face time

February 28th, 2013

blog-wilted-house-plantNext time you want to grow a plant, set it in front of a screensaver of the sun and see what happens.

Excuse me for pointing out the obvious. The sun is not a picture of the sun. An internet connection is not the same as a living connection. Life is not a picture of life. It is the transmission of living energy and not the transmission of digital data.

Or as an old Zen fogey said in far fewer words, “A rice cake is not a picture of a rice cake.” Which one will satisfy your hunger?

There were a couple of events that brought this to mind this week. One was the decision by the CEO of Yahoo to suspend the struggling company’s work-from-home policy. The stated reason turned out to be controversial: people who work together benefit from actual face time. And I do mean “face time,” not the phone app FaceTime for video chats, another example of a digital surrogacy that has brought living proximity to near-extinction. When I read the arguments against the new (old) policy on my computer, I said to my husband, “That CEO is right.”

He sat at his desk looking into his own computer and said, “Yes she is.” This spoken exchange is called “having a conversation.” From time to time we sit in the same room and speak to one another. Granted, not often, but stringing together these occasional proximities is what used to be called “a relationship.” He travels quite a bit in his job to have one-day meetings with his co-workers around the world because it makes quicker work of their complicated labor. Something happens in the space between living things—something visible as well as invisible. Something shared: a force, a bond; the circulation of energy, thoughts, feelings, sound, motion. Get it?

Few do. Not long ago I heard a young couple talking about their communication style. The fellow preferred texting; he said phone calls were inefficient and exasperating because “talking wastes time” when data can be conveyed instantly. I smiled and had a sense of where that non-conversation would be taking them in the next few years.

We all know better, really we do. That’s why we call that kind of disengagement “phoning it in.” I know doing things in person isn’t always convenient, but do we really have to argue the merits? I guess we do.

Last weekend at a beginner’s meditation retreat I was asked how many students I have. “That’s a good question,” I responded. “Lots of people ask me if I’ll teach them online, but I don’t do that.” It’s wonderfully clarifying for me that I practice in a line of teachers who have carried the living Dharma down from antiquity as an oral tradition. Teachers and students practice in living proximity: in the same room, two people sitting together having conversation, sharing sound, motion, breath. Get it?

Few do. Just about anything that looks like what we do in a meditation hall can now be done online via email, downloads, Skype, discussion boards, even meditation apps. Do it in your own home (where you won’t do it)! As an e-course! I don’t get it. This is not the Dharma I practice. Not the Dharma I teach. Whether you can see it or not, something happens in the space between us. Something intimate, wise, and generous. Something real.

You have to experience the light and warmth of the sun to stay alive.

This fascinating video called “Finding the Visible in the Invisible” will give you a look at the face time I’m talking about. But don’t mistake the video for the magic of real life. The video may pique your interest but it will not satisfy your hunger.


  1. Double like! 🙂 I like this post. Thank you.

    Comment by Tara — February 28, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

  2. I work with folks both in person and online, and don’t notice much difference. People can be sharing ‘sound, motion,[and] breath’ together, but not sharing heart. Before I began practicing I did this a lot.

    Strangely, I find the quality of heart can come through even in Skype sessions, if I am connected to it. Or even phone calls. I have met people in person whom I first met online, and there is no sense of ‘Oh that’s weird’. If I we connect with heart then the medium doesn’t matter so much.

    You do raise a good point about disconnection, though, as well as rice cakes 🙂


    Comment by Peter Fernando — March 1, 2013 @ 3:35 am

  3. And yet.

    While I agree with you for the most part, and have had exasperating work experiences due to communication or lack thereof with the person I worked for (he in Boston, me outside of NYC except for maybe monthly or bimonthly face-to-face meetings), I’m told he had communication issues with people whose offices were down the hall from his.

    And I am much, much further along my dharma road thanks to the internet than I would be without it. I have been raising boys and working for the past 20 years: I sit daily, I sneak off to go on retreat for a long weekend when I can (2 or 3 times a year), and I study as often as I can with teachers who are willing to put their dharma talks online, or to offer online or telecourses. I’m very grateful to be alive in this era, when the dharma can in fact get to me when I can’t get to it; when I have the opportunity to be exposed to teaching by people who live on the other side of the country (and then know that I’d love to study with them in person when they come teach in my neighborhood). My meditation practice was born and nurtured this way (and I DO do it); when something piques my interest but doesn’t satisfy my hunger, then I have work to do, don’t I? That’s my responsibility. But I’m further down the track than I would be otherwise, and my interest has been piqued by things I wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for the internet.

    Comment by Nancy King Bernstein — March 1, 2013 @ 6:56 am

  4. This is a beautiful post. Thank you so much. It speaks so clearly what I am trying to do in my own circumstances (do I detect a hint of sarcasm?). It speaks to the message in a recent blog post I wrote called “Leaving Facebook to Be More Loving.”

    Comment by Andrea — March 1, 2013 @ 8:10 am

  5. Thanks for this reminder of time spent together. It really struck a nerve about how we can mull around and not be in ” the moment” (I.e. texting etc.) I love the space created when together with others, especially when creating together. I am not sure how clear I am being, but I do so get what you are saying.

    Comment by Marlene — March 1, 2013 @ 8:15 am

  6. Bravo! I wholeheartedly agree.
    @Andrea: I joined facebook twice in my life…once for 10 seconds and once for 12 hours. I got this overwhelming anxiety immediately after hitting the “sign up” button as I envisioned my life being further taken up with things that are not real. So I deleted my account…twice:) I don’t even like the phone!

    Comment by Kirsten — March 1, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  7. Thank you for pointing out the obvious.

    Comment by Roos — March 1, 2013 @ 10:51 am

  8. I understand what you’re saying in terms of the face-to-face/mind-to-mind aspect of Zen teaching: yes, of course. But the problem I have with Yahoo’s work-at-home policy is that Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, effectively decided for herself and all her employees that spending “face time” with co-workers is more important than spending “face time” with your own family.

    This isn’t an issue for those families who are lucky enough to be able to survive on one income. But for families where both parents work outside the home, being able to work from home is a godsend.

    Marissa Mayer chose to return to work after a two-week maternity leave, which is a decision not all new mothers would make. Don’t one’s own children deserve “face time,” too?

    Comment by Lorianne — March 2, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

  9. Excuse my delay in responding. I was away at retreat, which does a good job of curing any notion that I am any further along in my practice.

    The difference I see is samadhi. Not many people practice it, so not many see it. It is real, however, and is conveyed through the skin.

    Anyone who has ever worked a job – whether it is in the fields, an office, or at the sink – realizes the conscious choice that must be continually made to be present, whether with coworkers, family or the dog. No one can make that choice for you, although templates are given, as in the zendo.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 3, 2013 @ 10:05 am

  10. I love this. Thank you thank you. And it is also true that being with a good teacher is like basking in the sun.

    Comment by April Bennett — March 3, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

  11. There are studies with infants/toddlers (pre-verbal) in the field of cognitive development where the child shows greater interaction, interest and attention to their mother/caregiver when she is present in the room as opposed to visible through a video feed. An innate sense? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to see it so early in life. Don’t get me wrong – technological development can be a great, important tool, but as with any tool, the benefit (or harm) is in how you use it.

    I am currently reading “hand wash cold” and I find it delightfully challenging. I’m excited to discover you keep a blog. Now I can continue to be inspired by your writing even after I’m done with your book. 🙂 Much love and light to you and your family.

    Comment by Jessica — May 15, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

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