Life Coach

Dr Peter L Nelson


Is self-reflection being drowned by our digital devices?
Self-Reflection is the capacity to turn our spotlight of awareness toward our ‘inner’ landscape in order to witness our own feelings, thoughts and behaviors as well as the workings of consciousness, itself.

In a recent New York Times piece, the columnist, Teddy Wayne, inquired as to whether our digital world, with its availability for immediate access, has led to the end of self-reflection. He argues that it is now so easy to reach for a digital device and engage the world of the internet that all those between times of waiting and awakening, that used to be filled with inner reflection, are now taken over by digital distractions. However, I would argue that the capacity for self-reflection is probably not diminishing—since it always appeared to be very low in most people from my perspective as an attention coach.

Most of that inward-looking that we take to be introspection is, in fact, a kind of rumination—the persistent ‘chewing’ of mental cud. The re-deployment of attention from the outer world to ‘inner space’ is not seen as productive or particularly useful in an outward-directed, goal-driven, achievement-oriented society. In fact, introspection is an art that springs from mastering the technology of attention deployment in order to be able to clearly witness the workings of our inner and outer worlds in a mindful way. This use of our conscious awareness has the capacity to open a clarity capable of revealing new perspectives on and solutions to what was previously seen as an intractable problem.

True, our electronic devices make self-distraction easier, but I do not believe that their use has led to increased distraction, since that is what most of us have been taught to do from childhood ("Go play with a ball, watch TV, achieve something," etc). We were discouraged from practicing reflection and particularly that form that seeks to “know thyself”—introspection. We definitely were not taught the introspective arts—how to engage this process as an open exploration and method of discovery. However, our need for self-reflection is primal and in seeking it without instruction and guidance, the best most of us could come up with is that symbolic cud-chewing I call mental rumination.

I have no doubt that if we made teaching the art of self-reflection a priority, we then would harness our digital devices in order to facilitate this activity. The use of such a device in this context would be like employing a useful tool in our work. In the final analysis, whether what we do is good introspection or not is all about intentionality—how we direct our awareness and our purpose in doing so. True, if we give our attention to the ‘inner’ landscape more, rather than to computer games, social media (gossip) and the myriad other forms of external distractions dominating our lives, the capacity for genuine self-reflection would have more opportunity to fully develop.

Of course, the first step must be to learn to differentiate cud-chewing from clear, inward focus. Naturally, that requires we learn how to use our attention with a directed clarity—and teaching those skills is the primary focus of my work as a coach.