Buddhists make great friends. They’re fantastic listeners, they’re thoughtfully engaged with the world around them, and if they’re the real deal, it’s calming just to be around them. But when I wrote the HBR piece about the 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life, there was one line that made me afraid to run into my Buddhist-y friends:
When you take the idea of online presence literally, you can experience your online disembodiment as a journey into your mind rather than out of your body.
Since my experience with meditation focused on getting out of your mind and into your body, I can imagine that the idea of online presence may seem like an oxymoron in Buddhist terms. The Buddhist idea of presence is about being exactly where you are, experiencing that moment, and not letting your mind carry you off with a thousand thoughts that take you away from where you are. We’re used to thinking about “where you are” in physical terms — the chair you’re sitting in, the room you inhabit, the path or sidewalk you are walking.
And certainly, the experience of plugging in — whether it’s by computer, phone or iPad — often feels anything but present. You go online and you can feel yourself tuning out of the world around you, perhaps even illustrating the degree of your disconnection from body and physical presence by bumping into people as you walk and tweet at the same time.] For the same reason that it’s dangerous to talk on a cell phone while driving — researchers show the distraction comes from the driver engaging in an alternate cognitive context while at the wheel — we can see that going online takes us to something like a virtual place. That virtual place doesn’t have to be created in three dimensions like in Second Life. Even if you’re just engaging with text or voice, when you’re online you’re not fully present in the place you are physically located.
Nor can you be fully present online, if only because your body will continue to feed you stimuli from the offline world. But if you shift your attention deliberately and fully into whatever you’re doing online, the same way you might shift your weight onto one leg while still keeping both feet on the floor for balance, you can experience real online presence. If you have spent much time online, you have probably experienced some of those moments already: the moments when you feel fully immersed in the online conversation with an old friend. Or in the creative engagement of editing a film or writing an artful bit of code. Or the moments when you are overwhelmed and overjoyed by the discovery that someone else has created something miraculous online.
True online presence offers opportunities for authentic experience, connection and discovery; opportunities for joy and fulfillment. Practices like meditation, yoga and day-to-day mindfulness help cultivate the capacity for offline presence, so that we live our lives more fully. Now that we live so much of our lives online, we need similar practices for our networked time so that we can integrate our online moments into a meaningful life rather than experiencing them as moments deducted from our “real” lives. Here are some practices that foster online presence:
- Fully commit to your time online. To experience online presence, you need to embrace the immersive potential of the Internet and jump in with both feet. If you’re going to check your Facebook feed, don’t meander into it by absent-mindedly logging in so that you can put off the thing you’re supposed to be working on. Stop what you’re doing, and set your intention for why you’re about to log into Facebook: is it to check up on one friend? See if someone can give you that mid-afternoon lift you need? Whatever you’re looking for, dive in with clarity and really commit to your time online…even if what you’re committing to is to fully experience What Greek God Are You?
- Know what presence feels like. You’re unlikely to experience true online presence without a solid, visceral understanding of what presence feels like. You can cultivate your capacity for offline presence by taking yoga with a teacher who has a strong focus on breath or the spiritual side of the practice; by running, biking or swimming without your iPod and focusing on your breath; by meditating; or by simply practicing everyday mindfulness.
- Log the online moments that make you feel alive. Once you know what offline presence feels like, you can take note of the online moments that evoke a similar sense of satisfaction. Don’t expect online presence to mirror your experience of offline mindfulness — you may feel them in a different part of your body, or register them on a different emotional level. But when you recognize a comparable experience of focus or fulfilment, take note of it. That could mean bookmarking the site that made you go WOW! with a “onlinepresence” tag on delicious; creating an Evernote or paper notebook where you record or capture the online interactions that made you feel present; or taking a screenshot of a site or conversation you want to remember. Use your presence log to spot the kinds of online moments or interactions where you feel truly present, and pursue the digital experiences or practices that help you feel present online.
- Be open to serendipity. Many of my most memorable online moments have come from sites and people I stumbled across (not the same as stumbled upon). Allow yourself a certain amount of random clicking: following the cryptic tweet that points you to an unexpected URL, or visiting the delicious popular page and looking at whatever sounds interesting. Just exercise some judgement about clicking links from people you don’t know, in e-mails or tweets that sound really strange (a tip-off that your friend’s account has been taken over by some kind of bot or virus), make sure you’re running decent security software in case you click on something that’s potentially invasive.
- Mono-task. Give at least some of your online moments the same quality of attention you focus on your most crucial offline interactions and efforts. Turn off the TV, go into a quiet room, close all the windows except the one you want to focus on. The more you focus, the more present you will be in that online moment.
- Unplug when stoned. If you’ve ever played a videogame for hours and hours at a time you know the experience of being stoned on excess computer time. When I’ve been online too long I get a kind of numb feeling in my head, as if I had a really bad cold and took too much cold medicine. When that feeling comes on, it precludes any kind of meaningful online presence — and can even lead to bad decisions, like upgrading your blog software while overtired, or e-mailing the ex you swore you wouldn’t contact again. Once you’re computer stoned, unplug.
- Don’t drive and text. Oprah’s told you, the Department of Transportation has told you, and that guy giving you the finger as he pulls around you in traffic have told you: you’re a crappy driver when you’re texting, tweeting or even talking. But guess what? You’re also a crappy online conversationalist when you’re driving — or watching your kids, or in a meeting. True, you won’t kill anyone by going online while distracted — unless you’re part of some kind of black ops security agency, in which case, please turn off the TV before texting that “ALL 4CES GO” command. But even if your half-hearted tweeting isn’t likely to be fatal, it contributes to the impoverishment of all our lives online, and undercuts our ability to recognizing that our time online can be as meaningful and as real as we need.
Have you experienced moments when you feel truly present online? What practices help you to be digitally present? I’d love to hear them.