Show me Your True Face: Zen & the Internet

[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…

“Show me your true face, from before your parents were born!”

By Joe

Puzzle Wrestler & Mountain Herder. Math & Computer Nerd since the 80s. Longtime linux (current debian, ubuntu, raspian, centos, gentoo), currently fighting feebsd. Over-complicates networks for fun, occasionally secures them for profit. Develops own tools & services (cli, web services, and lately some android). Degrees in Math, Belts in Aikido. Zen, Motorcycle, Ham Radio, Homebrew (Ale, not Radio), Coffee & Tea, some Mandolin & Fiddle, MDA Advocacy (son with Duchenne), …


  1. Hi, Carolyn, and thanks for commenting!

    I hadn't even considered IRC; it really is a good example.

    In retrospect, it is amazing how much time I've put into crafting different emails to be just so, making sure my meaning was clear, working that there were no "barbs" in it where a reader might get stuck, and so forth. Hours and hours at times… It doesn't help that my default preference is writing (so, email), versus a phone call or a face-to-face meeting.

    And, really, for all the effort, if the reader had an agenda of some sort, my message would inevitably be misinterpreted. It's a challenging lesson that you cannot ultimately know how you will be understood. ("Damned if you do, damned if you don't!" so to speak.) With that realization, though, how would you do things differently? There are many Zen koans that have this kind of dilemma at the core.

    I find more and more that, even in face-to-face talks with people whom I've known deeply for years, it's easy to go off track: one of us is misreading the other, or one of us is actually projecting something subconsciously and the other is accurately reading it. It's good to have someone close to you so you can check these things out—a neat experiment. I find that even my senses will lie to me if I communicate with some set point-of-view; I'll notice the few non-verbal cues and see them and reinforcing my view. Undoubtedly, removing those extra cues just adds to the challenge—and maybe helps you know what you're dealing with when those cues are there?

  2. Interesting blog post. I've had some interesting experiences about written miscommunication in a freelance job I hold.

    A lot of the workers, including me, are remote workers, so the bulk of communication is done over e-mail. E-mail's usually fine because there's plenty of time to think about what to say and compose a careful phrase.

    But, we also use irc, which is real-time chat communication. The IRC chats can be difficult to use to communicate sometimes because it's the worst of both worlds: No nonverbal cues, and not a lot of composing sentences and phrases on the fly without filter.

    We all have to make sure to ask for clarification and do our best not to misinterpret things. We do a pretty good job, but not always perfect.

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