The Tao Of Twitter

Mar 22, 2010 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The pithy can be powerful. Consider the comedian's one-liner, a haiku poem or the once-revolutionary telegram. Similarly, one of the most useful tools within Buddhism is the use of short statements that potentially transport the listener or reader. Here's an example from the Zen tradition: "The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon." In other words, if you are looking for the real thing (here, the moon) don't get stuck on the tool that points the way (the finger).

The pithy can be powerful and this digital age--with its almost-instantaneous and tsunami-like communication of texting, tweeting and instant messaging--is perhaps the ideal medium for the brief and powerful message. Without doubt, there is merit and great convenience to the almost-immediate and almost-always accessible. Those of us who use these options know how convenient it is to text "I'll be there in five minutes" or to send a quick love note (I'll leave that to your imagination!) or to get an update on a company or personality we are following. Moreover, among many other possibilities, the digital realm also offers us extraordinary opportunity for education, cross-border communication, social engagement and non-violent activism.

I think we also know that these types of communication burden us sometimes: even more we need to respond to (and quickly), even more we need to read, keep up on and know. Ugh! These speedy means of messaging--as well as social and business networking--are also conducive to mindlessness, distractibility and other unintended counterproductive side effects. Vicki Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation pointed out recently that she is concerned about how the widespread use of these virtual means by kids will impact their capacity to focus and concentrate.

Not unlike other forms of instant gratification, it turns out the new media rarely satisfies us for long. We are still left wanting more and--with each wave of technological innovation--wanting it faster, sooner, quicker. Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, anticipates that "the newest generations, unlike their older peers, will expect an instant response from everyone they communicate with, and won't have the patience for anything less." That should make us pause, both for our kids and ourselves. Pause if you can, that is.

Like our thoughts, the tools of the new media are good servants but poor masters. These days, you just can't believe whatever you think!

Despite the potential of floating adrift in a sea of interpersonal communications, we often remain lonely and isolated, our deeper inborn need for intimacy not satisfied.

My students now often ask how they can use these terse, digital conversations in a way that deepens (not deadens) their lives.

Here's an excerpt from a text dialogue with a student:

Student: Why am I more lonely now, with twitter, texting, IM'ing, networking?

Lama SD: Where's the heart in this hardware? Problem in twittering not new --- it's about how we use technology. Tao Te Ching 24: "He who rushes ahead doesn't go far"

Student: What do mean by heart in this hardware?

Lama SD: Look deeper. Life is relationship. Make every (digital) encounter meaningful, and every word, character, space count.

Student: Can u b more specific?

Lama SD: Slow down. Breathe. Reflect b4 responding. Become aware of what you are doing as you are doing it. Unplug from tech for some time every day. Go topless (w/o laptop).

Other students wonder how to integrate the spiritual into our daily technology-ridden lives. Can there be a deeper dimension in twittering, texting, chatting and instant messaging? The Tao Te Ching---itself a small, poetic volume of pith and profound statements---may be relevant here. The Tao Te Ching, quoted above, teaches us how to experience harmony amidst diversity, peace amidst cacophony and shows us how to be there while getting there: being right here (and now) wherever we (think we) are going.

Virtual dialogue with another student:

How does texting, etc. relate to the spiritual path?

Lama SD:
We r the hand inside the Muppet of technology. Tao is the hand inside our hand. Don't have to get into the flow, Joe, cuz its flowing thru u right now.

Student: So Tao is inside my hand as I type?

Lama SD: Yes!

Student: Why don't I feel it then?

Lama SD:
It's there whether we feel it or not. Not feeling it cuz Tao-Now is obscured by smalltime, temporal now.

Like driving, we are never where we are sitting in the car, but are always way ahead of ourselves. We are losing our souls, rushing to get someplace---virtually or otherwise---and then we get there and we still want to be somewhere else. This sums up what it is like to be trapped in the now of linear time, the time of past, present and future.

The spiritual traditions speak of another Now (with a capital "N") which is beyond time and animates that which is bound by time (another way of explaining the Tao).

Digital communications are always time-bound, stuck in the temporal now. But just like everything bound in the now, they too can potentially be portals to the (spiritual) Now.

The good news is that once we awaken to the spiritual Now which is always flowing through us (and most deeply IS us), this spiritual Now can infuse everything we do in the now-of-time, including texting and twittering.

And once we wake up into the Now of the Tao, we realize that the digital world of "almost"---almost instantaneous, almost-always-accessible----is a world of great distance. Once we inhabit the NOW, this same world --our digital lives and our daily lives-- are transformed and we know the peace and deep satisfaction that the spiritual traditions all point to.

The zen of Now
Available to all
But few awaken.
The secret of Now
is being fully present now.
This! Here!
Can be the Tao in twitter.

As we text and tweet, as we drive and eat remember that nothing matters as much as we think it does; and yet, mysteriously enough, everything----every word, letter, gesture and space----actually counts.

Leave room for the Tao of Nowness.