The rewards and challenges of technology
Earlier this evening, I gave my first dharma talk via video-link, from the YHA in Sydney to Auckland Insight in New Zealand. Nothing too remarkable about that these days; but still, it was a delight to be able to connect with the group in this way, and I felt a new sense of appreciation for the benefits of computer technology. We now have access to a wide range of dharma teachings from many different traditions, in many different forms. And with almost no effort, we can instantly download or stream talks and videos, or sign up for online study courses.
In my own experience though – as both a teacher and a student – there can also be a downside to this instant abundance. Without awareness, it can unconsciously reinforce a passive, materialistic, and at times even disrespectful relationship to the teachings.
So as technology helps meditation becomes more and more mainstream, it’s becoming increasingly normal to approach it with a consumerist mind-set. In some ways, this makes sense. When everything else around us is presented in that way, why wouldn’t we think about the practice in terms of what we can get from it? And why wouldn’t we assume that it should be available on my terms: in the way I want it, when I want it, for the price I want it? We can even mistake this kind of freedom (to consume) for the deeper freedom that the Buddha’s teachings point to.I recently re-read a passage from Ajahn Sucitto’s book “Parami: Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” where he points to the dangers of this attitude. In light of my recent experience, I thought it was worth sharing, and reflecting on some of the often-hidden assumptions that can get in the way of developing a deeper understanding of what the dharma offers.
The idea of being boundless and free is attractive, and we can assume this comes around through not having any commitments or aims. People may think, ‘Don’t tie me down, I’m a Buddhist. I want to be completely open. I want to feel free to follow my intuitions.’ … This is why our times are sometimes called the Dhamma-ending age, because it’s hard to get some of these teachings across in a society that has turned the precious qualities of motivation, respect and resolve towards material ends and towards beliefs that don’t go that far. 
I highlighted those three words in the last sentence because they don’t seem to be widely valued any more, and yet their lack is often what stops us from getting the most benefit from the practice.
As with anything else in life, the returns are proportional to the investment, so if we do something with half-hearted motivation, we’ll probably get half-hearted results. It’s natural that – especially at first – there might be some anxiety about what we’re getting ourselves into, so most of us go through some period of just dipping our toes in the water. But if that’s all we ever do, we never learn to swim. At some point, we have to take a leap of faith and dive in!
I remember one of my teachers, Joseph Goldstein, saying that there’s a significant deepening of the practice that comes when we stop thinking in terms of what we can get from it, to what we can give to it.
In my own experience though, once we do start to give more to the practice, the rewards are not directly proportional to the investment – they seem to increase exponentially! Perhaps it’s because when we shift from a self-centred approach to a more community-minded one, we develop connections with like-minded people, and we start to benefit from a network of mutual support and mutual respect.
The word “respect” sounds quite quaint these day, and I have to acknowledge that I’m a relatively recent convert to its power. Before coming into contact with the dharma, it’s not a word that probably would have even entered my mind. It wasn’t until I sat my first three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society that I started to have any sense of what respect might be.
After that retreat, I had the good fortune to stay at a monastery in England for several months, supporting the annual monastic retreat as a volunteer while also taking time to integrate the experiences I’d had at IMS. During that integration phase, sometimes a memory of some of the interactions I’d had with my teachers would come up, accompanied by an unfamiliar emotion that I couldn’t quite place. It was several weeks before I realised: “Oh, this feeling is respect!” Until then, I don’t think I’d ever met people who embodied qualities that I valued, so unfortunately, it just wasn’t part of my emotional repertoire. Once I learned to recognise respect though, I saw how it underpins and fuels the development of many other skilful qualities of heart and mind.
Resolve, for example. When there’s respect for something, resolve naturally grows. We want to be more involved, to give more, and to share more. We’re also usually more willing to expand out of our comfort zones, to experience more of the full depth and breadth that the dharma offers.
But sometimes, this resolve needs to be actively cultivated. Many of us have had the experience of signing up for a retreat, then as the time gets closer, somehow all kinds of other things start to need our attention. A family member has a health challenge, a big deadline comes up at work, the kids seem to be in a phase of fighting with each other more, the credit card bill seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, the garden is seriously in need of attention, a long-lost friend decides to get in contact right before the retreat … All of these things can seem so compelling, and sometimes we even decide to cancel the retreat because it’s “just not the right time.”
Is it ever the right time though? There’s always something that seems to be in the way. And if we keep waiting until all the conditions come together just right, we could be waiting a very long time. Meanwhile, the skills we could have learned during the retreat would have really helped us to navigate the health challenges and the work stress and the family problems and the overdue home maintenance and the money worries etc, etc etc.
Next time you notice some kind of pulling back or resistance, see if you can remember this quality of resolve, and make the determination to go ahead and stick with your original intention. In my own experience, it’s been much more common to regret not having done the retreat, than to have gone ahead and done it.
So – no pressure! – but I look forward to meditating and exploring this path with you some time soon. Or again, in the Buddha’s words:
Here, [practitioners], are the roots of trees; here are empty places. Meditate! Don’t be lazy! Don’t be ones who are later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.
 Parami: Ways to Cross Life’s Floods p155