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At the same time, interactions on the internet can be surprisingly deep and healing. When I first joined the Well in the early ’90s, I got to know a young artist and father named Damian who lived a few blocks away. Sadly, shortly after I met him he was diagnosed with cancer. I encouraged Damian to keep an online journal to record his experiences in treatment. This journal became a sanctuary for those who cared about him and his family, like a little holy place made of text.
“A few years ago, I was reading a book about Suzuki Roshi,” Damian wrote one day, referring to the late founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. “The author said that Suzuki referred to his cancer as ‘his little friend.’ I thought that was just a little too Zen for me. Let's just say I've changed my mind. This internal nemesis has become an ally. Every day I feel healthy is a gift. If I can't get to sleep at night, I read a book, and am grateful for this new little pocket of time for reading. I see love with all of its flaws heading at me from all directions like a herd of runaway locomotives. I never had a feel for it before. I've had to rebuild my life in a very short time and find it to be an exhilarating experience (most of the time). Meanwhile, I try to kill this nemesis, thanking it all the while.”
The internet has also supported my efforts to become more mindful in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. When Eric visited from Ontario, we meditated by the ocean, timed by a handy iPhone app called Meditator. A few years ago, the loss of a treasured friendship after a hurtful exchange was a warning of how ravaging online words can be when used carelessly.
Whatever your interest in meditation, we’re living in a golden age one author called “the Digital Silk Road.” In past centuries, students had to travel long distances and endure hardships to hear great teachers. Now thousands of guided meditations and talks are freely downloadable from sites like dharmaseed.org. Every day, people all over the world learn how to listen more closely to the state of their health by Googling their way to a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class or performing a “body scan” at home.
One of the first outposts of mindful living on the web—a collection of texts and essays called “What do you think, my friend?”—was built in 1995 by a twenty-five-year-old software engineer from Singapore named Chade-Meng Tan. These days, Meng works for Google as the company’s “Jolly Good Fellow,” leading a program called Search Inside Yourself that offers courses in attention training and emotional intelligence (see “Google Searches,” Shambhala Sun, September 2009). Lately, Meng has been cooking up a project that will harness the technical and scientific expertise of his resourceful personal network—which includes neuroscientists, fellow programmers, and the Dalai Lama—to discover the areas of the brain activated by meditation practice.
The problem with traditional mindfulness training, Meng says (sounding very much like a Google engineer), is that it’s a blind search that takes too long. By mapping the neurological markers of mindfulness practice, he hopes to provide practical milestones for meditators and accelerate the process of achieving deep awareness. “What if, instead of taking forty years to become like the Dalai Lama, it only took four years to become a person of compassion, kindness, and wisdom? That would change the world,” he says. “I don’t know yet if the technology is possible, but I’m trying to figure it out.”
I ask Meng how he manages to stay grounded while working in a high-pressure corporate environment like Google. “Think of the mind as an ocean—very choppy on the surface, but calm and happy just below that,” he says. “I call that clarity my ‘default mind.’ I try to get back to my default mind a couple times a day.” He supplements this practice with another time-tested method for maintaining perspective: “I remind myself that I’m going to die. Given that, how important is this thing bothering me right now?”
Another friend who has embraced technology as a way of exploring the nature of mind is John Tarrant, author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and other Zen books. For years, John has been evaluating various ways of including online life in his students’ field of practice. I recently shared with him a concern that the web could act as a jungle gym for “monkey mind,” the restless part of our ego that hops from one potential source of gratification to the next, chattering internally all the while. How is it possible to stay grounded in the face of perpetual distraction?