A post by Sumi Loundon Kim about the effects of social media on the next generation, and how dharma teachers can adapt to this change.
A few months ago, I led a retreat for nine young girls, ages nine to twelve, at a small Zen temple in the forests of North Carolina. After a wonderful afternoon of art, cooking, a little meditation, and learning about Buddhism, we retired to our dormitory. I checked in with four of the girls in one of the rooms before going to bed.
As I entered, immediately one of the girls asked me, “Did you bring a laptop? How about your mobile phone?” “Uhh…” I said, briefly thinking that the girl missed her mom and needed to call home. “No,” I said, “I did not bring a laptop, though I do have a phone. Why?” “Because,” she said quickly, “usually at this time of night I am texting like fifteen different friends for like an hour. Then my mom will call up the stairs and say, ‘Emily, stop texting! It’s time for bed.’ And I tell her, ‘Okay, mom, I will,’ but then I will text for another hour until about midnight.”
I laughed. “Emily, you may not use my phone for texting. This is a retreat. We’re letting go of technology and just learning to be here now. Besides, I don’t have a texting plan.” For a moment she looked irritated, but then she smiled and said, “Okay!” As I closed the door, I heard the girls return to a funny conversation about bras and stuff at school, giggling and enjoying themselves the way girls will.
I lay in bed feeling quite stunned by the implications of Emily’s request. Here she was with three other wonderful girls, girls she knew fairly well and whom she could call friends, but instead of socially and emotionally connecting with the real human beings right in the same room she wanted to be plugged into a virtual world of text messaging with her other friends who were far away. What bothered me so deeply about that moment? The next morning, I woke up with some perspective.
In our normal way of living, we are usually somewhat disconnected from reality because we are thoroughly wrapped up in our thoughts. We live in our heads, busy thinking about the future, dwelling in the past, or analyzing something, but rarely will we connect fully to the present moment just as it is. Through meditation practice, though, we learn to come more fully into the present moment. We shift from moving through life in a dream-like way to being in life fully awake to all that is occurring here and now. Part of my job as a Buddhist teacher is to help others – and indeed myself! – awaken to reality by returning to the present. This alone is hard enough to teach and accomplish.
But now this new generation of young people, and indeed various people of other generations, live in other worlds constructed by texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other online social media. These other worlds exist only through the eyes and mind: there is no touch, no taste, no smell, and very little hearing. As such, virtual worlds present us Buddhist teachers with students who live not just one step removed from reality, but two.
I do not think that we teachers can afford to underestimate the impact of social media on people today, particularly young people who become neurologically adapted to this lifestyle, on our students ability to meditate, to know themselves, to touch truth, and to become liberated. The next generation of dharma teachers must not shy away from understanding the force of technology on young people.
Does this mean that Buddhist teachers should tell people to stop using social media? No, of course not, because these virtual worlds are also a part of reality in the same way that our thoughts are part of reality, too. But we must help people understand that, just as thoughts are only one part of reality, and a part that can distort reality significantly, so too are these virtual worlds online just one aspect of life.
Among the dharma teachers in America I see how hard it can be for some in the older generation to “get” the internet. We younger teachers might smile a little when we see that a few of our elders are using any email handler but GMail, which our generation knows is the best. But my generation, those of us in our 30s and 40s, still prefer to meet someone in person, to feel their hug, see their eyes. We do not spend two hours texting our friends each evening and most of us have ambivalent feelings about Facebook, knowing what life was like before this became big. So my generation, too, does not “get” the generation after us.
But my generation of dharma teachers seems to understand two issues. First, we must begin incorporating teachings on the use of technology. One of the leading young Western Buddhist teachers Ethan Nichtern gave a talk at the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference in Los Angeles titled “The Internet is Not Your Teacher.” He said:
Community is really the key to these Buddhist teachings. Ironically, people are experiencing a profound loss of a sense of community at the same time that social networking is taking off. As such, we Buddhist teachers need to actually say to the world that we have to participate in human community. We have to actually go and encourage people by saying, “Turn off your computer for a little while, you can turn it back on later, go find other people to meditate and socialize with.” After a meditation class in my center, we ask whether anybody wants to go and get dinner. That’s human connection. It’s not a Second Life dinner. You have to eat an actual dinner. The key to deeply understanding these Buddhist teachings is making human connections with each other. [Adapted from the spoken original.]
Second, we need have to some dharma teachers become adept at teaching through the internet to reach those who use the internet as their primary learning tool. The focus of the recent Wisdom 2.0 conference was “to explore how we can live mindfully and wisely, and engage the great technologies of our age in ways that benefit us, our society, and our world.” It brought together the founders of Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Paypal, Zynga, and other technology leaders along with wisdom teachers such as Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
Additionally, teachers in America are increasingly using Skype and online classroom environments, in conjunction with meeting in person, as a way to work with students. At Duke University, I asked Stephen Batchelor and Ajahn Brahmavamso to give Skype dharma talks to the students, saving money, time, and carbon output. I found the talks remarkably personal and interpersonal, even though it was all done via computer.
Fortunately, I don’t think all Buddhist teachers need to understand the virtual, social world our next generation lives in. After all, there were plenty of great masters in mountain temples in the past century who didn’t drive a car, watch television, use a mobile phone, or play video games, yet they taught the dharma in a way that many could understand and many led more awakened lives as a result.
But for those of us teaching outside monasteries and in the world, those of us teaching Sunday school classes or who work with university students, we really must take into account that most of our young students live in two different worlds, and one of those worlds is even more virtual than this one. Just as people get lost in this world, people get lost in that virtual one as well, and we may need to know how to enter that world in order to lead them out.