Ken McLeod and Vincent Horn continue their conversation about the student-teacher relationship by examining communication mediums. They begin by examining the value and limitations of video chat as well as the benefits and dangers of practice via social networking. Vincent and Ken explore why it’s important for students and teachers to meet in the middle of communication gaps, and what happens when they don’t.
This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, Crossing the Generational Divide.
Ken: Here you’ve grown up in a world where you need direction you just consult your iPhone and that’s it.
Ken: And I grew up in the world where you actually told people how to get to your place because that was the only way they were going to get there.
Vincent: Okay. This is a good analogy. I want to loop it back to what you were saying about the generational differences, because it’s easy for me to see what you’re saying, like certain technologies enhance abilities and then if those suddenly disappeared or I chose not to have them, it would be very difficult for me to get around without the iPhone but not as difficult for you. And that make perfect sense. So just like probably you had grandparents like if they had to like do subsistence farming or live off the land or you what. I can see like a few generations before there are probably skills that got lost in your generation.
Vincent: So in that sense there’s like all these things they enhance certain abilities but we lose other capacities but we lose pretty universally. So like most people aren’t, unless they’re really interested in how to find north, they don’t learn that. They don’t learn how to navigate that way.
So okay bring it back to this conversation of practice and teachers. My orientation toward technology has been sort of that I continue to find ways that it’s more useful at doing certain things than the options that were presented before. So I just look at the contemplative world in my own practice and I start wondering well what are the ways that technology could aid certain aspects of this and enhance them.
Ken: This is very interesting.
Vincent: And that conversation doesn’t happen much.
Ken: This is very interesting Vince because I just described how I found word processing technology enhances my ability to translate.
Ken: So I’d like to throw a question out here to you. Can you give me an example or two about how modern technology enhances your ability to practice to meditate or any aspect of dharma practice?
Vincent: Yeah. Sure. I can probably give a couple easy ones and maybe there are some that would be harder to think up. One has been Skype video has made a huge difference in my ability to stay connected with peers and teachers in a kind of real way when we don’t live near each other and to kind of talk about practice, to share notes, to get new instruction, you know just to basically have those oral conversations, the thing that you mentioned before those real interactions in such a way that it feels like we’re on Skype video now. It almost feels like I’m in your living room hanging out with you but not quite. But it’s close enough that that’s enhanced things for me quite a bit.
And then the other thing has been around social media Twitter, Facebook and then some sort of forum places where I’ve gotten some value in connecting with other practitioners and seeing them talk about their practice. Like on Twitter there’s a hash tag called open practice and there’s a whole site openpractice.me where people will share a little bit of like a little ephemera from their practice. Like this morning I did noting meditation and some open awareness practice and then they’ll tag it open practice. And there’s a way in which for me that sort of socially reinforces this commitment to practice and it also creates this sort of interesting network where we’re kind of checking in on each other indirectly. And I found that really useful.
Ken: Let’s take both those, one at a time.
Ken: Let’s take Skype cause I’ve had some experience with Skype too. And I agree with you particularly, well when you had plain old telephone and then you just had audio on the internet which is basically the same as plain old telephone, it’s possible to give instruction and to receive instruction but you don’t have the body language. You do have the tone. And I’m going to refer back to some research that was done and this is used by the air traffic controller training in Canada. This is where I found these statistics but I’m not quite sure where they originated. I think 55% of communication is through a body language, 37% is through the tone of voice and the remaining 8% is the actual words.
Vincent: Okay. That’s interesting. So it’s almost 50-50 audio video. Close.
Ken: Yes. But the amount of information in the word is only 8%. It’s very small. So when you move to some, let’s take email because email is just pure words.
Vincent: Right. Right like books.
Ken: And you don’t even have the character of the handwriting. So you’re only getting 8% of the information in possible communication. Now with telephone you’re getting about 50% as you observed. And then the Skype it seems to be getting maybe 90% I’m not actually sure. Still as you say it’s different from being in the same room.
Ken: So if you go back to my earlier point there that technology enhances something and we don’t notice how other things fall away. When we get used to relating by Skype we may lose touch with the other aspects of communication that only take place when you’re in the same room.
Vincent: Right. Right.
