by Dan Nixon
The texture and rhythms of our day-to-day lives have changed drastically over the past year. As we’re less able to move around and come together physically, we have much to thank our digital technologies for as we use them to collaborate for work, connect with friends or simply share the space of the ‘virtual’ meditation hall.
But the challenges linked to our increasingly ‘digitally-mediated’ existence have also become more apparent than ever: polarisation, scattered attention and the pull of passivity as we are enticed towards never-ending streams of “content”.
As a long-term meditator, I’ve been reflecting on this state of affairs. I’ve been wondering, in particular, how cultivating a ‘spirit of questioning’ might serve us particularly well in the digital age – something I explore in a recent essay for Perspectiva, a UK-based NGO focussed on the connections between our ‘inner’ lives and the world’s ‘outer’ problems (such as the climate crisis).
I centre the essay around the Korean Zen practice of coming back to the simple question, ‘what is this?‘, over and over again, in relation to one’s actual, lived experience. Having taught this practice for over twenty years, Martine and Stephen Batchelor have described how, through questioning, we can learn to undercut our habitual tendency to fixate on things – to identify with some sense that ‘I am like this’ or ‘This is like that’.
Stephen has emphasized that the ability to deeply question our lived experience is an essential element of a secular approach to the dharma.
This chimes with the value placed on curiosity in the West, although the form of questioning undertaken in the Zen tradition is quite distinctive. Recounting his years spent living in a monastery in Korea, Stephen Batchelor describes how ‘we would all sit in a darkened room and ask ourselves ‘What is this?’. And rest with that question. Nothing else’. In What is this? Ancient questions for modern minds, written with Stephen, Martine elaborates:
The practice is about questioning; it’s not a practice of answering… [it’s about] trying to cultivate a sensation of questioning in the whole body and mind. The anchor is the question, and we come back to the question again and again.
How, then, might this simple practice be applied to our experience online and broader debates about technology?
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I suggest that we can bring the question, ‘what is this?’, to three interrelated facets of our digitally-mediated experience.
Most obviously, we can ask the question in relation to our most mundane experiences online: the routine acts of checking our news and social media feeds or reaching out to Google a random historical event that just popped into our minds. In each case, we practice asking ourselves: what’s going on here? What is the atmosphere of this or that online space like? What background feelings am I aware of? What is this?
One way this can support us is in becoming more intentional online. Dropping in the question, ‘what is this?’, I can lift myself out from what often feels like a digital hall of mirrors – one that, if I’m not careful, I can get lost within, as I find myself going from platform to platform, from feed to feed.
We can, in turn, question the habits we are forming through our online behaviour. What kind of a person is this or that technology leading me to become? In which online spaces do I find myself becoming irritable? Where, by contrast, is it easiest for me to be kind, patient and open-minded? Bringing more awareness to these patterns can, in itself, open up the possibility to change them.
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The second facet of our online experience relates to the hidden forces shaping what we experience online. When we consider problems like the polarisation of our views and the marginalisation of nuance online, we have to ask: what is the role, here, of the business models of the Big Tech companies? Is division being driven more by tech ‘users’ and their views or the algorithms generating our newsfeeds?
There are many excellent analyses of this kind, but an angle that I explore surrounds the basic gravitational pull in many online spaces (like Twitter and Reddit) towards a ‘world of opinions’. We don’t, from the perspective of our activity on these platforms, engage with other people in the flesh. We don’t engage with ambient sounds, with light breezes, with subtle smells. We engage just with what’s posted.
This matters because in such a setting, an ‘us versus them’ mindset becomes the norm, not the exception. Moreover, we are solicited to continually ‘check in’ with a stream of opinions for its own sake. While we of course need to be informed and form opinions on certain things, platforms which revolve around this kind of never-ending stream of opinions do not bring out the best in us. As the Buddha said in the Sutta Nipata: ‘Those who cling to perceptions and views / Wander the world offending people’. In the essay, I explore alternative, less charged ways of engaging online.
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The last facet of experience concerns that which words can only go so far to help us with; the need, for instance, to ‘rediscover the world of silence’ as the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it.
When it comes to silence, or spaciousness, or dreaming or the inherent mystery of experiencing anything at all, we can ask: what do these mean in our digitally-mediated contexts? Can they even be rendered digital?
Perhaps I can leave these as questions for reflection, rather than attempting to answer them here. I will say just that the notion of ‘tech solutionism’ as a way to capture the dominant Silicon Valley mindset seems relevant, here: the idea that tech companies tend to presume, rather than openly investigate, the problems they set out to tackle – reaching for solutions before the questions have been fully asked.
And so perhaps the most fundamental application of an ongoing spirit of questioning in relation to our digitally-mediated lives is precisely to demand that our technologies give us more than solutions: that, as well as helping us perform various tasks, they’re designed to support our ability to openly question things.
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Our technologies are, in themselves, neither the problem nor the solution. Yet they greatly shape the context within which the challenges of our time are to be met. Amidst forces that are pulling the social fabric apart and making us increasingly divided and distrusting of one another, we can begin the path towards creating something better, I believe, by cultivating an ongoing, open-ended spirit of questioning towards all we encounter in our digitally-mediated experience.
That is, by asking, again and again, with our whole body and mind, and with a spirit of care and humility – not seeking definite answers – the three simple words: what is this?