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Nov 25
Opinion Pieces
We Need to Talk

by Jacqueline Larson

A couple weeks ago I was cleaning my office and listening to CBC’s Q. Tom Power was interviewing comedian and podcaster Marc Maron on what makes up a good interview. I wasn’t familiar with Maron but when he spoke about the depth of observations and connection that can arise in a conversation, he had my attention. He said that a conversation is an “emotional journey” of human connection but that countless people text instead. “You have to really set time aside to have a real conversation with someone and I don’t know if anyone really does that anymore on purpose” (at the 8:45 mark if you’re listening).

Although he was talking about interviewing people, he said that it’s innate in us to want to understand each other, love each other, be acknowledged by each other, and help each other, but he also claimed that conversations are dying out because “those feelings have become uncomfortable” (10:00). According to Maron, the pace of our lives means that “everybody’s kind of scared and kind of lonely, and kind of angry and kind of unsatisfied. And isolated. And I don’t think that communicating through text does anything to help that” (approx. 10:55).

What does help? Over the years, Maron says he’s gotten better at listening in conversations, at not interjecting because of habit or discomfort. He’s learned how to “let silences sit” (3:06-3:30). This will sound familiar to anyone who’s participated in a Shambhala program and experienced a conversational dyad practice—listening and speaking mindfully from the heart. Especially listening.  Marc Maron’s insight into people’s innate nature sounds like basic goodness. Yearning for connection is a part of that.

It’s Not Just a Buddhist Thing

Marc Maron’s not the only one talking about this lately. The Guardian published a long story on 6 October called “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia.”   Its tagline reads “Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet.” The piece describes how Justin Rosenstein, the computer engineer who created Facebook’s “like” button, is concerned about “the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.” How often do you touch your phone? How would it feel to do things differently?

It’s a thorough article with a number of voices ringing the alarm about the state of people’s minds in contemporary culture. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee who now critiques the tech industry, said “I don’t know a more urgent problem than this … It’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.” When the information technology engineers who helped to create social media also create elaborate strategies to protect their own families’ minds from it, I think it’s worth paying attention. “All of us are jacked into this system,” Harris says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

Because I meditate, I’ve become familiar with my mind. I know how it feels to be unplugged and settled, tender-hearted and spacious, and I’ve glimpsed how it feels to hold my seat when I’m tossed about.  I also know how it feels to be “hijacked.” Most of us do. But while it’s always been up to each of us to wake up to our own precious lives, these days we face particular challenges for our attention.  Our devices clamour for our minds. That makes meditation even more necessary.

On Sunday 15 October I heard an interview on The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright  called “The Anti-Democratic Reign of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon.” It examines how “there would be a public uproar if governments in Western democracies did as much to monopolize our attention, our minds and our way of life” as these big companies do.

It’s a thought-provoking half-hour conversation with Franklin Foer, a former editor of The New Republic magazine, who has written a book called World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. That title alone makes me sit up straight. A world without mind, a world without heart, is a world that needs us as Shambhala warriors more than ever.

There are dozens of other popular examples of people exploring these issues, but these came across my path without my seeking them, all within a couple of weeks. They represent significant conversations about the heart of our society. They speak in very different voices but these thinkers and comedians and IT designers and ordinary people are hungry for real conversation, for focus, for human connection. And alarmed about a world without it.

The Path of Connection

In The Shambhala Principle, Sakyong Mipham says that society consists of two people meeting each other. His brand new book The Lost Art of Good Conversation has just been published. In this book,

the Sakyong uses the basic principles of the Shambhala traditionmeditation and a sincere belief in the inherent wisdom, compassion, and courage of all beingsto help readers to listen and speak more mindfully with loved ones, co-workers, strangers, and even ourselves.


Conversation is also about how we talk to ourselves

My friend Margaret May is already reading the book, and said “As I delve into the book, The Lost Art of Good Conversation, I appreciate that the Sakyong is always offering from Shambhala principles—relationship with our ourselves, relationship with others, and relationship with society. I know I am encountering challenges of  ‘conversing with society,’ but my goodness, isn’t that what is so essential right now.”

To learn more about the Sakyong’s new book, click here.

A version of this post was previously published on the website of the Shambhala Meditation Centre of Toronto.

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4 responses to “ We Need to Talk ”
  1. Linda Devlin
    Dec 3, 2017

    This is what I’ve noticed: 1. driving to the Shambhala Centre to meditate and connect with human beings in the flesh; many people walking on the street are thumbing their cell phone and not watching where they are walking; 2.at times I look at fellow drivers at a red light and they often have their cell in their hands. 3.My grandkids barely know how to read and forget about discursive handwriting or spelling. They all have up to date cell phones and video games and depression, add, adhd and bi-polar #2….their parents have separated and all hell is breaking loose; suicide attempts, pregnancy, dropping out of school….definitely the hell realm and and and what about the Congo where mining of some of the parts needed to create these cell phones has created another hell realm that Eve Ensler & other activists are trying to change. Women are raped and families driven out so mining can take place!?????!!I have a cell phone 4 emergencies only and it’s off 99% of the time. It will be my last. What did we do B4 technology? What have we gained & what have we lost???

  2. David Reid
    Dec 2, 2017


    Thanks for posting your thoughts in this excellent essay and sharing the link to the article in The Guardian. I used to use an essay by Nicholas Carr in my teaching that appeared in the Atlantic in 2008: “Is Google making Us Stupid?” He published another essay recently in the Wall Street Journal.

    John McQuade’s positive experience with social media to promote Miksang photography reminds me of some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas. New media enhance aspects of our experience but McLuhan’s final work on “the laws of media” stated that taken to its extreme, media will reverse on itself. So the cell phone, for example, which gives us so much freedom and ease of communication will become a leash. Or put another way, McLuhan said, “we shape our technologies, then our technologies shape us.”

    Another interesting writer in this genre is Sherry Turkle. Her book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” (2015) is a good read along the lines of these essays. I think she is quoted as saying something like, “I am not anti-technology; I am just pro-conversation.”

    Thanks again. Let the conversations continue.

  3. John McQuade
    Nov 26, 2017

    Hi Jacqueline,
    Thanks for you considered presentation of the issue of social media and conversation. Although I appreciate the points you make this has not been the totality of my experience with Facebook and e-mail. Yes Facebook and other social media can be a platform for discursive mind and worse – much worse: hate, propaganda etc. In terms of discursive mind I have defriended those who post several times a day their neurosis , trivial activities and cute photos of their cats. But I have found Facebook to be an effective communication for Nalanda Miksang photography. Indeed it is my intention to transform these communications into a Book. So we need to extend our notion of ” conversation” beyond ” face to face” encounters. We need to have a more essential notion of conversation beyond the template of ” face to face”. If we are to be effective in our intervention we need to include the social media formats in the “Conversation”.

  4. Madeline Conacher
    Nov 26, 2017

    Hi Jacqueline
    Great article – I also heard that interview on CBC and was sparked by the similarity to The Lost Art of GC

    60 minutes did a who good interview with that Google ex-employee last year

    My non smart cell phone just died last month and I have been hesitating about buying a smart phone !
    Take care and keep writing !
    xox Madeline

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