Ken: And I do find, even though I have Skype conversations with friends and it’s really helpful to see their facial expressions and their movement and so forth, and when I’ve done meditation instruction and practice instruction it’s really helpful to see and I think it’s helpful for the person to see my body language and so forth, it’s still not the same as being in the same room.
Vincent: Of course. Yeah. Or going on a hike.
Ken: Or going on a hike. Yeah. Where there’s something different in sharing that physical space you have. So how important that is? Well in some cases I think it’s crucially important for spiritual instruction and I think in other cases it probably isn’t crucially important, that is the necessary information can be conveyed through that. So I don’t take the attitude of saying Skype is bad and physical presence is good. I’m saying Skype is useful here but may not be sufficient and things. And there are people I’ve said look I don’t want to have this conversation with you over Skype. We’ve got to wait till we actually get together.
Vincent: Right. Right.
Ken: So I think that what’s important here is that people learn to differentiate what technologies are workable in what situations and not take a blanket approach. And I find this with respect to email where a lot of people send emails when a phone call is the appropriate form of communication and would work better.
Vincent: Totally. Totally. And then how do you see that playing out with like my sort of contention being that people that are in this older generation from my point of view do take more of a blanket approach and don’t necessarily parse some of these things out. Just as a practical point it makes it difficult, for instance to stay in touch with my older teacher if I don’t live near them. That’s something I’ve dealt with on a practical level.
Ken: So you make an appointment to see someone. Suppose you make an appointment to see someone in New York. When did you expect that person to show up?
Vincent: At the time that we’ve made the appointment usually.
Ken: Well here’s how it works in Tibet. You made an appointment to meet someone in Lhasa,, you’d wait a week to see if they show up or not.
Vincent: Okay. A little different sense of time or just because it’s difficult to get around.
Ken: Both. Because it was difficult to get around you had a different sense of time. And also because you didn’t have watches in the same way you watch, time is another technology even though we take it for granted now. Time is existing universally at the same time at all places on the same planet. It’s something that was only developed in 17th century with the development of the watch. So here are teachers that you have that you would like to communicate with and they balk at using Skype. Okay. I guess you have to have a conversation with them and introduce them to Skype.
Vincent: Okay. And this is helpful because it’s highlighting for me that there’s certain areas that like I can try to build a bridge to something and try to convince someone this could be useful. But then there’s always a kind of meeting halfway that happens.
Ken: See my own teacher never spoke on the phone to my knowledge.
Ken: His secretary, his assistant, would speak on the phone and would do the back and forth if necessary. But he didn’t know what to do with the phone. Now that’s an extreme case for our world and most people know what to do with phones now.
But always there is this aspect of people adapting to technology and some people do and some people don’t. And I can certainly sympathize and relate that you like to keep in touch with teachers and they choose not to use Skype. I know some people who to this day do not use email. And frustrating? Yeah. There are a couple of people who I know that I would like to have some communication with and I have to go through the whole phone thing. I can’t just send them an email.
Ken: This is something that’s going to happen in every generation. You wait, 40 years or 20 years and there are going to be people working this [new] communication and you’re going to sit there and say how does this work.
Vincent: How does this 3D hologram thing work?
Ken: You mean I just get in here and then I’m suddenly there. I don’t trust this.
Vincent: Right. Right. So how does one work with that gap then? Did you just say okay my teacher is not going to use the phone, that’s just the way it is, and so in order to be in relationship with him I’m going to travel or write letters or do whatever they do do?
Ken: That’s exactly right because, and here we go back to the point that I was talking about and the interaction, I was talking about spoken interaction but you’re taking it into a larger context here which I think is very interesting. You have a teacher grows up in their world with certain technologies and certain ways of communicating. You grew up in your world with other technologies and oays of communicating. You have to actually meet and you have meet where both of you can meet.
Ken: And so that’s part of you stepping out of your world of technology into the teacher’s world of not so much technology or not particular technologies. And some or possibly none vice versa but it just depends. But that’s the challenge of communication in today’s world.
Vincent: Okay. And do you feel like that’s an enriching process of both stepping a little bit outside their normal ways of doing. Do you feel like there’s something valuable in that?
