I have been a meditation practitioner for most of my life. Over the last 3 years I have been on retreat working on ways to bring my meditation practice into the way I interact online. The Still Web project is my way to engage with the idea that digital stillness and dialogue is about training the mind not choosing the right technology. As Thich Nhat Hanh wisely reminds us, no device can change a blocked mind.
We can change how we relate to our devices and through this create a space for dialogue that is about discovery and mind walking rather than finding ever more creative ways for our well-trodden views to prevail over others. This blog post is a first attempt to translate what is a fairly advanced meditation practice, insight dialogue, into ideas we can use to build a collaborative blogging methodology where,
“we are not trying to make our points prevail or, if we are, we look at that. Our challenge is to see when each of us is trying to prevail, because if anybody prevails it means the dialogue has failed” (David Bohm).
Insight Dialogue is an interpersonal meditation practice developed by Gregory Kramer. I say it is a fairly advanced practice because it is usually not taught until one’s own individual meditation practice is well established. This is because it requires us to control our habit mind in the most challenging of situations, when we are talking to each other. It relies on 6 simple guidelines that take a lifetime or two to practice.
The challenge for us here is to explore how something that is taught face to face in long retreats at monasteries and retreat centres, can be useful to generate a different kind of interaction with our devices and through this the possibility of opening up a new conversational space online.
It turns out that Gregory Kramer has given us a helping hand. Online insight dialogue has been going on since 1995 and the guidelines have a track record in helping people run both synchronous and asynchronous meditation sessions online. I have read his book many times, but only today as we start to explore what collaborative digital dialogue might mean, I notice a whole section in the book on precisely how to use the guidelines for online interpersonal meditation practice. What was interesting to me in this section of the book was this comment,
Using the Insight Dialogue guidelines during other online meetings—an increasingly common aspect of daily life—helps people manifest greater mindfulness and calm in those encounters. Such practice can help temper the emotional outbursts, or flaming, that can arise online in the absence of aural and visual cues. Text-based practice centers around the simple fact that the words shared in meditation remain visible on the screen long after they are “spoken.”
So Gregory Kramer is already hinting in 2012 at the potential value of this approach in online interaction. He also clearly states that a possible advantage of text-based asynchronous dialogue is ‘a reflective quality of practice not available in video conferencing or in-person practice and can be reason enough to opt for text-based practice.’
It requires a commitment to the pause and to speaking from silence without attachment to outcome. A conversation that is a meander through a country lane not a search for the fastest highway to the destination. Underneath all of that, it requires making the commitment of time. It is okay to set a fixed time, sometimes all we have is a fixed period of time. We do that in meditation. What is less skilful is to decide what content and how much will be ‘done’ once the time period is up. My online session might be just 1 hour; what matters is that the frame of mind I set for that hour is ‘now I will practice digital dialogue’ rather than ‘now I will read 10 posts and comment on 5’.
I know that over the years as I practice insight dialogue, I find myself more and more humble about the truth of just how much ‘we do not see what is actually happening when we are engaged in the activity of thinking’ (David Bohm). I started this journey with the arrogance of a cognitive psychologist who clearly (not) knew what she was thinking as she was acting in the world. Today, I know we simply do not have a clue and when we start to have a clue all we can do is add judgement to ignorance by being critical of our failings or that of others. A perhaps hidden aspect, or hidden to some non-buddhists at least, is the need for overarching compassion in approaching digital dialogue – without it seeing the depth of the pond that is our habit mind (with all the rubbish abandoned at the bottom over the years) is something most humans cannot bear to sit with for long.
Below I have taken highlights from the section that speaks to online insight dialogue and the use of the guidelines and recorded a short podcast. Let’s see what you make of it.