Mindfulness Online: What it is Like to Participate in Retreats, Workshops, Courses and Classes via Video Conference

As we settle into an extended season of protecting ourselves from the covid-19 virus, many of the gatherings we would have engaged in are shut down. For now, we cannot meet in person for any of the IMCW programs we formerly attended: retreats, workshops, courses, classes, sanghas, and Spiritual Friends groups.

Fortunately, online versions are available for many of these programs, and are becoming more and more available. While initially there may be aversion to retreats and workshops offered via video conference, as we engage in them we find many benefits to the new medium as well as ways to work through the challenges we encounter.

Here, then, is a listing of some of the benefits of attending IMCW programs online, as well as some tips for how to navigate the challenges.

Benefits

No Travel Time/Stress: Much time and aggravation related to travel and parking is avoided.

Can Participate from Almost Anywhere in the World: You may live or travel away from the DC area. You can still participate in IMCW online programming.

Lower Costs: Typically retreats and courses cost less than they would in person as there are no fees for food and room rental.

Photo of white candlesComfort: You get to choose how you wish to position yourself most comfortably in your own home. There is also a certain sense of safety from being in your own environment. 

Freedom: If you turn off your camera, no-one will see you doing your mindful movement. No-one will hear you chant out of key with gusto.

Bringing Mindfulness into your Daily Life: Many of our programs emphasize mindfulness as part of the instruction. When you engage in a retreat or course from your own home, you get to experience, in real time, the various temptations and aversions that are constantly present but often out of awareness. This can be a powerful teaching.

Teachers and Other Speakers are Up Close: When you are sitting in the back of a meditation hall, the teachers appear small. People who ask questions cannot be seen. Often words or nuanced expression are lost. In video conference, especially when engaging Speaker View (for Zoom), the teacher or any other speaker looks to be right in front of you. You can see and hear everything clearly. One participant expressed, “It feels as if the teacher is speaking directly to me.”

Community: In a large class or retreat, we often cannot see the faces of the rest of the participants. With video conference, if you engage in Gallery View (for Zoom), you can see the faces of everyone who is joining you in your practice and learning. This has the capacity to foster a greater sense of community.

Audio/Visual Media: A picture, a brief slide show, a video clip, a piece of music … all of these can be made available and be seen/heard easily as part of the video conference event. This can enhance your retreat or workshop experience.

Challenges and How to Work with Them

Below are listed some of the common difficulties participants experience with online retreats and courses. I offer some workarounds to these challenges. These are just suggestions. Each person will find their own way of navigating these situations. 

It is also important to remember that, to the degree that we can, we practice turning toward and staying with any unpleasantness or discomfort that we experience. Many of the discomforts fall to the background of our consciousness or disappear altogether. We find more freedom in our lives each time we engage in what is a little uncomfortable and move through it.

Sense of Community: In two ways, feeling a sense of community can be challenging. First, there is something about being physically in the presence of others that allows for a greater sense of connection than when we simply see each other via a screen. Secondly, more informal interaction can occur in person, both during and before and after events. 

While it takes more effort, a sense of community can still be experienced online. One way is to soften the use of the eyes. Once you have a sense of everyone present, try closing your eyes and getting the feel of everyone. That felt sense of community can still be available, even if you are not in physical proximity. 

Or, you can deliberately look at each person and find something to appreciate about the way they present on screen and through audio.

Small group shares are a great time to get to know people better, to feel like there are others who are joining you on your path.

Zoom Fatigue: There is something about staring at a screen for extended time that is exhausting to the brain. During video conferencing, there is much more visual attention paid, which has a tendency to tax the mind. 

Suggested Work Arounds

One suggestion is to simply close your eyes for a period of time. Take in what is offered only through sound. Closing your eyes is often encouraged during meditation time, but it is a perfectly acceptable practice during talks as well. Since so much information is taken in through the eyes, closing the eyes gives the brain a rest and makes it easier to take in and be aware of body sensations and verbal information.

Another suggestion is to “Hide Self View”. This is a Zoom option that will hide the view of yourself from yourself, though others will still see you. One reason we get fatigued is that we often will get drawn to the image of ourselves on the screen, like looking in the mirror for an extended period of time. There is a constant subtle self-evaluation. By hiding self view there is a return to the way we naturally interact with others, seeing them but not ourselves. 

Taking breaks is also important. These will typically be built into your program. Nevertheless, if you find yourself getting fatigued outside of break time, simply turn off your camera (so you don’t steal attention) and stand, stretch, walk or whatever else you need to do to refresh yourself. 

