Ever wonder how that tiny yellow meditating person ended up on your phone’s keyboard? There’s a story behind every emoji, and Person in Lotus Position is no exception.
It all started when Mark Bramhill, a 24-year-old radio and podcast producer in Seattle, asked himself: Where do emoji come from? Bramhill set off to find out how a symbol finds its way onto smartphones around the globe.
When Bramhill learned that most new emoji are suggested by users themselves, it was obvious that the best way to peek behind the curtain was to create one of his own. Step one? Consult Jeremy Burge, tech entrepreneur and Chief Emoji Officer of Emojipedia, an online emoji search engine. Burge suggested that a yoga- or meditation-related emoji—one of the most-requested additions from Emojipedia readers— would have a high likelihood of making it through the rigorous selection process.
So Bramhill set to work creating a proposal to pitch to the Unicode Consortium, the governing body that is responsible for approving all new emoji and does all the behind-the-scenes work of writing the code to ensure that these symbols look the same across different web platforms and devices. In 2010, Unicode created a standardized emoji library, and they’ve carefully considered every new proposal since then.
For a new emoji to be approved, there has to be a clear demand and an explanation of its use, and it has to be different from already existing emoji. It also cannot represent a trend—there has to be proof of the symbol’s staying power, especially because these characters are permanently added to the library (there is no removal process).
Related: What Mindfulness is Not
Proving that yoga and meditation are here to stay wasn’t too difficult. Bramhill combed Google Analytics and social media hashtags to show that millions of people around the world were talking about these formerly fringe activities in the West. He noted that over 6.5 million Instagram posts were tagged #meditation and that searches on Google for related terms had been steadily increasing, and cited statistics on how many Americans practiced yoga and meditation. To show Bramhill’s inspiration for the design of the image, the proposal included an image of a 3rd-century statue of a Buddha sitting in lotus position.
“The data paints a portrait of the overall interest and shows the widespread nature of yoga and meditation as cultural phenomena,” Bramhill told Tricycle. “They’re not a fad. They’re not a niche thing.” Unicode agreed: Yoga and meditation really were more than just a trend.
If they can get themselves to Silicon Valley, as Bramhill did in November 2016, emoji creators are welcome to pitch their ideas in person at Unicode’s quarterly meeting. Several days after Bramhill gave his pitch, Person in Lotus Position gained tentative approval and went on to claim its permanent place in our shared digital language in May 2017 (239 emoji were added that year, including Vomit Face).
The new emoji joined two other texting possibilities for Buddhist tech users: the Wheel of Dharma and Prayer Beads emoji, both added to the library in 2015 (though not together). Wheel of Dharma was part of the first version of the modern emoji library released in 2015 (or the second version, if you count the original set of symbols encoded for Japanese phone carriers in 2010).
Prayer Beads was also added to version 1.0 of the library in 2015. The symbol was pitched separately to Unicode by two software engineers in a proposal that included eight religious emoji. “Most of those proposed new emoji were added,” Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge explained, “except the Buddha, which would go against Unicode’s guidelines on encoding emoji for real people or deities.”
As the library has expanded and emoji language has evolved, it has shifted along with cultural norms toward greater ethnic and cultural diversity and inclusion. In 2010, a mosque and a synagogue joined the Christian church emoji. A woman with a hijab, Person with Headscarf—also pitched by a young emoji user—was added to version 5.0 along with Person in Lotus Position.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Emoji are a direct and powerful reflection of our cultural norms. Three-quarters of smartphones globally are now equipped with emoji, and it’s estimated that 6 billion are sent each day, making the digital hieroglyphs the closest thing we have to a universal human language. Person in Lotus Position’s permanent inclusion in the emoji library is a powerful symbol of the lasting place of mindfulness in the cultural mainstream, having made the journey from niche spiritual practice to wellness trend to a widely known and accepted tool for health, well-being, performance, and personal fulfillment. Bolstered in no small part by the growing body of scientific evidence of its many benefits, mindfulness has become integral to our cultural image of a healthy lifestyle—not to mention its entry into big business: in 2017, the mindfulness “industry” generated $1.2 billion in profits (see just how much meditation apps rake in).
Even Bramhill was inspired to try meditation for the first time after creating his emoji. “It’s been a nice introduction,” he said, although “definitely not how people usually learn about meditation.”
Related: Meditation App Roundup
Right Speech in a Digital World
When the principle of right speech was created 2,600 years ago, conversation was something that only occurred face to face.
Things are a little different today. In a world of fast-paced digital communications, the use of language as an expression of one’s practice is more complex than ever before.
Right speech, in its essence, is about using language in a way that is intentional and promotes peacefulness in oneself and others. When it comes to online communications, right speech starts with not typing or sending things that you wouldn’t be willing to say out loud, said Anushka Fernandopulle, a San Francisco–based dharma teacher and executive coach.
“It’s good to remember that what you’re communicating will be received by a human being,” Fernandopulle said.
If what you’re sending happens to be emoji, try taking an extra moment to tap into the meaning of what you’re communicating and ask yourself whether the symbols are likely to express their intended meaning.
“Emoji are a new area for creative expression, with the possibility for quick concise communication but also for confusion or harm if the sender and the recipient do not understand the same meaning,” she said. “Since it is a relatively new form of communication, we are still all learning the lexicon.”
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