‘When we go to the moon I am not sure we are following the best direction for human beings. I don’t know what we are doing. When we find the spirit of zazen, we find the way of life to follow as a human being. In other words, we are not fooled by things or fooled by some particular idea.’ (Not Always So)
I have often wondered how this talk that Suzuki Roshi gave on the day of the first Apollo moon landing was received. In the past I have offered it as a teaching, though I don’t necessarily agree with how he expresses himself in some parts of the talk as published. What I do agree with is that technology is not necessarily the way for us to find the way to the heart of human existence.
There was a fascinating piece about virtual reality film making in a recent edition of the New Yorker, and I can imagine how much fun it must be to be working in a medium where not only the technology is advancing at a fast pace, but the way we interact with it is still being established; visual language is being created and our responses to it are being learned at the same time. A few lines stood out for me: Janet Murray is quoted as writing in 1997, ‘Every age seeks out the appropriate medium in which to confront the unanswerable questions of human existence,’ to which she adds now, ‘Through this machine, we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected.’ One of the entrepreneurs in the article notes, ‘All I know is we’re addicted to technology as a society, and once we move forward we don’t tend to go back.’
A couple of Fridays ago, I arrived at the tech company where I lead meditation, to find a buzz in the air. The CEO’s assistant was embarrassed that she had forgotten to email me to tell me not to come, as there was going to be a demonstration. When I found out what was being demonstrated – a new app and head gear for measuring your meditation – I thought it would be fun to stay and join in.
The person leading the demonstration was a sweet young guy with a longstanding meditation practice, and the size of the group was about what it was last year when I started going to the company, in the days when the CEO was always there and encouraging her senior people to follow her lead.
It took a while for everyone to get set up, and the head gear calibrated; I was borrowing the instructor’s phone, so I don’t know if I got the same exercise as everyone else, but there was three minutes of listening to waves – the quieter the sound, the less mental activity was being measured; and when your mind got very still, there were bird songs.
The CEO got to tease me at the end of the first demonstration when her screen showed that she had better numbers than mine, in terms of the percentage of time spent in the calmest of three states shown on a graph. Then she realised that as we all had our own baseline, perhaps I was just starting from a calmer place. Maybe so. For the following two run-throughs, I noticed how my mental activity was shaping the sounds, and also ways in which it didn’t. I went from stillness, especially at the end of an exhale, to wondering what I had to do to hear the sound of the bird anyway. All over the course of three minutes – I would like to think in my defence that I would do better over forty.
It was fun to see the chief data scientist, who has never come to join the meditation sessions, though he says he enjoys them from his desk, getting excited at the prospect of something he could measure. One of my regulars, on the other hand, was disappointed that his style of visualisation meditation didn’t seem to get good scores…
As I said to the instructor, Buddha was all about skillful means, and we agreed that however people come to be on a cushion is good, because who knows where it might end up. I could see how it might form strong habits and show people how much thinking they do and that they can slow down the mental flow. At the same time I was worried how people might get discouraged if their numbers didn’t hold up or show good improvement. If there is one thing I have learnt from more than fifteen years of meditation is that the most important thing is to keep going when it doesn’t seem to be working for you, because some days it is going to seem like a complete disaster from start to finish.
I am not sure I am going to be rushing to check out a virtual reality film; these days I find I have almost no appetite for drama, as I have watched very little in recent years that has been convincing enough to suspend my disbelief. I am perfectly content with this reality – the reality of all things, as Dogen puts it in Shobogenzo Shoho Jisso. Or as he says in Genjo Koan, ‘Meeting one thing is mastering it. Doing one practice is practicing completely.’ This is the way to the heart of the human experience.