Before You Hit SEND…
I remember when I set up my first email account. In my mind, I would only be using email to pay bills online. At that time I had no idea that many of my personal communications and the majority of my work conversations would soon be conducted via the world wide web.
A lot of us also didn’t anticipate the enormous number of emails that would eventually flood our lives, often seeming to demand our attention. If we define stress as the condition that arises when what we are tasked to do exceeds the reservoir of our perceived resources, it’s easy to understand why responding to our inbox can become a primary source of stress.
There are many articles about why email is so stressful and how to work with the conundrum of inbox management.
What is arising most for me these days is the intersection of email communications and mindfulness practice: I find myself wondering what can be learned both from our own experience and from the wisdom of the ages about wise communication as it applies to the landscape of our digital messaging?
I remember in one MBSR class a participant shared how the informal practice of “stepping back and taking a breath” had helped her skillfully navigate her way to a response rather than a reaction to an unpleasant work email. The email, she said, had harshly pointed out a mistake she’d made. At first she wanted to send back a reactive reply, but instead, she took a breath. She noticed the emotions that were present: defensiveness and anger, as well as the impulse in her body to retaliate via the keyboard.
In that moment of pausing, she realized she had a choice.
Rather than firing back with a defensive retort and stewing about the original email all afternoon, she wrote a sincere apology for the error. Did this change any outcomes for her? The participant smiled as she told us that once she pressed send, the situation for her was over. She was able to go on with her day free from rumination. And while it is necessary and helpful to address how others communicate with us, for this person, the main lesson came in liberating herself from participating in an unskillful cycle of communication.
A go-to practice for responding instead of reacting to emails is the Mindful Check in (Mindfulness Northwest Mid-month Practice Letter, April 2019):
• Notice what’s happening in the body - heart racing, teeth clenched, a volcano in your belly, hunched shoulders, fingers pounding the keys loud enough for your office mates to hear.
• Pay attention to the feelings on the surface - anger, irritation, indignation, blame, hatred. And then listen for the soft underbelly of emotional pain - insecurity, shame, fear and dread of never being enough.
• Notice the mind - racing of thoughts, the inability to organize thoughts, the wish to do harm, the “I’ll show them!”
Then wait to respond…the way we stay with an ill child until the fever dissipates. If a reply is needed right away, there’s always the option to say, “I’ll respond as soon as I’m able.” It’s likely that simply stopping, taking a breath, and observing your experience in the body, emotions, and mind will be enough to proceed wisely. (To learn more about the S.T.O.P. practice, watch this video with Elisha Goldstein.)
We all experience fluctuations of energy throughout the day. Mindfulness exercises like the Mindful Check-In and S.T.O.P. practices are essential tools that help us access vital information about physical fatigue and strain after our hours spent at a keyboard. Or perhaps they can help spotlight the more nuanced awareness of our emotions and mind states. Practicing a Mindful Check-in in for even five minutes can make it possible to discern when it’s time to step away from the computer in an act of compassion for self and others.
What if there’s resistance to stopping for that break?
Mindfulness invites us to notice our resistance with curiosity and kindness, beckoning us to investigate the “I don’t have time” and “gotta get it done now” self-talk that is so prevalent in our busy lives. But when we’re willing step back, take a breath, and ask questions like: “What am I believing right now?” via a Mindful Check-In or S.T.O.P. practice, a treasure trove of self-understanding awaits discovery.