The Daily Practice | The importance of sitting with one’s thoughts: Alain de Botton and the art of calm focus

“The iPhone is a terrific tool of distraction, it prevents us from being with ourselves and so in that sense is really problematic: It’s so tempting to not think.”

 Helen Brocklebank writes: When I asked Alain de Botton at the Cliveden Literary Festival about the role digital plays in shaping the contemporary psyche, I’d no idea that six months later the iPhone would become my only window on the world outside my neighbourhood, much less that I would start to question whether viewing life through a digital lens could be both a help and a hindrance. 

Like everyone during the lockdown, I spend my discretionary time online as well as my working hours. If it’s not keeping in touch with friends and family through Zoom cocktail parties and WhatsApp memes, I’m mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or reading the whole of the internet, without becoming any the wiser. When the iPhone is a portal to the idea of life as it once was, it’s hard to strike the right balance between staying connected, and being calmly present and in the moment.

Yet those who navigate the lockdown best are those who are able to take each day as it comes, and who neither spend time yearning for the past or projecting too much into the future. If what de Botton has to say about the human need for an emotional education is correct, the most helpful thing I can do is to take time to sit with my thoughts.  “We have to spend time alone thinking,” he told me,  “there’s just no alternative. So aeroplanes should not have wifi, and parts of houses should be wifi free zones”.

The very thought of going on an aeroplane, let alone one with wifi, seems absurd right now, and with four of us in the house, all relying on the internet for work and play, having a wifi free zone feels impractical, but I see the wisdom of carving out some analogue time and putting a few boundaries around my dependence on my iPhone. As Alain de Botton told me when we talked on that beautiful Autumn day, a lifetime ago, “they prevent us from getting the news from ourselves. We don’t need the news from other people all the time. There’s a moment that we need to go, ‘I know enough about what’s happening: I need to know about what’s happening inside me.’”

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