Soul Technology

“What you call need, I call suffering.”

Written by Sven Eberlein

By now you may have heard about the Yoga instructor who got fired for telling a Facebook employee to stop using her cell phone during one of the weekly classes she was teaching on the company’s campus.

No, this is not an urban myth, although it sure sounds like it.

For years, yoga instructor Alice Van Ness has started her classes with a simple request – that students turn their cell phones off.

She brought that policy with her to Facebook, where she began teaching a weekly class at the company’s Menlo Park campus in March. But it proved to be a hard policy to follow for at least one employee, who began tapping away on her phone in the middle of class. And after Van Ness shot her a disapproving look, the instructor found herself out of a job.

The 35-year-old San Carlos resident was fired last month after managers at the fitness contractor she worked for explained that saying “no” to Facebook employees is a no-no.

100129_applegadgets02Aside from the rather curious notion that saying “no” to a Facebook employee would simply not be considered an option (take the test: what kind of order request from a Facebook employee would it take for you to go against company policy and stop saying yes?), what might even be more baffling to me is that anyone could possibly consider pulling out their smart phone during a yoga class, other than to turn it off.

No matter where on the technology spectrum you find yourself, I think it raises interesting questions worth exploring.

I personally grapple with the issue of information technology. On one hand, I appreciate much of what it enables us to do. In my personal work, it has created the tools to bring ecocitizens from all over the world together. Just last night, it helped to organize a real life meeting of Bay Area representatives of various major groups and NGOs who participated in Rio+20. And not to forget, it allows the words I’m typing right here to magically be dispersed to anyone in the world with access to the internet.

It’s perhaps because I live in San Francisco though, the hotbed of the latest greatest tech companies and home to many of the information wunderkinds who get bussed down to the Apple, Google, and Facebook campuses in Silicon Valley every day, that my gadget threshold is pushed to the limits on a regular basis. Over the last few years, my neighborhood has turned into a world within the world where it is often hard to tell whether people’s bodies are just parked here while their minds are randomly wandering distant lands.

It’s not just the future Steve Jobs’ and Mark Zuckerbergs who get to work long before they get to work…


There are hardly any places or situations left where people aren’t also somewhere else at the same time.

Most of the cafes have turned into virtual offices,


and what may have started as a conversation often ends in cyber gazing.


Whether it’s during lunch,


play time with Junior,


or on the way to music practice,


there are hardly any more limits as to where you can be and not be at the same time.

In some ways then it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Facebook employee thought nothing of sending a text or checking her facebook status during a Yoga class. After all, it was just another place to park herself while getting on with life.

But at a yoga class on a corporate campus, setting aside job responsibilities entirely, even for a few minutes during the work day, can be a stretch.

“Sometimes if you’re in the tech industry, or have a serious attachment to your phone, you can’t let Facebook go for an hour,” said Michelle Michael, who owns Balance Yoga Studio in Woodinville, Wash., near Microsoft and other tech companies.

091216_istanbul028While some of these boundaries are still being explored and pushed, most of us have pretty much surrendered to the new realities of constant multitasking, and accepted the gadgets as part of life. For example, listening to your iPod at the gym or making a phone call while walking down the street has pretty much become common practice, to the point where people would find it strange if one had any reservations about it.

What makes this occurrence different and fascinating is that the ancient practice of Yoga aims toward attaining spiritual insight and tranquility, a goal that seems to stand in direct juxtaposition to the ever growing speed and distractions of information technology. Even those of us who don’t practice Yoga and aren’t well versed in its deepest roots and traditions know that it’s not the same as simply stretching or doing gymnastics. Deep down we understand that Yoga is about introspection, a sacred quest for calming the mind, practicing stillness, and becoming conscious of ourselves beyond the chatterings of the mind. In other words, the exact opposite of Twitter, Facebook, and iPhones.

1007_albanybulb_17I’ve often wondered if there would ever be any kind of boundary as to how far we will saturate our lives with these sleek but toxic electronics, and I think we just bumped into it. While you can go pretty far in making the point that these things enrich our lives, when it comes to the matter of connecting with our higher selves and digging into the deep mysteries and simple truths of our human existence, there is no number you can dial or keyword you can use. As the reaction to this story shows, I think we all understand on a subconscious level that all the information often stands in the way of knowledge and self awareness.

I am reminded of Roshi Joan Halifax’s response to Zynga Co-Founder Eric Schiermeyer, who — during a recent talk at the Wisdom 2.0 conference — insisted that people want and need more information technology in order to further the evolution of human consciousness.

She said: “What you call need, I call suffering.”


