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What does spiritual mindfulness mean in a medium defined by other people?

I was born in 1990, the year the first web browser was published, a leap forward in the evolution of communication unseen since the invention of the telephone. In 1995, my mother died. I was sent to live with my father, an ambitious, working class Haitian immigrant. We owned a Compaq Presario, complete with dial-up internet service courtesy of the free trial disk from America Online that we received in the mail. It sat on a broken desk in the dining room, whose only other furnishing was a brown, corduroy recliner. While my father married several times and fathered more children, he was never sentimental about birthdays or holidays or childhood memories. I was lonely without my mother. The convenient ability to connect across physical boundaries came at an opportune time in my life.

By the time AOL Instant Messenger was released in 1997, I could read and write. I do not remember the exact sequence of events but I imagine I exchanged usernames with one of my mother’s nieces or nephews during one of the visits my father rarely permitted. Communication came easier. The summers I spent away from my mother’s family were spent in front of the computer. I ate meals over its keyboard. During the school years, I did my homework by the glow of its screen. My cousins and I talked about cartoons and cursed often, a freedom our parents didn’t allow. They told me stories from when I was a baby, when my mother was alive. From them, I learned she was an amazing cook. My favorite was the story of my aunt’s neighbors who built a fence after I gave all of their children chickenpox. Another aunt, my mother’s younger sister, used to say during my stretches of absence that we would always find each other. She did not know the unbreakable bond between us, which transcended time and distance, would be embodied through chatrooms and instant messages, first on AOL, then on MSN, where we played Uno like we did after dinner during the holidays.

When the Compaq died in 2002 I was without a computer for two years. It was the longest I had gone without speaking to my family since I left them as a toddler. In 2004, my father connected a used Dell Tower to our old monitor, but while I regained access to the internet, I had forgotten all my usernames and passwords. My family found me by chance after I joined Myspace. Every person I lost came back to me: We were reconnected as we had been in my early childhood. I was thrilled by each friend request and every comment on my profile. Each cousin held a distinguished spot in my “top eight.” It was not a hard decision: My circle of IRL friends was small. When I was bored, I spent my time perusing my cousins’ profiles. I learned the faces of their best friends. When my older cousins, away at college, transitioned to Facebook, I followed suit. I wanted to see myself classified as family on their profiles. I tagged myself in their albums of family vacations, weddings, and Thanksgiving dinners. Facebook was a digital representation of my belonging to people. It marked the end of my solitary life.

My aunt said we would always find each other. She didn’t know this unbreakable bond would be embodied through chatrooms and instant messages

By 2009 I was a sophomore at Temple University. I lost scholarships, partly due to bad grades, partly to loss of funding. I commuted four hours each day to and from my aunt’s home in Willingboro, New Jersey to alleviate some of the financial burden. On days I didn’t have class, I worked part time at Bath and Body Works in Philadelphia. Class. Home. Work. Home. This pattern repeated for a year. According to my profile, I joined Twitter in November 2010. My handle was pardonmyfrenchx. My 20-year-old self was pleased with the unoriginal use of my childhood nickname, the extra letter added because pardonmyfrench, pardonmyfrench_, pardonmyfrench0, and pardonmyfrenchy were all spoken for. Twitter, like college, was then a miscellaneous and experimental environment, optimal for fostering self-construction. Unlike Facebook, Twitter’s layout was ideal to proliferate beyond my familial fences. Twitter was informal. Its users wrote what they pleased. Posts about making dinner stacked between posts about wanting to die and a meme of crying Michael Jordan superimposed on a wedding cake. There was no order or rhyme or reason. Interactions were open and simple, unless your profile was private. Statements were digestible at 140 characters. This was important, because the feed moved fast.

Through the interests of people I opted to follow, and the people they followed, the well of knowledge was bottomless. I learned about skincare regimens for oily, eczema-prone skin, Caribbean inspired vegan recipes, and Amigurumi, the Japanese art of doll making. In Philadelphia, where I live, there are a handful of black women writers. We were needles in a white male dominated haystack. Twitter connected us. Through them, I learned about writing classes and fellowships. Twitter was a form of communication and a resource.

On Twitter and other social media platforms, as many critics have argued, users volunteer to be bombarded with the consciousnesses of hundreds of thousands of other people. What naysayers fail to realize is that this unique characteristic is what makes social media inherently mystical.

As a first generation Haitian-American, spirituality has always been embedded in my world. My mother’s father was a Christian minister. Her mother’s, my grande’s, every breath is a prayer. Her connection to God is her protection against diabs, devils, and evil spirits, as well as Voodoo priests who knew my grandfather. My mother was a youth minister. My aunts told me stories of her deep voice that filled the modest church house and inspired worshippers when she was 16. For a brief period in my adolescence, I was encouraged to be a minister like my mother.

Twitter, like college, was a miscellaneous and experimental environment optimal for fostering self-construction

I was skeptical of Christianity due to Manichean and sexist interpretations of the Bible. However, I believed in God, the Source, due entirely to my grande’s influence. She survived child slavery in Haiti in the early 1900s, and journeyed with ten children from Haiti to the U.S., where she survived the death of her husband and a daughter. I had no doubt that through her prayer and belief, she tapped into a strength and wisdom beyond her petite frame.

