Can I Have Your Attention Please? Practicing Mindfulness in the Digital World

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Two weeks after graduating from my 200-hour yoga teacher training at Pavones Yoga Center, I find myself in what feels like a beachfront computer lab. In actuality I’m at a blogger’s conference at a yoga resort on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

My companions sit behind laptops at mealtimes, discuss twitter over cocktails, and snap photos incessantly during yoga class. In one class my yoga instructor even checked his email during sun salutations and savasana. Meanwhile monkeys play in the trees beside my bedroom and Pavones sits across the gulf within view of the stunning wilderness beach.

As a travel blogger, dedicated yogi, and lover of Costa Rica, in this paradoxical environment I feel as if my worlds have collided.

For nearly two years I’ve traveled the world writing about my experiences on my blog. I find myself snapping photos of my experiences, writing about them publicly, and spending considerable time on Facebook. This process of writing and sharing has given me deeper purpose in my travels through examining my experiences and sharing them with a wide audience. However I notice how when I constantly document, I can feel pulled out of the moment.

For an overwhelmingly large population, Internet access has become so widely available that the digital world sits constantly at our fingertips. I recall just weeks before arriving at the Pavones Yoga Center walking down the street in Bangkok seeing tourists glued to their iPhones while they received foot massages. I consider how often in the United States I’ve sat through dinners with friends and family, competing with the buzz of their phones. I notice my own habitual behavior of checking in on Facebook and email first thing in the morning, rather than checking in with my thoughts, my breath, my feelings, and my surroundings.

So when I arrived at the Pavones Yoga Center, aware that there would be no internet connection onsite, I felt simultaneously anxious and relieved. I worried that I would lose the momentum of my online work by focusing on my yoga training, yet knew how deeply I needed the space from it.

To access the digital world, students hiked down the steep hill into town. To return, they had to make the strenuous ascent back up. At the Pavones Yoga Center using the internet required a level of effort and decision. Without screens in front of our faces, during downtime we listened to the sounds of nature, discussed our yoga practice, and deepened our relationships with one another. This ability to connect without distraction felt like a rare gift.

We practiced periods of silence, meditation, and deeply introspective asana. Honing into subtle awareness in the postures through the guidance of my teachers, I found myself connecting with quiet parts of myself that offered deep insights. Practicing the art of noticing in my yoga practice enabled me to notice everything on a new level. I witnessed that every action could carry intention if I decided for it to. This practice allowed me to consider when I acted outside of the state of mindfulness. Most often I found my intentions slip the moment I logged into cyberspace.

By staying offsite, I had the opportunity and the challenge to connect to wifi whenever I was home. This typically translated into updating my Facebook status at five am before walking to the yoga center or staying up late before bed to finish a blog post. Despite my desire to compartmentalize my online world from my yoga studies, like all addictions, I found my blog vying for my attention at the most inconvenient times. I had moments laying in savasana or sitting in meditation thinking about what “profound” things I might write for my Facebook status as words of wisdom flooded me from the mental space I allowed. During philosophy class my mind wandered down the path of storytelling, “How can I write about this on my blog?” I thought.

Through developing my practice in observation, I began to notice the way that my online addiction contradicted many of my personal intentions I set in my yoga practice.

If in the state of yoga I practiced to cultivate greater attention and concentration, it appeared that in the state of tweeting, posting, texting, I scattered my attention in as many directions as possible. I saw that when I did go online with the intention of writing for my blog, much of my time went towards other avenues. Despite my excitement for writing, I distracted myself nearly ten times in one hour to check my Facebook page. The simple act of being online diverted me from my entire purpose of being online at all.

In yoga I practice assigning meaning to my actions, online I find myself reacting addictively to stimulation. Working towards inner acceptance and contentment, I noticed the instant external validation I received from my online behavior. The act of writing then releasing my expression into the universe felt deeply satisfying and therapeutic. However after this release, I felt compelled to check in often, attaching to the responses I received from readers. Many comments, likes, and shares lifted me up, little outside interest left me questioning my expression. Either way this validation distracted from the pure joy I felt in the process of creation.

Perhaps most interestingly, I noticed that it felt easier to avoid human connection in the real world when I had a community of people online singing my praises. Thus the more I “connected” the less I felt connected.

Witnessing the challenges that the digital world presented in my journey towards greater bliss and connection, I found myself relating to those who feel compelled to abandon technology altogether. In fact I felt a level of shame towards my work and my behavior, something I once took pride in.

In an attempt to reconcile this apparent paradox between my life online and my life on the mat, I focused considerable attention on my meditation practice. I hoped that if I could hone my concentration skills offline, I could carry that same focus and attention into my behavior online. Interacting in the most distracting space imaginable became the ultimate test in mindfulness. I practiced applying purpose to each online interaction I made. Before posting on social media I asked myself the same question I asked in meditation “does this thought improve upon the silence?”

Connecting with the true essence of why I had committed myself to my blog, I recognized the incredible potential of the online world for cultivating connection and awareness across time and space. I acknowledged it as an avenue for sharing insights and lending encouragement. As my teacher at the Pavones Yoga Center so thoughtfully described, despite her desire at times to live in a mud hut in harmony with nature, who might she touch and influence in such isolation from the world that most of us exist in?

At the yoga retreat where I find myself now, among the glow of computers, iPads, and iPhones, practicing mindfulness does not come as easily as it did in the sacred space of the Pavones Yoga Center. So I welcome the opportunity that exists in this challenge.I will spend my time in the yoga studio, in the garden, on the beach, and I will engage with other humans. When I do log in, when I do click, like, and share, I will do it with the focus and attention to engage only as much is necessary to improve upon the silence. Like the bark that protects the tender layers of a tree from the forces that surround it, I am using the meditation practice I cultivated at Pavones Yoga Center to navigate the world of flashes, buzzes, dings, and distraction, with true, authentic mindfulness.

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