We Need to Talk!

A couple weeks ago I was cleaning my office and listening to CBC’s Q. Tom Power was interviewing comedian and podcaster Marc Maron on what makes up a good interview. I wasn’t familiar with Maron but when he spoke about the depth of observations and connection that can arise in a conversation, he had my attention. He said that a conversation is an “emotional journey” of human connection but that countless people text instead. “You have to really set time aside to have a real conversation with someone and I don’t know if anyone really does that anymore on purpose” (at the 8:45 mark if you’re listening).

Although he was talking about interviewing people, he said that it’s innate in us to want to understand each other, love each other, be acknowledged by each other, and help each other but he also claimed that conversations are dying out because “those feelings have become uncomfortable” (10:00). According to Maron, the pace of our lives means that “everybody’s kind of scared and kind of lonely, and kind of angry and kind of unsatisfied. And isolated. And I don’t think that communicating through text does anything to help that” (approx. 10:55).

What does help? Over the years, Maron says he’s gotten better at listening in conversations, at not interjecting because of habit or discomfort. He’s learned how to “let silences sit” (3:06-3:30). This will sound familiar to anyone who’s participated in a Shambhala program and experienced a conversational dyad practice—listening and speaking mindfully from the heart. Especially listening.  Marc Maron’s insight into people’s innate nature sounds like basic goodness. Yearning for connection is a part of that.

It’s Not Just a Buddhist Thing

Marc Maron’s not the only one talking about this lately. The Guardian published a long story on 6 October called “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia.”   Its tagline reads “Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet.” The piece describes how Justin Rosenstein, the computer engineer who created Facebook’s “like” button, is concerned about “the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.” How often do you touch your phone? How would it feel to do things differently?

It’s a thorough article with a number of voices ringing the alarm about the state of people’s minds in contemporary culture. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee who now critiques the tech industry, said “I don’t know a more urgent problem than this … It’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.” When the IT engineers who helped to create social media create elaborate strategies to protect their own families’ minds from it, I think it’s worth paying attention. “All of us are jacked into this system,” Harris says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

Because I meditate I’ve become familiar with my mind. I know how it feels to be unplugged and settled, tender hearted and spacious, and I’ve glimpsed how it feels to hold my seat when I’m tossed about.  I also know how it feels to be “hijacked.” Most of us do. But while it’s always been up to each of us to wake up to our own precious lives, these days we face particular challenges for our attention.  Our devices clamour for our minds. That makes meditation even more necessary.

On Sunday 15 October I heard an interview on The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright  called “The Anti-Democratic Reign of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon.” It examines how “there would be a public uproar if governments in Western democracies did as much to monopolize our attention, our minds and our way of life” as these big companies do.

It’s a thought-provoking half-hour conversation with Franklin Foer, a former editor of The New Republic magazine, who has written a book called World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. That title alone makes me sit up straight. A world without mind, a world without heart, is a world that needs us more than ever.

There are dozens of other popular examples of people exploring these issues but these came across my path without my seeking them, all within a couple of weeks. They represent significant conversations about the heart of our society. They speak in very different voices but these thinkers and comedians and IT designers and ordinary people are hungry for real conversation, for focus, for human connection. And alarmed about a world without it.

The Path of Connection

In The Shambhala Principle, Sakyong Mipham says that society consists of two people meeting each other. His brand new book The Lost Art of Good Conversation has just been published. In this book,

the Sakyong uses the basic principles of the Shambhala traditionmeditation and a sincere belief in the inherent wisdom, compassion, and courage of all beingsto help readers to listen and speak more mindfully with loved ones, co-workers, strangers, and even ourselves.

He will be in Toronto  17 and 18 November—the only Canadian city on this book tour—so that each one of us can experience our own minds and connect with others. If you have even a little curiosity about this book and short retreat, I urge you to honour it.

Conversation is also about how we talk to ourselves.

My friend Margaret May is already reading the book and said “As I delve into the book, The Lost Art of Good Conversation, I appreciate that the Sakyong is always offering from Shambhala principles—relationship with our ourselves, relationship with others, and relationship with society. I know I am encountering challenges of  ‘conversing with society’ but my goodness isn’t that what is so essential right now.”

Early bird and student tickets are available. If your financial situation is an inhibiting factor in attending this retreat please contact the organizers who can make arrangements that will work for you.

Get your tickets here.