Ken: That’s an interesting question.
Vincent: I thought mostly its frustrating but then it’s also can be enriching like when I had people say I’d rather not Skype like I’d rather we go on a hike or rather we go, you know, bringing me little outside of my normal way of doing things. And I go oh this is really nice actually.
Ken: Here I think you’re running into a particular bias I have that I want the communication. And so when I first meet my teacher I realized that, he only spoke Tibetan and him being 68 at that point it was extremely unlikely that he was going to learn English. So I just learned Tibetan because I wanted the direct communication.
Vincent: Okay. That’s more extreme than me trying to convince someone to get on Skype.
Ken: But it’s the same thing. It’s another technology.
Vincent: True. True.
Ken: And so if you want the communication then you’re going to step out of the world for the communication.
Vincent: Yes. Okay. Interesting. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me. That seems to be the crucial point is the communication itself.
Ken: I think so. And was it enriching? It’s tremendously enriching for me to learn Tibetan. I have to learn to think a whole different way because every language has its own way of thinking. That’s one of the little things I discoveedr. So but I didn’t learn it to enrich myself I learned it to communicate and I was enriched in the process.
Vincent: Okay. Got it. So maybe can we go to a couple of areas? I think maybe this will be helpful because there might be some patterns that start emerging here.
Ken: Okay. Let’s talk about the social media one which I found very very interesting.
Ken: A couple of years ago I was at a conference in Seattle and the chief scientist, I think he was retired of Palo Alto Park, gave us an extraordinary talk about the infrastructure for the 21st century, which is all information technology of course. And one of the small points in it was a law firm back east which had hired these young attorneys fresh out of law school etc. and gave them usual research on cases to do.
And they were a little puzzled because these young associates would produce very high quality research in very short periods of time. Now this was a mix blessing for the law firm. The high quality research was very good. But because they were doing it in such a short time, they were reducing their number of billable hours.
Vincent: Right. Right.
Ken: And what they were doing was when they were given the research case they would just go on Twitter or various other social media, perhaps Facebook but I think it was mainly Twitter, and saying I got a case along these lines. Anybody know any relevant cases? and they would crowd source it out to their colleagues at law school for things like that and they would get back stuff very very quickly. So instead of plowing through case books and case books they would just make use of the internet this way and they were able to get very good quality research done in very short periods of time.
Vincent: Yeah. They tapped into the hive mind sort of thing.
Ken: Yeah. So here you’re giving this example of open practice where it allows a kind of connection which in my generation we could do but we would do it by getting together physically and talking about stuff.
Ken: And that was the only way we could do it cause even conference calls there weren’t a lot of those in those days. And you know conference calls are a big pain to set up anyway even today. But just being able to communicate asynchronously, it didn’t have to be in the same time, just send the stuff out and get stuff back, that was a possibility that didn’t exist before. And I think it’s very interesting that you find this supportive in your practice. And I’d like to hear more about how you find that supportive.
Vincent: Yeah. I mean there’s one element that seems to be related to just the fact that a lot of these people share really similar either practices or interests or sets of interests or sort of weird combinations of interests, like they’re interested in technology and certain types of meditation and certain kinds of ways of approaching their practice that it feels like this is a real peer, this is someone that I really feel gets how I’m looking at things. And because of that when I share what I’m doing with them and they respond there’s something more meaningful in that as a peer to peer connection that wouldn’t have been possible if we’re geographically based. So that seems to be part of it is just the net is cast so much wider in those communications that the number of really really high impact meaningful relationships seem to be, there seem to be more number of those at least for me, and I find that incredibly enriching.
Ken: This is very interesting. Because I think what you’re referring to or you’re alluding to possibly is how the internet is leading to the emergence of tribes.
Vincent: Yes, exactly. I mean in some ways I think of Buddhist Geeks as a kind of tribe in that way.
Ken: Now a friend of mine whom you know Jeremy Hunter.
Ken: Sent me a paper recently on which was a very deep look at how tribal structures affect international negotiations.
Vincent: Okay. That’s fascinating and super esoteric.
