Practicing with Technology

keyboard-with-sphere-1438726-mWe recently did a survey among people who had signed up for Practice Circle to find out their most and least favorite things about our online mindfulness group.   The likes were all over the map, but thankfully they were many: respondents rated Practice Circle 7.3 on a 10 point scale, with only 3 of 19 ranking it below a 5 and 9 ranking it 8 or above. The dislikes, however, were pretty clearly focused on technology.   Some reported problems logging in or being knocked off; others mentioned slow video speeds and audio drop outs.   And a few mentioned that sitting in front of a screen looking at video of other people sitting in front of their screens just didn’t feel the same as sitting with others in a live group; one described the experience as feeling “pretty thin.”

This wasn’t unexpected. For all its versatile features, Adobe Connect does use a lot of bandwidth and processor capacity which can cause tablets, smart phones and older laptops to struggle.  By connecting directly to your modem or router and keeping other broadband competition to a minimum, these problems can usually be solved. But computers are what they are.   Had Gotama known about them, he would have surely included them in his definition of dukkha.

When we first developed Practice Circle, I was concerned that technical issues and the online format itself would present obstacles to creating a practice experience that would be of value to those seeking sangha. And, sometimes, they have. But what I’ve come to see in the nearly two years we’ve been doing this now is that there’s no difference between these obstacles and all the other hindrances that arise in our practice.  Just as we work with all the other sources of discomfort, distraction and aversion we encounter while meditating, the glitches and irritations of digital technology also present an opportunity to notice, investigate, and accept our moment to moment experience.

I think technology problems are especially irksome and sticky in many ways.   Our machines are supposed to make us faster, more creative and more productive, supposed to erase the boundaries of time and space and to lay all of human knowledge at our feet. They are supposed to extend our mastery of the world. So when they turn out to be unreliable and unsatisfying, we feel especially helpless and frustrated, especially since so few of us understand more than the basics of how they work.   We seem to assume personal agency with computers even more than other machines, talking to them, pleading with them, threatening them.

At this week’s Practice Circle (May 25th, 2014) we’re going to practice with technology, and see if it’s possible to bring mindful awareness to our interaction with our digital equipment.   In the meantime, here are some practices you might try as you sit before your screen:

As you sit down, don’t rush to turn your machine on. Take a moment to ground yourself: feel your weight in your chair, your feet on the floor. Take a few mindful breaths.   Be aware of what you’re bringing with you to this moment – thoughts, emotions, sensations. Are you feeling in a rush to get something done? Excitement, anticipation, dread? Where are these feelings in your body?

Let your eye travel casually over your hardware. Where is your eye drawn? Is looking at your computer pleasant, unpleasant, or is there no feeling tone? What thoughts or feelings arise as you become aware of this presence?

Take a moment to carefully examine your mouse, stylus, microphone, Bluetooth earpiece or other peripheral, as if you were from another planet and had never seen one before.   How does it look, feel, sound, smell? Is there something about it you never saw before?

Being present in the moment as best you can, see if you can notice the intention arise to move your hand and arm to turn the hardware on.

While you wait for the machine to boot up, take another breath and reground yourself.   What do you notice? Are your sensations and feelings changing? Notice especially if impatience is arising as the mind tries to lean forward past the moment and into the task at hand.

As you begin your activity, see if it’s possible to stop now and then, drop back in for a moment, and notice how your experience is changing. Is tension and resistance developing anywhere? Is the quality of attention focused or scattered?

If your activity involves communicating with someone, is it possible to bring mindfulness to that interaction? Whether by text, voice or video, can you be fully present for the communication as you receive it? What arises in the mind and body, especially as you wait through a delay in response? Take advantage of the delay to observe the sensations and emotions, finding them in the body, noticing if they move and change.

Before you send a message, can you pause briefly to examine your intention to speak? As Thanissaro Bhikkhu observes, “In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart.” Does this describe your intention, or is there something else there?

When communication breaks down for some reason, is it possible to use that as a signal to ground yourself and observe what’s happening in your experience?   Has your impression of the other person changed? How about your impression of yourself? Can you recognize any familiar patterns of thoughts and feelings arising? Is it possible to step back from them and just observe them arise and pass?

Similarly, if any other anomalies occur as you complete your task, see if it’s possible to use that as your meditation bell, a call to drop in briefly and notice what emotions and sensations arise the body, what thoughts are present, and what relationship your thoughts and feelings share.   For instance, if some process is taking unusually long, which comes first – the feeling of anxiety or the thought, “This is taking too long”?

Does resistance arise to this effort to be mindful? Does it seem silly, or a waste of precious time? Allow these thoughts and feelings to be fully present in awareness as well.

When you do remember to bring mindfulness to your encounter with technology, take an instant to celebrate that –“Ah! I’m here!”

I hope you get the idea. Just as with any other activity, the use of technology, and the difficulties that often arise with it, can be opportunities to observe how the body and mind work.   They offer us a chance to examine our experience and create a space of awareness around it. When we can recognize our thoughts as just thoughts and our feelings as just feelings, we can begin to free ourselves from the habitual reactivity that often puts our sympathetic nervous system on a hair trigger when we deal with the digital world.  And it can be an opportunity to recognize the many moments of dukkha that computers offer us and other people, and to respond to that suffering with a measure of compassion.

By the way, I and the other SBA volunteers are here to try to help you work through your technical problems participating with Practice Circle. Ted and I are usually online 10 or 15 minutes before 8 pm Central to help folks work through the logging-on process. You can also share any questions you have in the Practice Circle discussion forums!