September 30, 2011

Before You Hit Reply (or Reply All), Take A Breath.

How Yoga Can Help With Email Etiquette.

In the magical world of Harry Potter (created by J.K. Rowling), there exists a powerful tool for expressing oneself called the Howler.

It is used primarily by parents to express displeasure with their away-from-home children. The Howler arrives just like regular mail (via owl, if you must know). It is, however, clearly set apart from other letters by its vivid, red envelope.  This ensures that the recipient’s stomach starts to do flip-flops before it is even opened. Adding to the recipients’ nerves is the fact that, if not opened in a timely manner, a Howler will explode.

Howlers are unpleasantly loud. There is no way to keep one of these messages private. (Especially because mail tends to be delivered over breakfast in the packed dining hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.) This public element adds an uncomfortable level of humiliation to receiving such a message. Finally, when the message has been fully bellowed for all to hear, the Howler erupts into flame – just in case anyone in the far reaches of the room has missed the fact that you’re in trouble.

I suspect we’ve all received a Howler at some point. In fact, I received one over the weekend. In the today’s world though, most Howlers aren’t delivered by owls, or even mailmen — they tend to come via email and unlike the one’s in Harry Potter’s world, you don’t always see them coming. While the dread of the red envelope is effective, the ambush effect a real-life Howler can have is even more powerful. One minute you’re sitting at your desk, being productive, clicking through tasks. The next, you’re feeling exposed, vulnerable, and — maybe — furious.

The racket that Rowling’s Howlers make creates a very public humiliation. In the real-world, senders of Howlers achieve this via the “cc:” line. The more people who have been copied on your Howler, the “louder” it is and the worse you feel. The worst of all are the ones that are addressed to one of your superiors with your name in the “cc:” line. Those are devastatingly loud.

Rowling’s Howlers explode when they’re over, forcing you to choose another vehicle for your response. Howlers in the real world are not so finite. It takes a colossal act of will power to resist hitting the reply (or the “reply all”) button and dashing off a Howler of your own. No matter how righteous your anger, how completely you’ve been wronged or how strongly you feel you need to defend yourself, a knee-jerk, retaliatory Howler is almost never a good idea. This is where your yoga practice comes into play.

We learn on our mats to tell the difference between conscious actions and reflexive reactions. When we’re in a challenging forward bend and our hamstrings are howling, we need to learn to stay with our sensations. We need to learn to take a breath (or two, or five) to determine if our hamstrings are stretching or hurting. At first glance, the sensation of stretching can feel like pain. If we’re not paying attention, we can wind up reacting to the feeling in the back of our legs by bending our knees or standing up. If we do so, we cheat ourselves of the opportunity to stretch. It could be that, after assessing our sensations, we are actually in pain (and do need to come out of the stretch). To do so at that point, after exploring our feelings, is not simply reacting. It is taking thoughtful action to get ourselves into a better place for the stretch.

It can take a long, long time for this mindfulness to become a habit. We may need to be uncomfortable in thousands of yoga postures before we can even catch ourselves reacting. Then we need to work on the self-control required to not react. Then, and only then, can we begin to work on mindfully responding to our situations. The good news is that all this practice is incredibly effective training for life off our mats. Luckily, we end up in uncomfortable situations a lot more often on our yoga mats than we do in real life. Chances are, by the time we receive a Howler, we will have practiced enough to avoid immediately hitting that reply button.

We learn on our mat to treat ourselves with love and respect, even when we don’t feel deserving. We carry that lesson off our mats when we try to respond to others with that same love and respect, even when we’re 100% certain they don’t deserve it. When we respond mindfully, we create opportunities for communication, understanding, and compassion. Some calming breaths, a good night sleep, going out for a walk are all good tricks to calm us down and clear our heads. No matter how righteous, anger is a hot, wildfire emotion than can obscure the actual issue. As the emotion clears away, it is sometimes easier to see possible solutions or compromises. It is always easier to agree to disagree.

No matter how we try to avoid them, heated exchanges are unavoidable in life. None of us are perfect. Sometimes, no matter how good our intentions, our actions will hurt or upset someone. When this happens, we may receive a Howler. When viewed through the lens of our yoga practice, each Howler we get is an opportunity for growth. As some of our stretches on our yoga mat can be painful, receiving a Howler is never fun. But, when we manage to resist reacting and, instead, respond mindfully, we are living our yoga off our mats, which is, after all, the whole point.

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