Photo of woman stretchingFinding a Quiet Space: For many it is difficult to find a space that is free of distractions. Others may live in the same space and will be talking, listening to music, watching television, etc. Children or pets may ask for attention. Many of these distractions make it difficult to focus. 

There are a variety of ways one can work with the challenge of home distractions. Here are a few:

  • Negotiate with other adults about the quiet you would request for the time you are in retreat or class. Ask if they would take care of children or pets during these times.
  • Purchase a sound machine that makes ambient noise, which blocks out much of the sound you might otherwise hear from talking or music.
  • Find quiet spaces outside your home, such as a park or your car. You might need to join via phone or some other device that uses cell service. If you join via phone, it is best to download the Zoom app for your phone.
  • Practice kindness and letting go of perfection. If there are noises or other distractions in the environment, simply notice the tendency to grasp for things to be different. See if you can let go of the grasp and just let the sounds and disturbances come and go. If your loved ones need to interact with you, as best you can, hold them in care and interact with them with mindfulness instead of automatic reactivity. You may learn as much or more from interacting with your distractions as you might from the program you are attending. Let the distractions become part of your practice.Photo of laptop and coffee mug

Suggested Video Conference Protocols to Enhance the Communal Experience

Plan to Share Your Video (not required): Assuming you have video capacity on your device, plan to share your video if you feel comfortable doing so. This is not a requirement, and many will not be sharing video, but there is a more communal feel seeing faces rather than a bunch of black boxes. Furthermore, during sharing of a small group, a shared video will allow for more intimate communication as body gestures and facial expressions can be seen. 

As best you can, make sure that the space behind you is reasonably orderly so that your environment does not draw too much attention. Also, set up a place where other beings are not walking behind you.

Minimizing Distractions on Video: If you need to get up, move around, move to another location, eat or drink, it is best to mute your video until you finish your movement and get settled. Lots of movement on camera can distract from the main focus of the session.

Muting and Unmuting Audio: Whenever you are in a large group it will be important to mute your audio unless you are speaking. Subtle noises such as typing or placing a mug on a table become loud through the system and distort the message of whoever is speaking. However, when you are in a small group, it can be helpful for everyone to unmute audio (unless there is persistent background noise) as a way to enhance intimacy; in person, all of those little noises would be part of the experience.

Refrain from Using Chat: Unless specifically invited to do so, it is typically best to refrain from using the chat feature. Much of what we practice is staying present; when we engage in multitasking we can lose focus, and cause others to lose focus as well. 

Make Sure Your Actual Name is Shown: Sometimes, all we see is the name of your computer or the phone number of the phone you are dialing in from. When you sign on, check to see that your actual name is showing. If not, you can rename yourself. 

Instructions for participant controls (muting, turning video on and off, renaming, etc.) can be found here.

Conclusion

As you can see from this discussion that, while online retreats and courses are different than what we are used to, they offer us the opportunity to learn and to cultivate our practice. In some ways the online experience is an improvement on the in-person experience. For the ways in which the online experience lacks, we can use our practice to help us come to greater ease. We hope you will join us at some of our upcoming events.

Quotes from previous participants

From a course that met weekly for 3 hours, with a daylong retreat

     The video format feels surprisingly communal, but still very individual, private and safe.

     Video conference is much better than practice at the center - it allows us to have the experiences in our own space and comfort.

     Very easy to use, preferable to having in-person courses that require driving to.

     Requires a lot of energy, can be exhausting, particularly now when everything is online

From a weekend silent retreat:

     After in-person retreats, there is a chance to talk to the teachers. I missed that.

     So much more effective and powerful than I anticipated.

     Great - I live out of state and even if there was no pandemic, I probably wouldn't have traveled for the retreat.    

     Very good, except some drawbacks of not fully able to recreate the human connection and the chanting.

     Took some getting used to, but I appreciate the group zoom view.

     I really liked how the teacher included graphic illustrations in the talk.

Stan Eisenstein has been meditating for over 30 years and teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) since 2013. He founded the Columbia Sangha and teaches regular classes, class series and retreats for IMCW.

It is the mission of IMCW/The Insight Meditation Community of Washington is to support the awakening of hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path, and the integration and manifestation of wisdom and compassion in all aspects of life, for the benefit of all beings.

IMCW
P.O. Box 3
Cabin John, MD 20818

Phone: 202.986.2922

Email: meditate@imcw.org