[Cross-posted from the Baltimore Zen Center’s site. Visit and comment!]
When you speak, what is speaking? When you listen, what is hearing?
Does your eye see? A corpse has eyes, yet what does it see?
When friends, family, or lovers communicate with a level of familiarity or intimacy, what is they are sharing? Ultimately, there is a mind-to-mind sharing of the intimacy itself. The intimacy is manifest on every level within the expression, and in turn it is perceived through the other’s senses. Juxtapose this with a dealing with an aggressive salesman. When you interact with the salesman, are you talking to the real person, or are you talking to the person’s want to make a sale? Do you not perceive this in the person’s appearance, actions, voice, and so forth? All of the senses reassemble what they perceive and reintegrate into “salesman.”
This process is not perfect, of course. If either the transmitter or the receiver is not operating properly, the message is garbled. For instance, “salesman” can easily be misinterpreted as “sensitive friend” if that is what you hope to see. Similarly, in spite of your best intentions and efforts, if you have doubt in your efforts, the doubt is transmitted.
This is a non-trivial concern for students of Zen. Your everyday life is ultimately an expression of your state of mind. Similarly, how you perceive everything around you is skewed by your state of mind. It is easy to become trapped by what and how you perceive.
What has proven to be an interesting exercise is to examine what happens when, one by one, we delete the senses and continue communicating. With fewer checks to gauge our understanding, will we go awry? Consider email as an example: Even though we can use as many words as we like, how many arguments arise from misinterpreting email? Lacking the visible cues such as body language as well as even the audible tone of the words as they were meant to be spoken, the transmission is garbled. Inevitably, we blame the medium if and when the misunderstanding is brought to light.
But is this reasonable? What is actually the source of misinterpretation? Who provides—or, “projects”—the interpretation that is not matching? Where there may have been room for doubt in the meaning, why would one assume what was meant instead of asking for clarification?
No matter how in tune we are with our senses, a clouded mind will take the inputs and misinterpret them. Sometimes, all we can actually do to increase the odds of clear transmission is to work to perfect our own state of mind.
Twitter (link) is a popular internet service that allows the individual to shout a message of no more than 140 characters into the ether. If no one is listening for it, and no one searches for it, it may never be heard. Occasionally though, perhaps through direct contact or through searching for key words, you may be found, and someone may subscribe to your announcements—perhaps even respond. A new social dynamic is created.
The communication channel is certainly limited, though. There is little that can actually be transmitted in 140 characters. Subtle gestures and tone may be reduced to including a smiley-faced emoticon or the like, presuming the two or three characters can be spared. If you are going to become familiar with another person’s mind through this medium, you must adapt your own.
The other day, I encountered a twitter user who announced the following (paraphrased) policy: “If you do not have a picture, I will not follow you.” In fact, in Twitter, you can chose a picture (or “avatar”) that will show up with every one of your messages. It allows for ease of identification of messages of from any particular person or entity—for instance, a business may use it’s logo. You can select any picture of anything (subject to copyright law, I suppose), to stand beside your communications. In this light, what does this person’s policy—“If I do not have a snapshot of who you are, I am not interested in listening to what you have to say?”—mean?
If someone is a sailor and chats about all things sailing, would it not be more interesting to see a picture of his boat—a clear picture of what is his mind? What do we expect to see in a still picture of someone’s face? Is that face who he really is? Is the value of his mind anchored to the appearance of his face? Ultimately, we ask how attached to the senses are we when we share our minds?
Naturally, there is comfort in retrofitting new technologies to our old ways, but in reality, this is illusory.
People who embrace these technologies fully and without attachment to old ways inevitably do not have these issues. Perhaps there is hope for Zen understanding in the newer generations…