About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • I feel your excellent blog entry deserves more effort than a push of the Like button. The photographs here illustrate so clearly that people, plugged into their electronic devices, are oblivious to life around them. Electronic gadgets help destroy community instead of enabling it in a true sense.
    I often see people at my local produce store communing with their devices while palpating the fruits and veggies. There is scant conversation with an elbow-near browser to comment on the desirability and quality of the produce, or to make comparison to prices at other venues. In fact, the only shoppers who engage with others tend to be the unplugged seniors.
    Sad state of affairs. And I agree with Roshi, this is a form of incredible suffering.. Pity! G

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I think it really is about finding the right balance — the middle way if you will — between accepting and making the best of our fast-changing technologies and practicing a healthy dose of skepticism. A lot of times, the talented engineers who come up with all the latest greatest gadgets are very good at what they do but may not be as tuned in to what can happen with their inventions once they leave the assembly lines. So I think it’s important that we as sentient members of society keep asking questions about the direction we’re going collectively as well as evaluate our own personal relationship with the constantly evolving information technologies.

  • Hi Sven, Your pictures do tell a story and you put them together with the truth–we’re not getting healthier, we’re getting further away from who we really are. And all this exposure to what’s inside the electronics, and power lines, and energy in the cables around the world probably isn’t doing us any good either. Maybe all of it collecting is affecting us, too, like zapping us into more busyness. I wonder if there is an answer? It’s like trying to get overweight people (of which I am one) into a gym. Now that we’re hooked into heading away from ourselves, can we change back?

    • Hi Pam,

      I think it’s all a mixed bag and about finding the right balance. I think that just because we CAN use electronics 24/7 doesn’t mean that we should, so it’s really about finding the places in our lives where it makes our lives better and perhaps gives them more meaning but being able to say no when it becomes just chatter and takes control over our experiences of the world.

      I think that just simple things like going for a walk or making an appointment to meet friends can be good ways to get us back to more simple ways of being. What’s cool is that websites like are reflect the growing need for real life contact and actually use technology to get us back out into the world. To me, that’s a perfect example of combining the best of both worlds.

  • Good post Sven that raises a lot of important points. I’ve come to personally conclude that cell phone usage is something that most people cannot place personal limits on and it may have something to do with how this so-called connectivity further conditions and addicts the brain to instantaneous stimulation and novelty. The brain seems to have this “need for speed”. People are getting more and more upset when they don’t receive an immediate reply. There is something weirdly “masturbatory” in watching how people fidget around with their phones in a variety of public settings. Although exposing oneself physically in public is taboo, people are becoming more comfortable with letting the rest of the world know all about their private lives through the various ways their cell phones are used. People and the planet would be better off if we could “rehab” by learning how to slow down, breathe deeply, and enjoy how flowers grow. We really don’t need these phones and they are changing us in ways we haven’t imagined yet.

    • Really good point about the “exposure,” I hadn’t thought of that, Al. It’s amazing everything that people reveal about themselves, but I think it’s partly because they’re not even aware they’re doing it. Totally agree about the brain part. Our brains are pretty amazing computers that love to consume as much information as possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Junkies like massive amounts of drugs, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I guess it comes down to the difference between information and knowledge or wisdom. You can only get the quality of knowledge if you learn how to edit all the information that’s coming in.

  • I did not hear of this story. Van Ness remained true to her teaching; kudos to that. I’m sorry that she had to lose a job, but her situation shed light on that toxic boundary you spoke of. If only more people could see the irony here. Thankfully, you, your readers, and your commentors do, and for that reason I’m hopeful about the direction we’re headed.

    Friends and I were discussing the gadgets’ intrusion into common courtesy at dinner this week, when I remembered the exact moment in my life when I began to wonder if all hope was lost. I was at an annual east coast event called the Philadelphia Folk Festival where the common scene is a pure, intentional disconnect from a society filled with capitalism and war and hatred and luxuries — total Woodstock hippie-era stuff — occupied by many who had lived during that time and held on to the “tune out” dream. The year prior, cell phones were really getting popular everywhere, but only a few people brought them to the festival and everyone would groan when one would ring. But this particular year, as we sat on folding chairs and in the grass in a farmer’s field, kicking back enjoying each other’s presence, a cell phone rang. Instead of the expected, “turn that off” response, four of the five people near me reached into their pockets and in unison said, “Is that mine?”

    • Haha, great story Ruth, this setting would make a great cartoon. I hate to say it but resistance seems to be futile, the cell phone has won. 😉 I guess like its predecessor the rotary phone, there was ultimately no stopping time and now you’ve got old hippies fumbling their gadgets between firing up a reefer and twirling to the tunes. All the rest of us non-smarties are left with is fighting over the ethical territory of whether texting while doing yoga is okay or not. 😉