Bringing awareness to how we use social media is probably more difficult, in many ways, than with our real-time relationships. For one thing, we’ve got a lot less practice with it—social media really only started bursting onto the scene in the last 10 years. For another, much of social media is designed, and used in such a way, to illicit unconscious patterns of behavior. When you look at your Facebook or Twitter feed, how much self-aggrandizement and opinionated frustration do you see there? How much do we contribute to that? In response to these questions I’ve started exploring ways to make the activity of socializing online, in particular through outlets like Facebook and Twitter, a more contemplative activity.
For several months, as I inquired into this question, nothing really happened. It wasn’t until I physically disconnected from the Internet for 10 days while on a meditation retreat that I noticed something interesting. I noticed that although I wasn’t on the Internet, my mind still was.
In particular, as I was practicing, strings of thought would run through my head that sounded pretty profound to me (ha!), and my first impulse was to tweet them. I started humorously labeling these thoughts as “twitter thoughts” and I was amazed to see how frequently they arose. As a result of spending 10 days seeing my own internal tweetstream I became much more attentive to what it was like to allow a thought, particularly one charged by emotional sensations, to arise, persist, and then vanish without actually sharing it. In the main tradition I practice in, Theravada Buddhism, this is often called an act of renunciation.
When I got back from retreat, I started experimenting with learning how to tweet, or post a Facebook update, in a way that honored this deeper awareness, but still allowed me to participate. What I’ve come up with is something I’m calling “#hashtag meditation.” It’s a melding of the vipassana noting technique (a basic mindfulness practice) with posting to social media. Want to learn how to practice this technique?
How to Practice #Hashtag Meditation
In the basic practice of vipassana noting meditation, one mentally notes (or ‘labels’) the experiences that are arising in direct experience. The mental note is used as a way to stay engaged with what’s arising. The point is to notice what’s arising, not simply to mentally categorize it. That said, when the notes, or labels, are used properly, they help one maintain a clear awareness of what’s happening in the present moment, and also keep the mind engaged in the process, so that we’re not wandering off into every random thought that occurs. Noting meditation, when done well, is a killer practice.
Now, in terms of categories of experience, one simple way to break things down is that we have three main types of sensations: body sensations, emotional sensations, and thinking sensations. In terms of body, we might notice one of the five physical senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching) and in terms of thinking sensations we might notice sensory thoughts (ex. audible thoughts, visual thoughts, and somatic thoughts) or we might experience thoughts related to past, present, and future (ex. remembering thoughts, analyzing thoughts, and planning thoughts). I’ve found it helpful to understand emotions as patterns of body sensations and thoughts. Here are some examples of emotional notes: sadness, joy, openness, boredom. In the case of #hashtag noting meditation we’re going to focus primarily on emotional and thinking sensations, as these tend to be much more predominant when we’re engaging in social media.
When posting an update to social media, the #hashtag is usually used to denote context to the update. #hashtag’s are used to add humor, to tag where one is located, or to emphasize something. In the case of #hashtag meditation, what we’re wanting to tag is what we’re noticing in our experience as we’re posting the update. What kind of thoughts or emotions are arising as we construct our Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ update? Here are some examples of how I’ve been doing #hashtag noting on twitter:
What I’ve found while doing this is that this practice does two important things. One is that it helps me bring awareness to what is fueling or motivating my social media sharing. Is it #frustration or #anger? Is it #love and #compassion? Is it a #judgingthought or a #reflectingthought? When doing this, it actually helps me determine whether or not I want to post the update. And it’s not that I don’t post anything that’s unpleasant or contracted—not at all—it’s that I do it knowing that this is what’s arising at the moment. I do it with awareness. And sometimes I choose not to, because I become aware of what’s driving me and realize that it’s actually a moment of self-aggrandizement.
And this ties in with the second important thing that this practice does—it adds an important dimension of information to what we’re sharing that is almost always implicitly hidden in our sharing. It makes our internal state an explicit piece of information to our public sharing. It makes us more transparent, not just to ourselves, but to others. When I note #awe or #longing with a post, what I’m doing is giving others information into my internal state of mind as I share. I’m giving you context that you can relate to to better understand what’s motivating me. This is extremely useful in relationships, and I would argue probably creates an environment where there’s a lot less confusion, frustration, and bitterness. But hey, that’s just what I’ve found so far. Try it out sometime and let me know what you discover.
Vincent Horn is a Buddhist Geek and digital innovator. In addition to being an experienced meditation practitioner, and teacher, Vincent co-founded the popular media company Buddhist Geeks where he currently serves as Chief Geek. His work focuses on the fusion of nascent technology and contemplative wisdom, and has been featured on the pages of Wired, FastCompany, Tricycle, and the Los Angeles Times. Along with his wife Emily, he makes his home in Boulder, Colorado—that is until the distinction between atoms and bits dissolves completely.