Steven Hickman, Psy.D., executive director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, offers this timely perspective on managing our new virtual reality.[View Image]nadia_snopek/Adobe Stock
I’ve been teaching mindfulness and compassion for about twenty years now, and I believe I thrive when I’m sitting with a group of people open to exploring this transformative practice. Friends and family have known me to “come alive” when I am teaching and I feel a familiar surge of excitement and animation when I have those opportunities. But the other day, a colleague invited me to co-teach a short compassion session online with her. I deeply appreciated the invitation but immediately declined because I just haven’t felt like a teacher since this virus invaded our lives. I’ve worked my tail off in other ways, but something had me holding back from teaching. I knew in my bones that I couldn’t do this, but that made me curious.
I’ve spent hours in Zoom meetings of various sorts the past couple weeks, connected with dear friends in China, Australia, England, Israel, Spain, Singapore, Canada, Switzerland and Croatia (to name just a few). I have felt joy arising to see the faces and hear the voices of people whose faces and voices I first encountered when we were breathing the same air, standing in the same physical space, each (in Dan Siegel’s term) “feeling felt” by the other. And so it was nice to be with them electronically in this age of social distancing and sheltering in place.
And that was it, it was nice.
I’ve been so busy lately that I thought perhaps I was just fatigued. But the more it happens, the more I realize that I end up feeling both connected but disconnected to these dear people. And I have heard multiple accounts of therapists doing tele-therapy and sharing how exhausted they feel after several sessions online.
There is a different quality to our attention when we are online. We are hyper-focused on the few available visual cues that we normally gather from a full range of available body language. Or perhaps, we are totally distracted and checking email while we are supposed to be conversing or listening intently to a colleague’s detailed presentation. If we are with several people online at the same time, we are simultaneously processing visual cues from all of those people (and perhaps a handful of their pets and children too!) in a way we never have to do around a conference table. It is a stimulus-rich environment, but just like rich desserts, sometimes too rich is just too much.
If we are with several people online at the same time, we are simultaneously processing visual cues from all of those people in a way we never have to do around a conference table.
And when we start to be over-stimulated by extraneous data that we haven’t had to process in the physical world, each new data point pushes us just a little bit farther away from the human-to-human connection that we all crave and appreciate. Italian management professor Gianpiero Petriglieri recently tweeted “It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.” So beautifully and eloquently perceptive!
The constant presence of my colleagues’ absence may have been underlying my disinclination to do what I love on this platform that has become a lifeline for so many of us. And so, the question arises for me: Is there some way to ease the burden of this “disconnected connection” and allow me to foster a better balance of connection between us?
Here’s what I am going to try starting today (and suggest you consider) when my new reality resumes anew and I find myself on various calls with all manner of people looking to connect in various ways:
And let’s not forget those benefits. We can have important meetings while only dressed appropriately from the waist up. Our beloved pets can be perched lovingly in our laps while we review our colleague’s budget projections. If we are the host of the meeting we can “accidentally” mute or remove a colleague in a way that would never be socially appropriate in person. We can even feign a poor connection if the meeting is getting so deadly dull that we are in danger of nodding off and striking our heads on our keyboards.
But on a serious note, let’s not dismiss this amazing technology, but instead learn to find a way to assimilate it into a full spectrum of interpersonal experiences that our new lives include. Let’s be present to absence, without becoming absent to presence. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it to develop this new capacity.