Mindful Emailing

E-mail is so fast it’s almost magical, says Sylvia Boorstein. Yet with a little mindfulness it could be more than that—it could be truly transformational.

Every e-mail I receive from my friend and colleague Donald Rothberg starts with a blessing. “May this message find you in health and happiness” is a typical beginning, or “May this day, your first at home after this last long period of teaching, be one of ease and rest.” Sometimes it is a generic blessing; often it is a particular wish. Then he continues with the business of the e-mail: “About that meeting tomorrow…”

I first noticed Donald’s style convention about a year ago, not long after he’d told me about his other e-mail practice. “As I sit at my computer answering my mail,” he said, “I pause before I open each one. I take a breath, and make the intention, ‘May I open this e-mail and respond for the benefit of myself and for all beings.’ Then I read the message and respond.” I haven’t taken up that practice yet, but I think of it often, especially at those times when I realize I’ve done too much e-mailing, too fast.

I love my ability to instantly communicate with friends and colleagues all over the world. I often marvel, “How does this work? It’s magic!” I’ve also noticed that, at least for me, opening my e-mail—just seeing what is in the new mailbox—carries the possibility of disturbing any equanimity I might have: “Oh, good! I’ve been waiting for this…” “Oh, dear! I’m guessing this is some task I’ve forgotten to do.” “Oh, my! This says, ‘Bad news’ in the subject line, and it is from someone I love…” With one glance I can intuit that opening the messages and reading them will be exciting, or demanding, or gratifying, or saddening. Every message, whether pleasant or unpleasant or tedious, challenges the mind to acknowledge and feel the emotional response it evokes without becoming confused, and that’s hard to do when so many challenges arrive at once. Even not hearing from people from whom you are expecting news evokes dismay.

The more I’ve become aware of the “mindfulness bell” aspect of messages—“Pay attention to this,” “Now pay attention again”—the more I’ve come to appreciate Donald’s opening blessings. Whatever it is he has to communicate—“We need to do this,” “I won’t be able to cover that class,” or even, “I so enjoyed what you had to say yesterday”—I meet it with an easier heart because his first message was a blessing. It is as if he has said, “Relax. What comes next is something you can manage.”

As this last year passed, I began to think that the correct way to start an e-mail to Donald was with a blessing. After all, I loved him, so why not communicate that? But I felt self-conscious writing him blessings at first, so it took a few tentative attempts before I realized that writing them actually picked up my own mood—that they adjusted my mind to happiness despite the business of the moment. Soon e-mails to Donald always began with a blessing.

Then, recently, an e-mail arrived from Mark Coleman, another teaching colleague. “May your day begin with happiness and enthusiasm” it said, and I thought, “Aha! This blessing practice has taken hold. Of course! Donald sends e-mails to all the cohort of teachers. They are all getting the same blessings as I, and now Mark has taken it up. This means I can use it with everyone, too.” So I began with my teaching colleagues and have more recently expanded my practice to include mostly everyone. Now it is only sometimes, when responding to someone I don’t know, or to some official notification, that I hesitate.

I think about how, universally, a blessing means, “Relax. This meeting between us will be OK.”

Salaam Aleicum

Shalom Alechem

Peace be with you. And also with you.

May all beings be peaceful and come to the end of suffering.

We all do so much e-mailing. I love thinking that Donald to Mark to me to you could start the world blessing itself into peace.

Now I need to seriously work on pausing to clarify my intention before opening each e-mail. I’m not doing it yet, but I am hoping that making this intention public will be the necessary and sufficient condition to make it happen. 

Photo © flickr.com/gina pina