Being with the Unknown of Being without Your Phone
Tyler Patterson

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When I was asked to write about the issue of in-class cell phone use at Down Under, I didn’t know where to begin. No matter how much I write, I usually meet the blank page in a state of not knowing. Is this yoga branching out to meet other parts of my life? Inasmuch as it reminds me to meet the unknown with courage, openness, and curiosity, I think it is. The poet John Keats, who passed away after a mere 25 years, famously referred to approaching the unknown in this way as “negative capability.” He was using this phrase in the context of art and literature but it extends to everyday life as well. In the humanities classes, I used to assist, mentioning this phrase raised many eyebrows because superficially it sounds like Keats is endorsing the undesirable sort of behavior that we reflexively label negativity and seek to avoid. But what Keats was actually trying to invoke was a person’s ability to work through the unknown, beyond preconceived notions about our own potential. Does this idea sound like an empowering message of yoga practice echoing across time and context? It sure does to me.

Right about now you’re probably wondering what a nineteenth-century Romantic poet and the thematic experience of not knowing have to do with the problem of students bringing cell phones into yoga classes in the twenty-first century. My answer is everything. Seriously. The link between these subjects, as I see it, that they all involve a willingness (or lack thereof) to sit with the unknown, to stay with the reality of your experience, and to be with that reality without the distraction or crutch or comfort or whichever metaphor you see fit of your (smart)phone. Central to that willingness is the openness to witness your potential thrive in new ways, which is to me exactly what a yoga practice is about.

When you bring your phone into the classroom, you automatically put a limit on your ability to focus on your practice and be aware of whatever is going on in your body, your mind, and your heart. You thereby limit not only your own ability to benefit from practice but your classmates’ as well. For me, respect for both self and others is another central component of a well-rounded yoga practice. It is designed to help practitioners maximally benefit from the sanctuary it provides and devoted to the well-being of a person’s spirit, the ethereal foundation of our quality of being. Bringing a phone into a space that is intended to be a refuge for all is a disservice to not only the practice of yoga itself, abstract as that may sound but also other students. We are all in this together.

But if you remain unconvinced of the detrimental effects of having your phone in the studio, please consider the following. It goes without saying that smartphones are the bosses of the contemporary distraction cadre. Never before have we had a technology, let alone one we carry around all day, that puts virtually all the world’s information and our “contacts” a few taps and swipes away. “The world in the palm of your hand”, so the cliché goes. But at what cost? If given the space, I would provide a bibliography of articles about the costs of our constant connectedness. A study recently published in a journal from the University of Chicago Press discovered that even just having your phone around diminishes your cognitive functioning.

Oddly enough, while I was writing this post, NPR’s own Tom Ashbrook had a one-hour section of On Point titled “How Smart Phones Are Draining Our Brain Power.” I recommend listening to it and reading the round-up of articles about issues related to tech. You might be shocked to learn, as I was, that many of the Silicon Valley designers who made tech such an alluring and now integral part of our lives send their children to schools where not only smartphones and tablets but even laptops are prohibited. The engineer who created the Facebook “like” button, that now ubiquitous serotonin-release button, Justin Rosenstein, has become a herald of the pernicious ways in which tech influences our behavior. As technology becomes more embedded in our lives, the opportunities we have to “unplug” become increasingly rare and, in my humble opinion, precious. When were you last in a room full of people in which everyone was present without being distracted by a handheld touchscreen computer? I put the word unplug in quotation marks for two reasons. I would like to highlight its overuse; it’s often easier to ignore things when they’re overused. I would also like to guide attention toward the word’s concerning imagery; i.e., that we are plugged in to our handheld devices, as an electronic device is to the wall. If that’s the case, then wouldn’t “tethered” be an equally apt, if more disquieting, metaphor? (I am aware, dear reader, of the inconsistencies generated by the fact that I am writing this hyperlink-laden piece, to be posted on the internet, on a laptop connected to the internet. Maybe I’ll go pamphleteering.) But I digress.

We invite you to enjoy the gift of offering your full attention to your practice. You give this gift to yourself in order to help yourself flourish in all aspects of your life. If that means letting go of your phone for the duration of class, which might admittedly be quite uncomfortable at first (the unknown is usually uncomfortable), we encourage you to do so and will support you in the increasingly difficult practice of unplugging or disconnecting from tech. Please feel free to leave your phone with the manager on desk. If it happens to be me, I promise not to regale you with factoids about tech hijacking our minds. Instead, I, along with the rest of the staff, will send you endless gratitude and admire your bravery for being with the unknown.