Ken: Well yes but the way that international negotiations, this person is offering a perspective with this association and, I can’t remember the other one, but there were two dynamics that operate with respect to tribes. One had to do with identity, but it wasn’t the term identity. And the other had to do affiliation and association. No, it wasn’t affiliation, association. But anyway because when you are describing this I had very different thoughts come to mind. One was that on the one hand, yeah, I mean we have our own experience and it’s such a release to find out that we’re not crazy.
Ken: Other people have similar experiences or similar approaches or similar views and we’re not crazy.
Ken: And so I’m having this difficulty with practice or this difficulty with this thing and other people are having the same kind of thing. We can sit down and discuss those and maybe get some clarity about it.
Ken: So that’s why I think that technology enhances. The other thought that I had is that it increases the likelihood that you’re only going to hang out with people who see things similar to you. There’s the danger possibly with only associating with people who are very similar in outlook.
Vincent: Yeah. There’s like a kind of potential for insularity.
Ken: Exactly. I’m wondering how you play with that.
Vincent: Well I was thinking about that too and I have thought about that issue before. And what I found though is that people seemed to change enough in these tribes that I will constantly, like one of my friends for instance will tweet about something that is not normal for them and I never heard them talk about and it’s outside of the context of most of the stuff we’re interested in, so usually there’s enough difference that I do get exposed to other perspective and I do end up having disagreements and it’s not like we’re carbon copies of each other. So I found there’s enough dynamic tension where it doesn’t start feeling this is like the club where everyone agrees on the same thing. But at the same time I wonder if that’s true also that there is a certain amount of insularity that you can’t avoid with those technologies that they just sort of, they design it in such a way that it does do that. That seems true.
Ken: We know that Google is now feeding us news based on our internet search patterns.
Ken: Google is actually reinforcing this insularity. But I want to go on a slightly different direction.
Vincent: Okay. Good.
Ken: That is one of the, I think this is probably the most difficult thing I had, different learning point in my life. And that was that other people have fundamentally different ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Now maybe I’m a bit of an anomaly here but that was just so hard for me to understand. And I had to learn that lesson over and over and over again until it finally sunk it. And I know that, I don’t know whether there’s a generational thing here or not, but I know that when I was training teachers, the way that I set up my teacher training program, that was one of things I wanted to make sure that they learned. And one of the ways that I did this was to put them in triads between sessions so that they had to interact with each other quite deeply.
And in the beginning it was just murder because there they all had been at the same session with me. And when they sat down to discuss it, they found being a three people were at a different session. Because “no Ken didn’t say that. He said this.” And they just couldn’t believe how differently they heard and experienced the same thing. And it was a tremendously valuable experience for them to learn that and I know it’s been very valuable for me. Now when I’m teaching somebody or when I’m in my business consulting, one of the things that I really try to do is understand how is this person experiencing the world because only then do I have any idea how to communicate with them.
Vincent: Okay. That’s interesting. That’s really interesting. That seems like a really useful thing. I wouldn’t put that under the traditional rubric of Buddhist training at all. It doesn’t seem like that’s a traditional part of Buddhist. Maybe it is. I could be wrong but.
Ken: Isn’t that what’s happening in the teacher student relationship?
Vincent: Yeah. Good question. I’m not sure. Cause in my experience with a lot of teachers what I’ve been trying to do is assimilate their way of looking at the world like I’ve been trying to replicate their understanding. I wouldn’t say that I do that so much now but that’s often how I see the teacher student relationship constructed. Like you said in the beginning the teacher has something that you don’t and you want to learn that. You don’t want to learn how to understand how they think about the world which is different than you. At least that’s not how I’ve seen it framed.
Ken: This I think is really important because you remind me of a student that I had. Actually there are two students that I’m thinking of very explicitly. But one of them said to me, “I’m not sure that I wanted to end up like you Ken.”
Vincent: Wow. Nice.
Ken: I said well I damn well I hope you don’t.
Vincent: So you didn’t take that as a diss?
Ken: No, no, he said it very seriously. I said no. That’s not what this is about at all. So I think this point you raise here is really important. The point isn’t to become like your teacher. The teacher knows something you don’t know or is able to meet situations in a way that you can’t or however you want to put it. So there’s something in, when we’re in the student role something that’s moving us, that we’re inspired by or that we want. But we don’t necessarily get that by emulation. And again you’re reminding me of something else. There’s a teacher I never met, a Japanese teacher called Uchiyama. And one of my students gave me a very small pamphlet printed in Japan which is a series of comments by Uchiyama’s teachers with commentary by Uchiyama himself. And one of them is titled Zazen is Useless.
