Mindfulness Experiments: Discovering the Blanket

I've been exploring mindfulness for the past few weeks and with that I've been making a conscious effort to fully recognize when I'm not present. When I notice that I'm not 'here', I remove myself from whatever is pulling me away from that moment.

A few days ago I noticed that I had become not present after sitting in front of the computer for three hours. To break up what would've been an all-day session, I spontaneously went for a walk in the local state forest.

It's mid-winter here in the northeast Untied States and I was greeted by a thin coat of fresh snow blanketing the forest floor. With a bitter cold breeze blowing at my face and a bird chirping somewhere in the distance, I looked around and noticed something unexpected: I still wasn't present.

As conducive as the forest was to mindfulness, simply being in the forest didn't make me feel present and mindful. 

Then I noticed something else: the cold wasn't the only thing wrapping around me; there was something resisting my desire to fully experience the present. I tried to consciously release it, but it maintained its grip.

After about an hour of walking and releasing thoughts as they arose, I began to feel something else strange. I felt myself 'gaining ground' on the present, somehow 'catching up' to it. 

It was as though the stickiness of modern life was slowly melting away.

What had created this resistance? What had created this strange phenomena?

Was it possible the externalization necessary to interact with people and information in a non-physical space like the Internet had actually pulled me away from the present moment to such a degree that it created a false sense of awareness?

When I began walking in the forest, I thought it would take perhaps a few minutes to feel mindful and present again. It was cold and I hadn't planned on spending much time walking.

It took almost two hours before I began to feel mindful and present. (I spontaneously recorded a short video towards the end of my walk.)

I do not believe in the elimination of technology to solve problems that we ourselves create by misusing technology. (Just as a gun doesn't kill people, technology doesn't make people unmindful; we do that to ourselves.)

Taking a one-month digital sabbatical would only put a bandaid on the problem. I would rather learn how to create harmony in my life by experimenting with new ways of living and interacting with technology.

To begin, I sought out the greatest sources of distraction in my life by asking myself two questions throughout the day:

Where am I and what am I doing?

Is this activity pulling me away from the present moment or returning me to it?

What I learned surprised me: the greatest source of regular distraction from present-minded awareness in my life came from activities related to email.

I spend a lot of time working online and a large amount of my communication with others happens through email. That said, my email is quite manageable. I have a system in place that keeps things organized.

Despite receiving more than a hundred emails a day and writing dozens of replies, I don't feel overwhelmed. Why then, was my email the greatest source of distraction from the present moment?

The answer, I determined, could be found in my relationship to email and in the way that I gave it my attention.

Normally, I would check for new email dozens of times a day and immediately reply to any messages that would take less than two minutes of my time.

I would also check email on my phone dozens of times a day, sometimes replying but usually just scanning their contents and allowing myself to reply later from the computer. (What a waste of time... always reading emails twice!)

What was so important that I needed to check for new email dozens of times a day and read the same email multiple times? What would happen to my daily mindfulness if I reduced that to checking email once a day and reading every email just one time?

Testing a Proactive and Conservative Approach to Email

Here's how I'm going to start experimenting with mindful email:

- I will read and reply to email only once a day, preferably towards the evening so that my vitality and creative energy are available to my other, more present activities like creating, learning, and reflecting. I will not enter the inbox until I'm ready to actually focus on the activity of reading and replying to emails.

- I will keep my email responses short and to the point; I will resist any urge to go into depth in a single email and instead choose depth over time by asking better questions and conversing across multiple replies. The goal isn't to be laconic, but rather pithy and succinct.

- I will use my phone to scan for emergency business-related emails, but I will never open the emails on my phone; I will only use the phone to scan email subjects.

The intention here is to be more deliberate with how I use email as a form of communication, to be proactive and instead of reactive to inbound requests for my attention.

In the few hours since I began this experiment, I've become aware of just how habitual checking email has really become. Any time my focus wandered while writing this Journal, I found myself with the urge to check my inbox or browse a social media site. 

To reshape those habitual patterns, I've started turning my focus away from the computer or simply get up and walk away from my computer for a few minutes.

These mindfulness experiments are not about disconnecting more; I'm not trying to remove myself from technology or go on a 'digital sabbatical'. The goal here is to spend more time connected to the present while simultaneously using the tools provided by technology to grow and live better.

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  1. I’ve been contemplating this in my own life since first reading this post. It’s amazing to note what types of activities and things most easily pull us out of the moment. Not that the things themselves do it. You can certainly be present in any activity; driving a car, working on your computer, answering e-mails, etc. And as you noted, you can also not be present even when surrounded by nature, or children, or doing something physical. However, it is very interesting to me to note as I play with becoming more mindful, that it just seems much easier to be mindful in certain scenarios than in others. Anything engaging me with my direct environment seems easier to remain present in, while anything pulling me out of or separating me from my direct environment (driving in a large hunk of metal for example, focusing on a computer or television screen, etc.) seems to require more perceived effort or focus on my part to stay with mindfully. Perhaps this is because certain things are designed to “take us out of this moment and transport us to another moment” quite literally. Take movies for example. (I love movies, though I don’t watch them nearly as much as I used to…) As you watch a movie, if it is any good at all, you are not mindful of the experience of sitting in the theatre, or at your house watching the movie. You are pulled “into” the moment on the screen, you are literally transported into another time and space. (At least I am.) So, the question is: is it a more “mindful” experience to fully live IN the movie moment you are experiencing or to live in the actual moment your physical body is in, being aware of yourself sitting there, looking at a screen? This is where I have not fully integrated the seeming non-duality of the online/offline or in-person/long-distance communication that you spoke of in another post. I still experience it as a duality. In order for it to be integrated, to transform the duality into a non-duality, one needs to acknowledge the concept of time and space is simply an illusion, but a powerful illusion that we create inside of for a reason. The illusion of time and space (two concepts that have also fascinated me for years) exists for us to more fully experience every aspect of our All. It is distinctly a function of BEING human. Fascinating. I could write/talk about this for days and days and never get enough. Again, thank you for sharing such thought-provoking insights and ideas. Brilliant stuff!

    • Fascinating stuff, Molly! I have pondered these exact same things for most of my life and concepts involving time and space are sources of seemingly endless exploration.

      I’m glad you used movies as an example of mindfulness that requires not ‘being here’. One thing that I’ve always done when watching movies is to remove myself from wherever I am, to let go of everything I know about the world and literally ‘live’ in the movie as I’m watching it. (After all, don’t we watch movies to experience something else; why would we want to hold onto things that might distort that?)

      And because I do that, I’m probably the worst movie critic alive: All movies are ‘good’ movies to me. After all, when referring to someone else’s life I would never say, “eh, that wasn’t a ‘good life'”, right? When I watch movies, I let go of everything (or at least, that’s what I’m consciously trying to do). I don’t compare the movie to other movies or to my notion of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

      Taking that back to online things (such as my siting in a cafe right now, drinking tea and writing this reply to your comment), being fully present and mindful simply means being focused on this one task, switching between contemplation and expression (through writing these words), I create an environment where I am full present to this comment. I’m not thinking about what’s next, or where I have to be in 1 hour, or what emails I might need to reply to. I’m thinking about your comment and my response. That’s it.

      I think there is a side effect to living and working like this: It requires a lot more energy. As I become more and more focused online, I find myself needing to step back and away more often.