THR Web Features   /   April 20, 2023

The Dao of Using Your Smartphone

How rituals can change our relationship with technology.

Alan Levinovitz

( THR Illustration; Shutterstock: background; Confucius/Sahroe.)

Curio · Hedgehog Review | The dao of using your smartphone

Screentime limits. Dinner table lockboxes. Minimalist devices. There’s no shortage of creative fixes for our broken relationship to smartphones. Consumption is the enemy, restriction is the solution, and new habits are the promised result. The goal? A more productive life, free from useless scrolling and hollow social media.

Unfortunately, this approach has serious drawbacks. Like a traditional diet, it requires endless vigilance and it pathologizes the target of restriction. More importantly, the goal reinforces the same values that tether us to our phones in the first place: productivity and utility.

As a professor of classical Chinese thought who has struggled with my devices, I follow a different approach inspired by Confucianism and Daoism. Instead of better habits achieved through restriction, we can aim to harmonize with our phones through ritual. Doing so requires something scary: abandoning the goals that drive us to change in the first place. But these traditions promise that the result will be better than anything we could have imagined ourselves.

Taking inspiration from Confucius doesn’t mean copying his rituals, which were meant for a radically different time and place. It’s about embracing his belief that ritual is essential to a life well-lived. For him, ritual is not limited to typical religious contexts like marriages or funerals. Our interactions with family, food, and the everyday rhythms of reality demand what he called ritual propriety. Performed properly, ritual leads to an effortlessly harmonious relationship with everything—and yes, that includes smartphones.

Here's the catch, though: If you want to perform rituals properly, you can’t use them to achieve goals like increased productivity and efficiency.

This is where Daoism comes in. The Zhuangzi, an ancient Daoist classic, observed that humans are obsessed with usefulness. Optimization and life hacks have always been a thing. More than two thousand years ago, people focused myopically on useful strategies and tools to help with goals like living longer or making money.

That’s how solutions to smartphones are marketed, as strategies and tools for wasting less time and being more efficient. The landing page for one popular restriction app promises “freedom to be incredibly productive.” If you’re lucky, you’ll eventually outgrow the app because your productive behavior will become a habit.

But what if those goals are part of the problem? The Zhuangzi suggests that instead of seeking what’s useful, we should embrace the useless. Doing that might seem absurd, until you see how uselessness is an essential component of rituals in virtually every spiritual tradition, East and West, ancient and modern.

Consider bowing before stepping onto a mat in a martial arts studio. Unlike stretching or flexing your muscles, this action serves no obvious utilitarian purpose. It does not make you resistant to injury or intimidate your opponent. So why bow? Because bowing sacralizes the experience of being on the mat. It enchants the space and your relationship to it. It treats being on the mat as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Strategies and tools can’t do that because they assume a goal beyond whatever it is they are applied to. They are always a means to an end. And habits can’t do it either. A key difference between habits and rituals is that habits, good and bad, are mindless. Ritual requires mindful attention to actions and objects. Habits allow us to forget our relationship with the world; rituals remind us of it.

With these principles in place, we can change our relationship to our smartphones by looking to familiar types of ritual for inspiration.

The first type is rituals of friction, which include bowing before stepping on a mat. Other classic examples are saying grace before eating and touching a mezuzah before passing through a doorway.

Rituals of friction force you to pause before undertaking a particular action. Crucially, the goal is not to discourage you from performing the action or limit the amount of time you do it. There is no goal beyond treating the action and its object with mindful reverence. Saying grace is about gratitude, not eating less.

Such an approach might change the way we think about the problem of smartphones. Restrictive apps assume time on the phone is a waste that needs to be limited. Using those apps is the information equivalent of going on a diet. But if you say grace every time you pick up your phone or open Twitter, you might make the experience sacred by infusing it with gratitude. Instead of eliminating waste, you transform it. After all, an experience isn’t a waste of time if you’re grateful for it.

The second type of ritual is rituals of sacrifice. Classic examples are fasting during Lent or Ramadan and leaving food or flowers on a grave to honor the dead. Like rituals of friction, the purpose of the sacrifice is not to rid you of something bad. If your observance of Lent or your funerary offering is part of a diet, you’re doing it wrong.

Likewise, those restrictive apps are not rituals of sacrifice. They are designed primarily to help you reduce your phone use, with the potential consequence of making you appreciate it more. A ritual of sacrifice inverts these priorities: You sacrifice so you can appreciate your phone use, with the potential consequence of reducing the amount of time you spend.

A true ritual of sacrifice might be forgoing the use of digital maps for a week. Not because you need to use digital maps less, or because writing out directions has cognitive benefits, but simply to enchant those digital maps with gratitude when you see them again.

The third type is rituals of transgression. These common rituals force us, for a moment, to invert roles and values. Think of the Pope washing prisoners’ feet or a comedy roast where praise takes the form of insults. Transgressing against dominant values ensures that we don’t end up worshiping them. To transgress against dominant values with your phone, you might make sure to post an unflattering photo of yourself every day. Or maybe you skip Yelp and Metacritic and choose between restaurants and movies with a random number generator instead.

If this were a standard pitch for smartphone solutions, now is the time where I’d paint a beautiful picture of the payoff. This is when the diet plan shows you the after pictures, when the productivity app tells you what your life will look like once you’ve changed for the better.

I wish I could do that, but I can’t. Harmonizing with the Dao—usually translated as the Way—is not a one-size-fits-all life hack. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll get what you think you want, any more than faith in God means you’ll win the big game or snag the promotion. That perspective is misguided at best, and arguably sacrilegious. Nor is there a single set of rituals that’s best for all people. My own personal rituals will not necessarily be the right way for you. As it says in the first line of the Daoist classic, the Dao-de-jing: “The Way taken as the way cannot be the Way that is always taken.”

If you approach your phone with your own version of ritual propriety, you may end up using it more, or less. You may use it at different times, or in different ways. The Way is not the same everywhere at all times, for you or anyone else. Trusting in it means trusting that whatever you get, it will be more harmonious than what you had before, and different from what you thought you wanted.

By approaching technology with ritual, you don’t fall into the Luddite trap of seeing technology as a negative force that must be fought or limited. The problem is not with technology in itself. It never has been. Rather, as society changes, new forms of life emerge that need to be enchanted through new rituals. They are invented as means to ends, and it is up to us to transform them into ends in themselves.

Modeling this approach is important not only for ourselves, but also our children. Tools and strategies for limiting children’s screentime transform technology into a forbidden fruit, and we don’t need religious myths to tell us what happens when we forbid a temptation. Seeking to limit new forms of technology, especially in the next generation, only sets up unhealthy relationships, not only between children and the technology itself, but also between them and the adults attempting to restrict them.

For a long time, I took the wrong approach. I didn’t own a smartphone until 2019. I felt that having a phone would endanger my relationship to the world. I was wrong. Through my own use of ritual, I have come to see my phone as a blessing, a part of a healthy spiritual existence—yes, even my use of Twitter!

So give it a try. Develop a few rituals of your own, based on these principles, and stick to them. After a week, see how they’ve transformed your relationship with technology. With luck, you’ll be on your way to thanking your phone, instead of cursing it.