Do you meditate? If you’ve often thought about it but never made a start, or it’s something you used to do but now neglect, the winter holidays might be the right time to begin (again).
Those lovely dark afternoons when you’ve already taken a bracing walk outdoors and you’re ready to settle by the fire provide the ideal opportunity to spend some time chilling out on your own if you can. If you’d like a little help to begin, I recommend using an app like Insight Timer, which offers all kinds of experiences from guided meditations, to music, to silent periods punctuated only by bells at the start and end. And if you don’t want to be totally alone, its map will show you who else is meditating alongside you right now, across the world.
To help you get started, here’s an excerpt from ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’ which describes using Insight Timer and tells the story of my online meditations with a group called the Buddhist Geeks.
Coming to your senses: meditation
The practice of meditation stands outside biophilia and environmental psychology, yet it seems to be so obviously relevant to everything in this book. The state of mind it produces is very close to the way we often feel when we’re focused on nature, a feeling which can only be enhanced by mindful and conscious awareness of the moment.
In the autumn of 2013 I decided to learn mindfulness meditation. Years before, I had enjoyed reading ‘Zen Computer’, a light-hearted spiritual guide for the wired user, in which the author Philip Toshio Sudo advises: ‘Don’t ask where the path is. You’re on it.’ In that spirit, I decided to try two different paths for my explorations: Insight Timer, a smartphone app which maps and connects fellow meditators across the world, and The Buddhist Geeks, an online community producing podcasts about dharma, technology, and culture. For both, the chosen spot for contemplation wasn’t a temple or a church hall or a sitting room, but cyberspace.
Insight Timer can be used in a number of ways. At the simplest level, you set the timer and get started on your own. Alternatively, you can choose from a large number of guided meditations. Not only will it log your meditations in a tidy graph, but every time you start a session you appear as another yellow star on its little world map. On my first day, I learned that I was meditating alongside 438 other people across the world. Although it was impossible to pick out individuals, I could see that my fellow meditators were in the US, Europe, down the coast of China, in Australia, and in Africa. I used the app at home most of the time, but occasionally listened with earbuds at a quiet spot outdoors.
So how does it feel to meditate with invisible people? If you have spent a lot of time in virtual worlds, gaming online, or even just chatting in Facebook, you’ll know that there can often be a strong sense of co-presence. I’ve also felt that connection while spending time ‘on the cushion’ next to others in the virtual space of Insight Timer. It’s not so much a sense of connecting with individual people, but more of a mind-meld moment with everyone involved.
Working with the Buddhist Geeks turned out to be intimate in a different way from Insight Timer. At the daily Open Practice sessions, we switched on our webcams and logged into Google Hangout to meditate in small groups. Each thirty minute session was usually attended by around half a dozen members. At the scheduled time we logged in one by one, greeted the others with a smile or hello, then someone quietly tapped a bell and we settled down to our individual meditations.
We sat together but not together. Sometimes we turned off our microphones to avoid making distracting noises, sometimes we kept them on and listened to each other breathing. We were thousands of miles apart, sitting in front of computers, tablets or phones, logged in from homes, offices and gardens. Although we were in different countries and time zones, I somehow felt very close to my companions. We were side by side on the path, being mindful in cyberspace. In many ways it wasn’t very different from the physical meditation meetings where I had shared similar silences.
My experiences of online meditation have made me wonder whether, if we can be together like this in virtual space, can mindfulness be extended to cyborgian or machine space? In other words, rather than meditate in Google, might we some day meditate with Google? Imagine that: entering a mind-meld with the great consciousness which is Google itself.
This is the last of a series of tips I’ve posted every Tuesday for seven weeks, highlighting Christmas gifts and activities which promote digital wellbeing. There are gifts you can enjoy making yourself, as part of your own tech/nature practice, and gifts to buy for the geeky people in your life.
Season’s Greetings and Best Wishes for 2018!
Buying for geeky friends or family? Here’s the perfect fireside read: Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age: how to feel better without logging off.