In the space of a just a few short weeks, most of our contact with work, friends and family, as well as our cultural, social and spiritual support, has moved online. Our offices, schools, stores, streets and skies are quiet, while we spend hours looking at faces on two-dimensional screens, relying on social media, video conferencing, and the internet for needed connection and information. Many of us are exhausted, feeling the impact of all this screen time on our physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being.
1. Ground Before Connecting
Stepping into the planetary electronic grid, we are engulfed in a world of instant connection and ceaseless alarms, a chorus of attention-demanding babble that is nearly overwhelming. Spiritual practice teaches us that we can handle our “signal over-sensitivity,” not by abandoning ourselves to every message calling out for immediate response or by building thicker ego-protecting walls, but by calming the mind and strengthening our grounding to the earth. The current crisis has brought forth an outpouring of free online classes on breath-work, movement and meditation. Set time aside to participate in these programs before sitting down to hours in front of the screen. Use apps such as Here and Now, and Stop, Breath and Think, or Insight Timer to program your smartphone to remind you to stop and take a deep breath. And when it’s safe, get out of the house, find a patch of ground and stand bare-footed, taking breaths that connect your Crown to the earth below. Find a tree to hug, and if it’s safe, extend your outside time to include a device-free walk, experiencing your own mini “Digital Sabbath.”
Our interconnected global networks of remote sensors and environmental monitoring stations offer a chance to expand our receptivity beyond the noise and chatter of humanity’s monkey-mind messages. From deep undersea observatories, to atmospheric carbon and ozone stations on the tops of mountains, from tectonic stress-sensors embedded deep in the earth, it is now possible to “listen” to the voices of Gaia herself. Instead of following some celebrity’s every text, consider subscribing to the many services that allow one to “adopt” a distant wolf, whale or dolphin, receiving ongoing status reports as to their location and health. On a more personal level, one can practice “heart math,” learning to listen to and align one’s breath and heart rhythms. Find time during the day to turn off your messaging apps and sit quietly under a tree and listen to its sap rise, or tune in to the incredibly slow rhythms of that unassuming rock at your feet. Finally, try to practice the art of mentally sending kind thoughts with every text or tweet, setting the intention as you hit the send button that it deliver the highest good and well-being to all that receive it. And, if you want to be more engaged in sending digital kindness, consider one of the apps such as Kruzo or Text for Humanity that allow you to compose and send a positive text message to a random recipient.
As we struggle with the loneliness of forced physical distancing and self-quarantine, a healthy relationship with our social media platforms becomes more and more important. Too often we discover that our time on social media has left us feeling less connected, more stressed, a bit vulnerable and more fearful. In a communications environment where everyone has a voice, and multiple “truths” run free, being connected to everyone all the time can easily overwhelm our mental body’s defense systems. Clearly, we need to “curate our connections,” establishing appropriate boundaries for each of our personal online networks.
Putting boundaries on who you friend and follow means creating multiple relationship circles – different accounts for different folks. Some will be more intimate: a place where you can drop your masks and cry, a place of recovery and joy, solace and support, a place where only your close friends can invite their close friends to request membership. Your others groups can face outwards, held together by shared political and social values, creative expression, hobbies or work interests. They must however, be separated from your more intimate-sharing space, which in turn (by government regulation or hopefully, mass social pressure), must be insulated from the commercial forces that have so distorted our common meeting grounds.
4. Bless the Face of the Other, Bless Yourself
Instagram, YouTube and Facebook have put so many faces on our screens – happy or sad, angry, wounded or injured, cute or ugly – they all show up. The Other is no longer someone “out there,” but in our personal space. Faced with this onslaught of images, instead of backing away, lean in to them all. Send silent blessings of goodwill to all the random faces you see on your screen. See their inner Light. Send loving kindness to all those “exposed” on social media, neutralizing the waves of judgment and anonymous cruelty that these channels seem to encourage. This is the core Buddhist teaching of metta: first sending kind thoughts and wishes of well-being to your friends and contacts, then to random faces that you do not know, then moving on to those whose faces bring you discomfort or judgment.i Take a few minutes to do this practice every day, interrupting your me-focused screen time to make it a time of spiritual gifting to the “we.”
Also, extend this practice to yourself. Take a moment as you log onto a videoconference to bless your own image. And before sending out a selfie, stop for a moment. Look at it with deep eyes; take a breath and savor the moment – the colors, smell, sounds and body experience you want to share online. Then before you hit the send or upload button, blink and inhale, sending the memory of that experience to your own energetic in-box and out to the universe as a snapshot of gratitude for being alive.
5. Zoom Out, Zoom In, to Deeper Connection
Even though you may have become isolated spatially, you can use your real-time video connections to zoom-in and forge deeper levels of heart contact. Agree to “compassionate conferencing” practices: allowing for uninterrupted “I-statement” check-ins about feelings, not just thoughts or opinions. Make direct eye contact and share the moment-to-moment experience of being present in creative union with another soul. “What are you experiencing now? What is emerging for us together in this breath? And the next one?” In group meetings, take a few minutes to gaze on all participants in “gallery view,” sending appreciation and goodwill to everyone – all the little tiles of humanity looking out at you from the quilt of the collective we.
You can also use your computer or phone screen to zoom-out of your constricted surroundings, seeing the world with “eyes of wonder.” The internet has blessed us with easy access to millions of positive videos that can take you to the outer reaches of the universe and into the workings of the smallest cell, and time-lapse and slow-motion movies of the once-ignored natural or human-created processes all around us. Instead of spending hours binging on old movies and silly pet videos, visit Mars or the San Diego Zoo. Better yet, find a nature cam of nesting baby eagles on a city skyscraper ledges or remote forest branch. Watch resting sea lions, or the march of tiny insects in the canopy of the rain forest. Zoom out far enough and you will see life as one great tapestry, and recognize that you are called in our post-pandemic job to tikkun olam, to use social media to reweave the tattered threads of community and the natural world we all share.
i A few years ago I developed My BlessingCircle, a service that would present you with a photo of a stranger and a kindness blessing to read out loud as you looked at their face. When you hit the send button, the recipient got the blessing and your photo. No names or contact information was shared in either direction. It didn’t gain much traction, so I mothballed it. Perhaps it’s time to reboot it! Please contact me if you’d like to help.