Ken: And what Uchiyama says here is that when he was young student of Sawaki Roshi, that was his teacher. He said to Sawaki Roshi, “If I practice for 25 or 30 years do you think I can be a bit more like you?” And Sawaki Roshi said to him and apparently he had a big voice. He said, “No, zazen is useless. It doesn’t change anything.” And many years later the way Uchiyama expresses, and I just found this very useful, is that if you’re a rose, be a rose. If you’re a violet be a violet. If you’re a violet don’t try to be a rose and if you’re a rose don’t try to be a violet. And I think this is really important in the teacher student relationship. I think in the spiritual realm you’re learning how to be who you actually are. And I think the teacher really, this is the way that I approach it, isn’t trying to produce a carbon copy but is really looking at the student and trying to help them find who they really are.
Vincent: Okay. Okay. And yet you have to at least can see that not all teachers are doing that.
Ken: Well I can’t speak for all teachers.
Vincent: At least I can speak for some teachers that I’ve know that aren’t looking for that. They’re looking for you to talk about what you know in a way that they understand because they’ve experienced it in a similar way and then there’s just a sort of way of confirming what you know. In some ways that’s what lineage often seems to be understood as.
Vincent: I hear what you’re saying though and I like that actually a lot.
Ken: I learned a lot from my teacher, no question. And he really wanted us to follow a certain path. And that path for him was monastic ordination. And he, in the men’s retreat in the first retreat, there were only two of us who weren’t monks. And he did everything short of ordering us to take ordination, to us to go in that direction. I didn’t and neither did the other person because I knew that that wasn’t my path. And here you get into something that’s really important about the teacher student relationship, and I don’t think there are any easy answers to it. The student needs, as they come to know themselves through their practice, has to respect what their path is. And however that is, and not always as you pointed out, will the teacher be able to appreciate that.
Vincent: Right. Right. Yeah.
Ken: And there can be a tremendous pain. I’ve worked with many students who found themselves in that position, that they knew where they need to go but their teachers couldn’t see it.
Ken: There’s huge pain in that. It’s really very very difficult. And on the other hand I know other students who they knew where to go and their teachers could see it.
Ken: It’s just even though it was very very different from what the teacher thought they should do or even what the teacher felt was best for them, but the teachers could respect them and that was so important. And as I say I don’t think there are any easy answers in this area because you have two humans relating to each other.
Vincent: Yes, yes, this seems to be like the area where relationships either continue to like develop and flourish or people part ways often times.
Ken: But this is not a new problem.
Vincent: Yeah. Yeah.
Ken: I go back to Atisha who’s an 11th century teacher in India before he came to Tibet. When he was young he was a red hot yogi. And he studied with a teacher and learned a lot from him and then he realized that he needed to go in a different direction. He went to his teacher and said I need to go in a different direction. His teacher was really upset with him and told him he couldn’t do it etc. etc. Atisha just said I’m sorry. I thank you every time I received from you and left.
Vincent: Interesting. So I wanted to tie this back to the broader topic cause I think it’s really cool. I’m seeing some connection in what you’re saying with the generational differences because I have to figure out my path and part of my path includes navigating new dimensions, cultural dimensions and technological dimensions that my teachers didn’t have to and don’t engage with in the same way. And so part of what I’m finding useful in what you’re saying is there can be a way in which these teachers can respect that and encourage me without necessarily having to know or have been down the same tracks themselves.
Ken: Yes. And that comes because of the human relationship that develops between you as they come to respect your own sense of your path. And in the beginning you don’t know what you’re doing. None of us did in the spiritual path so we are very much dependent. But as we grow in experience and understanding, then the teacher extends understanding to us. In a little sense it’s a bit like parenting as well. I think what’s really important here is that all this is a relationship between two people and if one requires the other to be completely their way, whether it’s a teacher or a student, the relationship breaks down. You actually have to meet.