My ideas on spirituality were fragmented: I knew what did not resonate with me, but I did not know what I was looking for until I found holistic practitioners and intuitive guides on Twitter. Francheska Medina, known best as @HeyFranHey, shares tips for holistic health and mental wellness on Twitter and Tumblr, as well as DIY videos on YouTube. She was unlike others in her field, who I thought could not understand my experiences. She reminded me of Denise from The Cosby Show, except health conscious. Her hair was long, wide, curly. She wore vibrant sweatshirts and sweaters. Fifteen-minute videos about self-compassion, DIY body butter and almond milk, and non-toxic cosmetics. On my early morning trips to Philadelphia, the glow of my smartphone became like the willow leaves hanging from the Tree of Souls in Avatar, transporting wisdom from my timeline, my personal Eywa.

Andrew Sullivan, in a recent New York magazine essay, wrote of forfeiting his smartphone at a temple for meditation. He argues that social media compels us to fill silence with content. But it was through Twitter that I came to understand meditation itself, after reading a thread by Maryam Hasnaa, who tweets as @thatgirlhas. “With meditation the thing is not trying to get your mind free of all thought but, just to be the witness of it all,” she posted at 10:45pm, on an ordinary weeknight. “A thought pops up and you simply notice, I’m having a thought. Repeat this step over and over. Then, when your monkey mind has calmed down, notice your breathing.” I watched the tweets appear from the comfort of my pillow while still dressed in clothes from work. On the timeline was the latest in the slew of deaths of black people by law enforcement caught on video. I was feeling a combination of sadness and paranoia. I had tried meditating before, using one of Deepak Chopra and Oprah’s “21-Day Meditation” challenges, but I’d assumed that distraction meant failure, and stopped for frustration of meditating incorrectly. What Hasnaa’s tweets helped me understand is that the practice of meditation is about observing the mind and refocusing on the breath, consequently the present moment. Her tweets instructed on how to operate in the discord of the feed that surrounded them.

Maryam Hasnaa is the daughter of Amina Wadud, a scholar of Islam, and mother of an adorable, chess-playing son, or Sun as she affectionately calls him. She uses her Twitter and Instagram to share spiritual texts, and her blog on Medium, Vibrational Medicine, for longer ruminations. To her 32,000-plus followers, her timeline is a comprehensive gateway to understanding the spiritual realm. She discusses love and energetic self-mastery, and posts links to lectures on YouTube about spirituality. She shares her monthly audio newsletter and meditations from Soundcloud and facilitates one-on-one therapy sessions. I inquired about Hasnaa’s intuitive guidance over the summer. I was meditating and embodying love by pouring love into myself. I felt good. I could only benefit from personalized insight. Each session is held over the phone or Skype audio, which offers the clearest connection. The conversation begins with the client’s emotional, mental, physical and spiritual state. Hasnaa asks the client some questions to be discussed during the call: Why did you decide to contact an intuitive guide? What is your intention for the session? Are there any areas in your body that hurt, feel uncomforted, need more love?

Rather than hindering humanity, social media has the potential to bring people into humanity

Hasnaa feels that social media can be used as an entry point to inspire people to explore deeper spiritual work. “People can use social media as a way to connect to other people who are doing the work and to be reminded to stay on the path,” she explains. “That is a blessing because at times one can feel disconnected from those around them when they truly commit to this path.” She asserts that true spiritual work is an inner journey and would really require someone to step away from all distractions, not only the internet. Hasnaa uses Twitter to remind her followers to learn how to turn within, and commune with the silence. She believes there are infinite possibilities for spirituality through social media. “I take long breaks when needed to get reconnected to my spirit,” she explains. “I have learned how to become more resilient with my practice through being on social media. For my own future I see me not being available through these mediums at some point. In the meantime, I’m excited to connect with others who value and benefit from my work.” Social media, which allows communication across physical boundaries, is a spiritual evolution, taking us a little closer to a collective consciousness.

Twitter has its limitations. It is two-dimensional; conversations are short and sometimes one-sided; it is vulnerable to trolling and harassment. “The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied,” Andrew Sullivan writes. He describes his, and our, use of social media as an addiction. As escapists, addicts use their fixations to distract themselves from what haunts them — anxiety from lack of control, or mortality, or loneliness. The sickness is within the individual; the remedy is not forfeiting the smartphone on a digital Sabbath, but a consistent, conscious effort to understand the self, and define its purpose.

Dalai Lama, who joined Twitter in February 2009, has a following of 12.9 million. Deepak Chopra, since adopting Twitter in July 2008, has accumulated a following of nearly 3 million, myself included. “Interconnectivity of the mind isn’t good or bad; it’s neutral,” he explained in a 2012 Mashable interview. “We can cause devastation worse than any war through making diabolical use of the social networks, or we could bring the world together in the direction of peace, harmony, sustainability and social justice. It’s up to us.” Rather than hindering humanity, as Sullivan believes, Chopra believes social media, by transcending ethnic, racial, and geographic boundaries, has the potential to bring people into humanity.

Christina Puchalski, MD, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, contends that “spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” In trying to define spirituality for myself, I realize there’s no action more pretentious than defining spirituality. It focuses on the soul. Spirituality is a malleable practice. It is to appreciate life for the marvel that it is. To recognize what connects you to the Source, to and others, and to connect to your purpose and your boundlessness.

Franceska Rouzard is an essayist based in Philadelphia.