Not to fear, I don’t text while driving, cycling, or walking for that matter. But after getting an iPhone after years of resisting (and recoiling from texting), I began exploring its possibilities. On my road trip, texting comes in handy when visiting friends in different cities and confirming last minute logistics. At times, texting was more reliable than e-mail, when my phone’s wireless signal was weak. While I don’t aspire to text like a tween, I am learning how useful it can be under certain circumstances. Midway through my journey, texting became a tool for spiritual practice.
The Zen Monastery Peace Center, whose retreats and online classes I’ve participated in for several years, now offers a program called Stop, Drop and Text to encourage mindfulness of how we do daily life. When I learned that a new session was beginning during my trip, I registered. Since my mind has a tendency to torment me with doubts while I’m traveling, I liked the idea of having a structured practice of paying attention and receiving feedback. Three times a day, somewhat evenly dispersed between 8am and 7pm, I stop what I am doing, drop whatever is going on in my mind, and text a concise message about my awareness in that moment. I receive a response, often immediately, with guidance from a trained facilitator whose name and gender I do not know. While some might feel anonymity is cold, the program is designed that way for a reason. Much of what goes on in our heads we believe to be unique to us, but in fact is common to many, if not universal. Removing personal details from the exchange helps focus attention on the process, not the content, of our experience. The response I receive is for my personal consideration, not the beginning of a conversation. Usually, the three texts I send each day have little do with one another except for their emphasis on awareness.
When driving along, frequently in silence, I’m often startled by the facilitator’s incoming text. My sound setting is “tweet”, a two-tone whistle that in the context of spiritual practice reminds me of, “Yoo-hoo!“, as in, “Wake up!”. That, too, helps bring me to the present by shifting my attention from whatever I’m thinking about to the here and now, even though I don’t read the text immediately. I’ve been grateful to have this spiritual companion on my journey, at times sending messages that have spoken directly to my heart, while others have provoked irritation. Since the point of the practice is simply to become aware, it’s been helpful to notice when I’m triggered and why. There have been moments, such as traveling through a long cell phone dead zone, when not being able to Stop, Drop, and Text felt like a relief. But I know it’s the ego enjoying the respite, as it doesn’t want its trickster ways revealed and dismantled by my attention and the facilitator’s guidance. The ego wants to be in the driver’s seat; if we manage to shove it in the back seat, it encourages the use of cruise control and autopilot to lull us into complacency, to believe that we don’t have to always pay close attention. It does not want us to stop what we’re doing, drop a preoccupation, and return to the here and now, either by texting an awareness, taking a deep breath, meditating or otherwise interrupting the status quo.
Last December, after a series of unwanted texts woke me up at 4am, I wrote, “I’m open to the possibility that, one day, under different circumstances, I might even enjoy texting more than a handful of times per year.” At the time, I did not know that the possibility would soon exist to, potentially, text my way to enlightenment.