best self, your happiest self, your most tech-adjusted self, in a quiet space with a happy, resting, quieted mind. Namaste.

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By Patrick Palace

Patrick Palace (@Palacelaw, patrick@palacelaw.com) is the owner of Palace Law, a workers’ compensation and personal injury firm in Tacoma, Washington. He is the past president of the Washington State Bar Association, serves on the Executive Council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, and chairs The 21st Century Lawyer, a monthly national webinar. Patrick often writes, presents, and podcasts about data-driven law, legal-tech partnerships, and mindfulness. He is the owner of Sunken Cellars, a Washington winery, and is a dedicated yogi who prefers standing on his hands.