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.

Plain Text E-Mail Signatures

The only thing I hate more than HTML emails are HTML email signatures. I can forgive the use of simple HTML formatting inside emails, but adding images or doing fancy things with your email signature is just ridiculous (that includes plain text fancy things!).

One of my biggest arguments for not using HTML in emails is that I believe email is designed to convey information and that formatting should not be necessary to make it happen. Where else can you practically guarantee a block of pure information other than in an email signature?

Here is the signature I use when responding to emails for my web hosting company:

Raam Dev
Owner & Systems Administrator
Akmai.net Web Hosting

I have a couple of rules I try to follow when creating my signatures. First of all, signatures should only be 3 - 4 lines long and span a maximum of 72 characters wide. The signature should not contain your email address, since that's already found in the From field. You may include a phone number but a physical address should be reserved for your website.

The signature start indicator is a combination of three characters placed on a single line by itself. The three characters are two dashes and a space (-- ) and should be placed on a line by themselves. When an email client finds these three characters it changes the look of the signature so it appears separate from the content of the email. This makes your "information" more easily readable.

Remember, email clients have signature options built-in to help you avoid retyping a signature every time you send an email. When you design your signature, ask yourself if you would consider retyping the signature each time you send an email. If it would take you 3 minutes to retype it, then it's probably too big.

Plain Text E-Mail

I have always disliked HTML email because I have always felt that the point to an email is to convey information. Adding styles to the message (borders, backgrounds, embedded images, etc) does not help convey the information. They distract the readers attention away from the message and may even inhibit the information from being conveyed altogether (if the recipients' email client doesn't support HTML, they would see garbled HTML code mixed in with the message). Sure, sending multipart emails (both HTML and plain text) may partially solve this problem, but then you nearly double the size of your email message and end up relying on the recipents' client to support multipart messages.

The bottom line is if you're trying to convey some information, how necessary is it to have the information formatted with HTML? Any information that needs to be formatted with HTML should not be placed in an email. The formatting should be done outside of the email client in a word processor and added to the email as an attachment, preferably as a PDF document (to insure the document looks the same to the recipient as is does to you).

You could attach a Word Document or a PowerPoint presentation, but then you'd need to worry about your attachment being stripped due to restrictive mail server configurations. The recipient needs to worry about viruses embedded in the attachment (MS Word macro viruses, for example) and you'll also need to worry about the recipient being unable to read your attachment because of an incompatible version of the software (your doc file was created in Word 2007 but the recipient only has Word 97 and cannot read it!). The BBC wrote an article back in 2003 about how HTML emails are becoming more and more dangerous.

Please, send your emails in plain text.

I am including directions for sending plain text email from several common email clients. If the one you use isn't listed here, or if you're having trouble configuring your client to send plain text email messages, please leave a comment and I will update this list. Here is another large list of email clients with directions for turning off HTML composition, as well as specific notes for each client.

Outlook Express

Tools -> Options
Click the 'Send' tab
Make sure 'Plain Text' is selected under 'Mail Sending Format'

Outlook 2000

Tools -> Options
Click the 'Mail Format' tab
In the 'Message Format' section, change 'Send in this message format' to 'Plain Text'

Note: If you're using MS Word to compose your emails, then shame on you! These plain text options won't be available to you.

Windows Live Hotmail

When composing a message, click the 'Show plain text' link to change your email from HTML to plain text:

Hotmail Plain Text

I haven't been able to find a way to make plain text the default for composing messages.


There are two places you can set composition options in Thunderbird. If you don't use multiple identities, you'll probably only need to worry about the first one.

Tools -> Account Settings
Underneath your account on the left, choose 'Composition & Addressing'
Make sure 'Compose messages in HTML format' is not selected

The second place is inside your identity settings:

Tools -> Account Settings
Select your account on the left
Choose 'Manage Identities'
Select your identity and click Edit
Choose the 'Composition & Addressing' tab
Make sure 'Compose messages in HTML format' is not selected


By default, GMail composes messages in plain text. If you see the formatting bar above the composition area, you should see a link to switch to plain text:
GMail Plain Text

Web hosting is not for everyone

As you may know, I run my own web hosting business called Akmai.net Web Hosting (soon to be CORBAWeb) and I host about 45 active domains for a small but dedicated base of 15-20 clients. Running a web hosting business is not particularly difficult, especially with software like CPanel (to give the customer easy access to common domain related functions like email, subdomains, etc), WHM (to allow the administrator to control nearly all aspects of running a web server, including DNS, shell access, etc) and WHM.AutoPilot (to assist with billing, invoicing and automatic account creation).

You might be thinking, "if running a web hosting business was so easy why wouldn't everyone be doing it?". Everyone is doing it and that is the reason 90% of the email on the Internet is spam! There are so many inexperienced web host administrators who don't understand the technology behind the software they're using because wonderful applications like CPanel and WHM remove that requirement (don't get me wrong, I love CPanel and WHM). All the people who jump at the chance to run their own web hosting business need to understand there is more to it than just creating accounts and watching your Paypal balance increase -- there is great responsibility that comes with running a web hosting business and there is no room for incompetence.

