I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of our collective mindfulness lately. Every month, millions of more people are increasing their connectivity to the Web. Facebook’s gravity keeps swelling. Twitter continues to flap upwards in users. Mobile devices and operating systems continue to evolve and proliferate. It seems every week a new feature or service or gadget makes a debut.
The Web is not only expanding like a universe but it’s also infiltrating every nook of our daily lives. And it’s expanding and infiltrating at an accelerating pace. What effect is all this happening on our capacity to attentively engage with life? What disciplines and skills and understanding do we need to acquire as the Web continues its unstoppable inflation?
PRESENT MOMENT, WONDERFUL MOMENT
Thousands of years ago certain cultures around the world discovered and cultivated the art of breathing mindfully. In some cases, entire religious traditions grew out of these practices.
Our brains and sense-organs are powerful attention-devices. Our minds are always teaming with thoughts, feelings, hunches and visions. Even asleep, our brains actively stream profuse experiences like dreams. It’s how we survive.
But our very powers of attention and awareness and cognition can distract us from the present-moment happenings of our lives. We’re always breathing, but rarely notice unless we pay attention. And this presents us with a fundamental observation about life: if we’re constantly processing the relentless influx of internal and external sensory data but never focusing our full attention on what happens, how alive are we? For to have a meaningful life, we must feel alive – otherwise we’re just automatons obligated to the patterns made by others and the larger external world.
Being aware of the present moment is the easiest and hardest thing to do. Try it: sit for 5 minutes and pay attention to nothing but your breath. How many times did your mind wander from that simplest of tasks? If you can’t pay attention to your life right now, when do you expect to do it? After you die? In some other world?
TWITTER MIND, MONKEY MIND
Some Buddhists have a phrase for how our minds endlessly flit from one thought to the next: Monkey Mind. One aim of meditation is to “tame” the Monkey Mind. Not so much to control it, as to pay attention to it – and, in the process of paying attention to a fast-moving mind, paradoxically slow it down to a point where the present moment reveals itself most fully.
Of all social networking sites, perhaps Twitter best exemplifies the electronic version of Monkey Mind. The tiny bursts and pulses of text and hyperlinks stream through the world like flashes of thought across a busy mind. Twitter’s a powerful way to connect with others and receive news and important or trivial nuggets of information. And yet, if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to get sucked into Twitter Mind – an energetic state of dopamine excitation, where the sense of time is lost.
As more of us use these tools, how do we maintain our sense of mindfulness? How do we tame Twitter Mind? Few of us practice any sort of traditional meditation to discipline our Monkey Mind. Now we have social media. The Social Web is like an extension of the neocortex. It may sound crazy to think that our brains have a new layer, but it’s not a bad way to think about the kind of world the Web is making.
We will need to understand more about the effects of the Web on our brains, on our attention and our ability to feel fully alive between the sliver of light between birth and death that was entrusted to us.
THE NEVER-ENDING STREAM
When was the last time you felt the beating of your heart? The breath in and out of your chest? The sound of rain falling on leaf-mush?
Do you know why you’re on Twitter? How long you’re on Twitter?
The Art of the Tweet – if there is one – is this: using the medium to learn something about our world and sharing your unique view of it with us mindfully. Life without mindfulness is a life lost. Twitter may increase your awareness of the world around you but only your mind supplies your life with meaning. How are you maintaining your mind?
Tweets are like raindrops falling into a stream. So are the moments of your life. Are you paying attention, or something more expensive?