03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Our Cell Phone Owns Us

I enjoy my gadgets as much as the next person. My cell phone is almost always with me, and I appreciate the direct and instant communication it provides. However, I have increasingly noticed how often these days people let them interrupt face-to-face communication. I cannot help but wonder sometimes, "Do we own our gadgets or are our gadgets beginning to own us?"

How many times, for example, have you been spending time with a friend in person, when his cell phone rang, and not even knowing who was calling or expecting an important call, he immediately vacates your discussion to take it? You are thus subjugated to a secondary citizen all because ... well, you happen to be physically present with him. His cell phone, in a very real way, runs his life, taking priority over just about every other facet, including friends, families, and partners. This seems a particular issue for business travelers:

In fact, in one study of 6500 business travelers, 35% said they would choose their PDA's or Blackberry's over their spouses.

The danger is not that we use cell phones, it is when communication via technology begins to override the communication with those right in front of us. We may be more connected with others via technology, but in the process we become more disconnected from our immediate friends and family.

Don't get me wrong. Calls often need to be taken, and text messages sent. Cell phones are incredibly useful. The difficulty is when we engage with them less based on a real need and more from an addiction -- a habitual impulse that makes us use them when it is not helpful or safe to do so, as seems to be the case with many young people these days. According to a study by The Pew Internet & American Life Project:

One in four (26%) of American teens of driving age say they have texted while driving, and half (48%) of all teens ages 12 to 17 say they've been a passenger while a driver has texted behind the wheel.

Now, I am not suggesting anything like "cell phone police," but I am suggesting more something like "mindfulness with cell phones." There is likely no way in hell most of our are going to give up our cell phone, but there is also likely no way in hell we can let them rule our lives. The key issue is not how many phone calls we make or text messages we send, but the quality of our engagement -- are we engaged habitually or consciously?

To do so consciously involves harnessing our attention, and asking in those moments when our cell rings, "Where is my attention most needed in this moment?" Some times, of course, our attention is most needed on the call coming from our cell, but there is a world of difference between taking it out of habit and addiction versus answering it from mindfulness and clarity. Until we can do the latter, in a very real way, we do not own our cell phone; it essentially owns us.

There is a story told by the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh about a child who on his birthday was offered any possible gift by his father, a businessman who lived a very hectic life. After the father offered her anything materially she wanted, the child say to effect, "What I want most dad is your attention." It is the one thing the father had overlooked. And this direct attention is just as needed in friendships and business communication as it is between parent and child.

Knowing how and where we place our attention while living in our constantly connected age is no easy feat, but the beauty of this era, where we have so many cool communication technologies at our disposal, is that it is also a great Zen training. Every time our cell phone rings, it can be like a bell of mindfulness or a gentle slap from a Zen stick, reminding us of the importance of our conscious attention.


Soren Gordhamer is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009) and the organizer of the Wisdom 2.0 Conference.