Look Around (Not at Your Phone) and Be Present in Your Life

Friends on Cell Phones

“Enjoy the little things because one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” ~Robert Brault

Ten years ago I moved from the urban metropolis of London, where I grew up and spent the early part of my adult life, to the rural Mediterranean idyll of the coast of the Costa Brava in Northern Spain, in my quest to find the ultimate “quality of life.”

I was able to make this move largely because I could be digitally connected to the rest of the world from anywhere.

For me, digital technology in its early form provided a whole new series of life choices.

Although it was during the pre-smartphone and WiFi era, I was able to be digitally connected via an ADSL cable that magically appeared from a field and connected to my studio, enabling me to work from there, nestled on a remote hill top location, surrounded by languid hilltops and lingering forests, underscored by a sea that merged with the sky like a pair of faded jeans.

Perfect live/work balance achieved, or so I thought.

But that was before. That was before something that is five inches tall and a quarter inch thick transformed every aspect of the way we live. The smartphone.

The advent of the smartphone changed my life, but not in the way that you might think. It actually took me away from life, because it took over my life.

Suddenly I didn’t need to be in my studio on my laptop to be connected, or to get my emails or to send projects through to clients, as I could do that from anywhere. I was free, no longer desk or studio bound.

I could access information wherever I was. It was a revelation and totally life changing. However, although it was an incredible, life-enhancing tool in many ways, I think I was slow to realize that having access to the world in the palm of my hand also means the world had access to me.

As my euphoria at being able to be connected anywhere and at any time began to wear off, it was replaced by the debilitating dependence of needing to be connected anywhere and everywhere, at all times.

The more I became digitally connected, ironically I began to feel more and more personally disconnected from my surroundings, as my virtual life was not giving me any real nourishment.

It provided a lot of ‘noise’ but I could no longer find the inherent ‘melody’ and rhythm of my daily life.

Given that I was living in the sort of surroundings that are viewed as the ultimate off grid environment (the sort of place actually where weekend digital detoxes take place), I realized that the problem could not only be viewed as relating to a purely urban demographic.

I looked around me, at my friends and colleagues, and realized that we would get together for lunch on a beach or at someone’s house and we would all have our heads buried in our smartphones, oblivious to each other or the breathtaking beauty that surrounded us.

It was a problem that was wide spread. I realized that what had at first been my life line had little by little started to strangle me.

My digital dependence had become a habit filled with avoidance techniques, providing constant distraction to avoid being with myself. I found that, without realizing it, my reliance on my digital devices had gone from expanding my life to disabling it.

When we created the smartphone it was designed to be a tool, albeit a very useful tool, but I was using it for everything it wasn’t designed to do:

  • Distraction
  • Taking me away from awkward situations
  • Making me feel busy
  • Make me feel important
  • Not making me feel alone
  • Anything in fact to avoid spending time with myself

I took a hard look at myself and found that, despite living in an exquisite natural landscape, I was actually living a digitally reductive, hands-free, edited life, where nothing was messy, chaotic, or emotive.

My epiphany came on a Saturday morning in my local market, where I had gone to get some vegetables for a dinner I was giving that evening. I arrived at the market, which was a bustling, vibrant gathering of the whole neighboring town, the meeting place for everyone to get together once a week.

Walking amongst the throngs of people looking at the kaleidoscope of recently picked, sun ripened fruits and vegetables, was a heady, textural experience.

The air was filled with the aromas of basil, ripe fruits, locally made honey, and soft goats cheeses, but I was oblivious to that, as I was on a mission to get some tomatoes to roast with some fresh fish for the dinner I was making that evening.

I joined the endlessly long line at the fruit and vegetable stall I usually get my produce from and was checking my emails while I waited, and waited, and waited.

The line didn’t seem to be moving. The only thing that seemed to be moving were the numbers on the digital clock of my smartphone showing me that I had been standing in line for twenty minutes.

I was getting more and more stressed thinking, How long can it take to buy a pound of misshapen tomatoes?

I stepped outside of the line to try and find out what was going on. Looking to the front of the line I saw an elderly lady, with her dog, chatting with the woman who ran the stall.

They were discussing the stew she had made last week from the marrow she had bought from there, the plight of her neighbor who had had a fall, and the wedding cake she had made for her niece’s wedding.

They were talking, communicating face to face, sharing the stories that made up their daily lives.

As I looked along the line I noticed that actually everyone was talking to each other, animated, interested and alive. 

That was the tipping point for me when I realized that I was physically there but was not present. I was missing in action from my life and missing all the little things.

For me really being present meant giving myself times to disconnect from digital technology and instead taking time to connect with the seasons, learn the names of the different winds, recognize the cycles of the moon, and read the ever changing personality of the sea.

Ultimately I learned how to be from going to local farmers’ markets. There, I learned to appreciate the beauty of imperfection. The splendor of a misshapen tomato, appreciating the real meaning of “slow.”

I had to learn a new rhythm, one without a preset time limit for every thing. Where queuing for twenty minutes to buy some fruit was just how it was, and was something to be savored and appreciated, because every one in the line spoke to each other and wanted to share their stories.

It was there, waiting to buy my imperfectly shaped, local, seasonal produce, that I began to really connect with where I was and learned to appreciate all the moments and experiences that really matter—those unique fleeting moments that bring us joy.

If you are finding you are missing in action from your life, try adopting some of the practices that were game changers for me.

Remember to take some time out every day to put your smartphone away, pause, breathe, look up, and embrace the art of slow by living in the now.

Scheduling in fifteen minutes of mindfulness meditation practice every morning will set you up for a day of centered calmness, and will encourage a reconnection with yourself and your natural surroundings.

In order to be more engaged in your life, try to do things more mindfully by concentrating on being present and in the moment.

These small changes to your daily practices are manageable and meaningful, and will shift your focus from “faster, bigger, better” to an appreciation of the micro moments, the little things that punctuate our daily lives, which ultimately, in the words of Robert Brault, “we realize are the big things.”

Friends on phones image via Shutterstock

About Orianna Fielding

Orianna Fielding is a designer, broadcaster and author of UNPLUGGED: How to Live Mindfully in a Digital World. Having researched the negative impact of our digital over-connection for her book Unplugged with leading experts in mindfulness, psychology, and wellness, she founded the Digital Detox Company to provide unique, life-changing Digital Detox Courses for companies and individuals.

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