Stop fidgeting with mindfulness lessons

  • A boy plays with a fidget spinner. AP

For the Monitor
Friday, July 21, 2017

Whirl, whirl, click, click. The artificial sounds of fidget spinners penetrate the peaceful summer air – not exactly the “audible stillness” of crickets once described by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

It is true, fidget toys offer distraction and escape from the “spinning mind” of work and school, but at what price? Are these gadgets valuable outlets or harbingers of a distracted society that shifts focus from discomfort? What if we could be at peace rather than perpetuate a cycle of unchecked nervous energy?

Unless you have been hiding under a rock – which might be the only way to escape this craze – you have no doubt seen the signs, sales and spinning of these fidget devices marketed as tools to help people focus and relieve anxiety. As one aptly-named company, Addictive Fidget Toys, claims: “for some people, fidget spinner toys can provide a sense of comfort and peace in stressful situations. They can also provide a way to concentrate during a dull meeting.” Sure, they may be “fun,” but they are not a sustainable answer to our anxious and pain-adverse culture.

If Google search data (and my children) are accurate gauges of popularity and market trends, then fidget spinners and their fiddling kin are on the way out, but the statement they have made lingers: avoid stress and unease by external diversion.

The alternative to distraction is mindfulness, an intentional focus on bringing awareness to one’s immediate experience, including thoughts, emotions and senses. This can be done through breathing exercises, body scans and guided visualization/meditation, among other techniques.

Instead of occupying our hands, we should engage our mind. Just imagine if mindfulness caught on like fidget toys – every store would have signs touting its benefits and every man, woman and child would be eager to find awareness in the present moment without judgment.

While there is scarce evidence that fidget toys actually reduce anxiety, the research on the impact of mindfulness is overwhelming.

Don’t take my word for it, visit the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center or The University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness where researchers have clearly outlined the power of these practices. Still not convinced? A quick internet search will result in headline after headline about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. And, the best thing is, it is free and available to everyone anywhere.

Mindfulness is a discipline, a guidebook of sorts to a saner existence. Are anxious thoughts keeping you up at night? Are your shoulders tight, your breath short or your stomach churning? Are you plagued by negative habits and judgments as you search for comfort and peace in stressful situations?

Rather than spinning and tuning out, try tuning in. Don’t just let yourself whirl and click. Be curious about the stress you’re feeling, show interest in the thoughts you have and be aware of the mindless reactions to which you default. Accept that discomfort is natural and not something to be avoided or spun away. We are quick to be self-critical and to bury stress, but if we can identify the source of our fidgeting and address it directly, we can weaken its hold on us.

As for the challenge of workplace boredom, mindfulness is once again on our side. If you find yourself in a situation where attention is wandering and you are becoming restless, do not fidget or make lists and resist thinking about the next meeting or task.

Instead try this: take three deep breaths and listen, really listen, to what the speaker is saying. Set your intentions and ask yourself what you want to gain from your time connecting with colleagues. Be grateful for the opportunity to pause and have a break from emails, texts and phone calls. Consider how you would want to be received if you were running the meeting and have empathy for the presenter. You may even practice loving-kindness by looking at each participant in the meeting and wish them joy and peace. You will be amazed at what this does to your outlook. Instead of viewing the meeting as lost time, you can approach it as a gained opportunity.

If you are searching for a remedy to stress, boredom or a spinning mind, pass on the fidget toy and invest in a good mindfulness app: Headspace; 10% Happier; Whil; Stop, Breathe & Think; Calm and Insight Timer are just a few of the great resources available.

Or maybe to stop the spinning this summer, go outside to be mindful of the natural beauty which surrounds us.

If you are looking for something a little more substantial, Inward Bound Mindfulness Education runs retreats for young people (and adults) to help them hone skills of concentration and compassion.

We can all benefit from opportunities, both immediate and long term, to stop fidgeting our minds and bodies and connect with the peace and joy in our experience. Now go listen to the crickets.