At the intersection of technology and contemplative practice, innovation and tradition exist a conversation about how we connect as human beings.
No one can argue that the newfound accessibility of mindfulness and contemplative practices, in general, is a good thing. After all, these practices are meant to help people manage life’s and find joy.
However, some wonder whether technology is diluting the practice. And, beyond that, whether technology can lead to authentic human interactions in general.
Ted Meissner, the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official The Secular Buddhist podcast as well as Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science, and manager of online programming at the Center for Mindfulness at UMASS, says he’s seen firsthand how technology can aid in making authentic mindfulness teaching both more accessible and effective.
Robert recently sat down with Meissner on the TFM podcast (Episode 32) to talk with him about how he’s bringing cutting edge technology to the teaching of mindfulness, staying true to the traditions of mindfulness as a practice while allowing modern technology to elevate it and make it more widely accessible.
Here are 3 insights from Robert’s interview with Ted Meissner:
1. Technology has– and will continue to be– valuable in creating new ways to engage with contemplative practice
Recent technology, such as smartphones and the Internet, in general, get a lot of flack for what they’ve done our attention spans.
And why there’s no denying the harm that overusing tech has its downsides, there’s rarely any mention of the good things it’s done for us.
“There’s been this tremendous opening of ways in which people might engage with a contemplative practice using technology,” says Meissner. “There are risks of the technology being the focus rather than the mindfulness practice… But it also opens up a world that otherwise people might not have access to.”
Even just a few decades ago, it was very difficult to find authentic instruction in any meditative practice, and only if it was conveniently located in your hometown (which it probably wasn’t).
But that was before the Internet, where accessibility went into light-speed, changing everything in a big way.
The Internet, and further accessibility improvements in the way of smartphones, has made it to where accessing authentic meditation teaching isn’t just easier, but potentially more personalized.
“You have the ability to listen to experts from all over the world not only in a variety of contemplative practices and traditional backgrounds but also in different languages. And they’re doing guidance for different levels of experience,” says Meissner. “So if you’re a beginner, you can be with beginners and if you have a bit more experience, you can be with others who are equitable in that.”
In addition to different levels of experience, Meissner says that technology has made it easier to find specific practices that fit your needs. So, if you want a simple breathing meditation to improve your attention, you can find it. If you want guided meditations to take you through the practice, whether you’re just getting started or want something for a particular mental challenge, there’s that too.
“Compare all of those differences to someone who may be looking for a loving-kindness meditation or a mountain meditation or some guidance on mindful movement,” says Meissner. Both having access to different types of meditation depending on what you’re looking to get out of the practice and varying levels of guidance depending on your experience are thanks to modern technology.
But are too many choices holding us back?
In Barry Schwartz The Paradox of Choice, the author lays out the evidence that having too many choices, too much freedom, can actually be debilitating.
While the plethora of choices regarding teachers and types of practices is wonderful, at the beginning of your practice it can be overwhelming to have to sift through it all to find something that works for you.
In fact, it can be so overwhelming that you just find it easier to quit or not do anything in the first place.
It can be hard to distinguish, Meissner, between an experienced teacher whom you’d want to learn from vs. someone who may have only taken a weekend retreat, gotten some basic certification, and started teaching the practice.
To combat this, Meissner suggests looking for teachers who have proof of long-term experience, so you can be sure you’re learning from someone who knows what they’re doing.
2. Video is a valuable tool for enhancing connection
Due to a lack of body language and the resulting difficulty with detecting intent when chatting online, digital communication can seem dangerous and lacking compared to face-to-face.
However, video negates virtually all of these challenges by bringing you face-to-face with the person you’re speaking with, so you can pick up on all those critical cues we use to determine meaning and intent when talking with someone.
As a result, video can be a powerful tool for enhancing connection, offering face-to-face communication that isn’t bound by proximity.
“There are those who are dear to me, loved ones that I have only seen on a screen. And so the level of connection that one can have is maybe a bit more than people might suspect and still be every bit as true as those in-person connections.”
And that makes it ideal for a great mindfulness program.
“One of the very strong defining characteristics of a really robust online mindfulness program,” Meissner says, is “seeing the teacher and the teacher being able to see the students.”
Meissner says that, over time, that “window” (the screen) in which you view the other person disappears and you can create a truly deep connection with the other person. However, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
He says that it’s important to keep in mind that, for some, sitting down and opening up a computer isn’t a simple task. For those, in-person classes may still be the most ideal option.
3. Moving into the future: Is there a limit to what technology can do to facilitate mindfulness training?
Clearly, the removal of dependence upon geography while still being able to maintain the same quality face-to-face interactions, as well as having better access to specific practices and teaching based on experience level, have all been a big step forward towards allowing more people to obtain effective mindfulness teaching.
But is that all that modern technology can do to enhance mindfulness practice?
Moving into the future, what new technologies might be able to further facilitate mindfulness training and teaching?
The first new technology that likely comes to mind is virtual reality. It’s the kind of technology that everyone knows is on the cusp of entering the mainstream but they’re still not quite sure what kind of an impact it’s going to have.
Speaking on virtual reality, Meissner said, “There’s some sensibility and reflection about, so if you put on a headset… and it’s a guided meditation on a beach, but really you’re not on a beach, you’re somewhere else, is that being mindful because you’re in that [digital] environment?”
In a conversation with a friend, who is skeptical of digital technology aiding contemplative practices, they suggested that no matter whether it looks like a beach or something else, there’s no real environment about them, so they can’t connect with their senses the way they typically would in most mindfulness practices.
But Meissner says that’s not true. “They’re still in an environment. There are still sounds around you: you’re still seeing, you’re still feeling, there’s still a sense of smell and taste and touch.” He says that it’s just a different dynamic.
Meissner imagines future VR technology that could allow us to show our own appearance and meet together with other people and practitioners in a virtual version of a real room and share in that practice with others, the same way we might in a face-to-face group.
“You’ll be in the meditation hall at the Center for Mindfulness. And everyone else will be in the meditation hall at the Center for Mindfulness, even though they’re in their own homes.” It may take a while for that to become a reality, but we for one are looking forward to it.
Technology for mindfulness– and facilitating connection, not hindering it
“So much of this is about connection. So much of this is about just that human interaction,” Meissner says.
He says he’s excited to see what technology comes next and doesn’t see it as something bad.
Meissner also made sure to mention, though, that it’s important as we interact with these new technologies we check in with ourselves and ask:
- Is this technology doing what I want it to?
- Is it helpful to me?
- Is it facilitating my practice or just causing a distraction?
Technology can be a tool for mindfulness practice and human connection, but it’s important to understand how to use it to your benefit and not be ruled by it.
More about Ted Meissner
Ted Meissner’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he’s been a regular meditator since the early ’90s, and is a certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher.
Ted’s been interviewed by the Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts and spoken and written about mindfulness with Harvard Humanist Hub, Elephant Journal, and The International Journal of Whole Person Care.
He’s the manager of online programming at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, and sits on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. He also hosts Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science and the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist.
Ted’s also a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions and is active in the mindfulness community at large. He’s fascinated with examining the evolution of contemplative practice in modern culture.