Let me give you an example. Late this morning my Blackberry beeped to indicate an incoming email. No big deal -- I hear that beep dozens of times throughout the day. But the beeping didn't stop -- it kept beeping as if it was an alarm. Sure enough, I had 12 "Mail Delivery Failed" messages. Then 13. Then 14. After about 40 seconds it was up to over 100 messages. I instantly knew what this meant. Someone, or some thing, was sending a huge number of emails from my web server and the vast majority of those were bouncing back because the recipient email address was invalid. A quick check of the server showed over 20,000 emails had already been sent.

With the help of an on-site engineer, at the data center where my server is located, I was able to track down the origin of the email spamming. It was coming from a mail form installed on one of the domain on my server. The form wasn't anything harmful, and neither was the domain (nor the person who owned the domain), but the mail form wasn't secure. It didn't have any type of captcha installed to prevent a spam bot from submitting endless requests to the script. A spam bot crawling the web for insecure forms found the script hosted on my server and started using it to send a 'Paypal Account Notice' email designed to phish account details from the recipient. I quickly deleted the script from my server and had any remaining messages purged from the mail queue.

This is a perfect example of how incompetent web host server administrators are to blame for all the Internet's spam. If I didn't allow myself to be bothered on my Blackberry with all the "Mail Delivery Failed" messages for my server (including legitimate ones), I wouldn't have discovered this was happening as quickly as I did. Most people simply let those emails drop into an Inbox somewhere and forget about them. If 20,000+ messages were sent out in the 5 minutes it took me to discover and fix the problem, how many messages would have been sent out if I didn't discover the problem for a few hours? Or a few days?

You cannot blame the creator of the mail script, because while the programmer might understand that his script needs additional security before being used in the real world, a web designer will simply upload the script to a web server and expect it to work. This means that there will always be instances where a faulty script is utilized in a malicious way by someone with bad intentions. So who is responsible? The system administrator is responsible. It's his job to make sure everything runs smoothly and there is no room for incompetence. How many web host administrators regularly read their logs for suspicious activity or broken software? I read akmai.net's logs on a daily basis.

Web hosting is not for everyone because many people lack the technical understanding, the competence, and the time required to properly manage a web server. If you're running your own personal web server at home, fine. If you're running your own mail server, I hope you know what you're doing. If you're running a web server that's located in a data center with lots of bandwidth and you're hosting domains, email, and DNS for people you don't know very well, then you'd damn well better know what you're doing and understand the nasty things that exist out there on the Internet. You will be attacked. Be prepared.

Large E-Mail Attachments

I click the "Send and Receive" button on my email client and expect it pause for a second or two and respond by either displaying the new messages or tell me that there are no new messages. Instead, I press the button and wait, and wait, and wait... "Has my email client frozen? Did my Internet connection die? Is there a problem with my mail server?" I press stop, and then "Send and Receive". Same thing. I open my web browser and type www.google.com -- it loads fine. OK, so my Internet connection is fine. Then why the hell... Oh, that's why. Someone sent me an email with a huge file attachment and the computer was just taking a long time to download it.

I don't understand why people think they can send a 10MB file attachment through the email. Sure, you can do it and the email client probably won't complain unless the mail server rejects it for it's size or times out before the upload is finished. With the advent of webmail clients, large file attachments are no problem. The file attachment is simply displayed as a link that allows you to download the attachment at will. When you open an email through a webmail application, the email content is displayed and the file attachment remains on the server, no big-file-downloading necessary. However, for those of us who still use email clients, such as myself, big file attachments can be very annoying.

So what's a good solution to this problem? Obviously if you need to send a big file through the email, then you need to get it sent one way or another. The best solution is to upload the file somewhere and then provide a link to the file in your email. If you already have a website hosted somewhere, you can probably upload the file to your website using an FTP client. If you don't know how to do that, then it would be easier to upload the file using a file upload service such as SaveFile.com.

SaveFile.com allows you to upload a file without even registering for their service. The file can be as large as 60MB, and you can upload an unlimited number of files. If you use the non-registration method of uploading a file, you will be provided with a link to the file after it has been uploaded. You can paste this link in your email, or send it to your friends/co-workers through an Instant Message. The file will automatically be deleted from SaveFile.com if there is no download activity for 30 days. With the non-registration method of uploading files, the only way to retrieve links to previous file uploads is to use their "Recover my links" feature, which is based on the IP address of the person who uploaded the file. If you have a broadband connection, chances are that your IP address will remain the same for quite awhile (forever, if you have a static IP). If your IP address matches the IP address you had when you uploaded the file, then the link to that file will be displayed. Ingenious way of recovering something that was submitted without registration. 🙂

To summarize, if an email file attachment is going to be over 1MB, please upload the file and insert a link to the file in your email! For people with purely webmail clients, it saves space. For those with real email clients, it saves time and the headaches of waiting!