The spiritual practice of mindfulness is gaining some interest in the popular culture. It offers an alternative to the unsatisfying way that we can eat an entire bag of popcorn before we notice how it tastes. Mindfulness is the discipline of really noticing what is happening around us. If we instantly trust our first reaction to our partner’s angry words, it offers us a thoughtful question. The skill of listening mindfully requires us to be willing to pause, with an open heart. Therapy shows us this is not as easy as it sounds; the sense of not being heard is common, and it changes our relationships.
We are mindful when we are paying full attention to the present moment. This may involve noticing the morning light, or letting go, for just a moment, of things we hold onto without thinking: yesterday’s argument, or some unfinished business we have waiting for us in an incoming text message. Have you ever noticed someone too restless to enjoy the friends around the lunch table, because a message (and not even an urgent one) is waiting? Some people even think this impatience feels like addiction, especially the friends around the table.
Mindfulness involves choosing to slow down and to suspend judgment, a challenge for most of us. We are often used to a running inner commentary on everything that happens to us. In a heartbeat, we conclude that the red light is conspiring to make us late, the neighbor is annoying, the conversation is boring, and the friend is unrealistic. In our online lives, technology tempts us to react so quickly that we get little more than a joke or a glimpse of an argument, barely a sliver of a worldview, before we click and move on. Mindfulness is the art of asking ourselves to go slower and deeper.
How are Facebook and the other social networking sites affecting human relationships? Too soon to know. The technology itself can be a mixed blessing: it offers the possibility of encountering people you would otherwise never meet, and from millions online around the world, to find friends. It allows us to quickly find what we ask for. At the same time, it facilitates mostly quick, impulsive exchanges, and feeds the restlessness of our spirits. In the midst of this abundance of online activity, it is possible to be busy, productive, amused, and yet acutely lonely. The effective response is not necessarily to widen the net, but to sit still long enough to remember who we are, and what we desire.