Recently, I introduced meditation to my high school spirituality class. I joined them, closing my eyes, peeking to see how people were doing. The second time I opened my eyes, I noticed more than one student fiddling with their smartphones.
As we debriefed afterward, I asked what challenges they encountered as I guided the group to sit with awareness of breath and body. One student volunteered that she was so uncomfortable with the silence she just had to fidget with her iPhone. The boredom was unbearable.
When we ‘zone out,’ we do our most original thinking and problem solving.
In Hebrew, to inquire how someone’s doing you ask, mah nishmah – literally, “What’s being heard?” Some language scholars assert that Hebrew words meaningfully share two letter roots, that the sh and m sounds give us a family of connected words. In this, we can find a connection between breathing and listening; the word for breath (neshimah) is deeply linked to the word for soul (neshama). When we ask about someone’s well-being, or our own, we’re implicitly asking, “How are you breathing?”
It’s no surprise that as we hurry through the still spaces in our lives, we don’t breathe fully – hunching over devices, squinting at our GPS, refreshing screens. In a day full of rushing, I often don’t notice I’m breathing at all.
As a result, we don’t know how we are. We lose touch with our neshama, our soul.
As grateful as I am for my smartphone, I’m increasingly suspicious of the constant stimulation it provides – and the rare moments I experience boredom. Obsessed with productivity, many of us are losing the space to reflect on how we are, and the quality of our relationships to the world we inhabit. Like my student, we’ve lost our tolerance for boredom.
Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s Note to Self, observes: “Smartphones impinge on our ability to do ‘autobiographical planning’ or goal setting, which may keep us even more stuck in a rut.”
It’s as if we opt out of the quiet “in between” spaces in our lives – downtime that might otherwise help us reclaim our sense of purpose. If we do finally put down our phones and pay attention to our breath, the initial experience is…well, boring. But once we let ourselves become bored, our minds wander. We begin to fantasize. A recent study demonstrated that when we “zone out” like this, we do our most original thinking and problem solving. (That’s probably why some of our best ideas come to us when we’re in the shower, or on a long drive!) Times like these are when writers get the inspiration for their next book, entrepreneurs come up with some of their best ideas and artists glimpse something new in the world around them.
Faced with this truth, I can’t help but wonder: What would happen to some of the world’s seemingly intractable problems if we all – citizens and policy-makers alike – made space for deeper thinking?
Next time you find yourself in the middle of that endless pile of email or in between meetings, take a minute to ask, mah nishmah: How am I listening to my breathing? What is the state of my soul? How am I relating to the precious world around – and within – me?
Rabbi Adam Lavitt is a spiritual leader, educator, and writer living in Philadelphia, where he serves as the campus rabbi at Swarthmore College. He was ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, where he also received a Master?s in Jewish Education, and a Certificate in Pastoral Care. He has been a Liturgist in Residence at the National Havurah Institute, and a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow.