Things That Can’t Be Right (2nd set)

June 21, 2008

This is the second of three sets of points in the “can’t be right” series, commenting on the Second Life exploration “Play as Being”.


Claim 2a): “relying on virtual reality (‘vr’) forums severely restricts what can be conveyed about spiritual practice … it can’t be right.”

The limitations of internet- and virtual-reality interactions are too severe to convey more than generic information and sketchy pointers about meditation. A particular concern centers on the importance of assessing each participant’s personality, needs and condition. Also, real teaching cannot be reduced to just the words that are uttered … it’s the whole manner of the presenter, her overall presence and character that carries the real message. True, people have traditionally often learned from books, but a self-selection process is at work there, eventually matching readers with the books or passages that succeed in communicating something important to them individually. And it’s usually not the case that books stand alone: there’s still the interpersonal dimension, live, with a community or sangha and even an entire culture. Here, one is just sitting alone, on the internet, looking at a monitor.


Conclusion: virtual reality is not adequate for spiritually-oriented group discussion or for imparting personally-focused suggestions for spiritual practice.



Claim 2b): “this point ‘2a)’ can’t be right. Is its idea that we can prejudge what is possible, foregoing new experimentation? That our experience drawn from the past norms and forms suffices to assess virtual reality’s potential? Surely that is not true!”


Note that it’s not a matter of replicating the efficacy of more traditional modes of interaction and imparting spiritual insight or personal instruction. Rather, the issue is simply to see what the strengths of the new medium might be, based on exploratory probes, and to then converge on new styles of interaction and mutual support.


No one is saying that individual statements or interactive sessions via the internet and virtual reality can “work”. The issue is rather what kind of basis for mutual understanding, trust and communication can be built up in this new way.


Another point that becomes increasingly important and potent as people go forward into advanced teachings is this: what participants need most is their own natures, what they already have. If it were a question of handing everything spiritually relevant over to a recipient who previously lacked it, then it would indeed be terribly hard in virtual reality forums. But that’s not the situation! It would be impossible and misguided in any setting. It is also likely that the very limitations of vr-mediated interactions will themselves prove to offer advantages over traditional “live” gatherings. This point will be explored in a later flipp6er blog entry.


Echoing 2a: “so vr’s potential is just whatever it turns out to be, no guarantee, and perhaps it will prove a useful adjunct to more traditional forms of communication?”


Echoing 2b: “that’s all that any approach to conveying spiritual teaching can ever be, including the full-blown traditional approach. It’s not a matter of being merely an adjunct to traditional forms: even the latter are themselves only adjuncts to each person’s connection to his real nature”.


2a: “… but wouldn’t more emphasis on live interactions be better?”


2b: “… ideally? Perhaps. But in the “real world” we never have the “ideal,” so we shouldn’t idealize what is in fact always prone to problems of various sorts. That’s one of the reasons we use VR in the first place! And on the other side, virtual reality may even be better in other ways, or a useful supplement, or both. The real issue is something more basic, closer to home, than worries about media—it’s our own ability to attend to our own natures, and to support that in each other, somehow.


Re Play as Being: Things That Can’t Be Right

June 18, 2008

{The Flipp6er Blog makes comments about the new Second Life exploration called “Play as Being” (PaB). This first entry begins a series considering six points about PaB that “can’t be right”.}

1a) “The PaB time format cannot be right.”

The group uses a practice format of nine seconds every fifteen minutes, for whatever portions of the day the practitioner can maintain the discipline recommended by the group. But even if someone manages to follow this format for ten hours per day, the actual “formal” practice would total only 6 minutes. This is a negligible amount of time, compared to the several hours a day that would be traditionally recommended. 


Someone might claim that the idea here is to encourage a kind of awareness that will persist or pop up more often during the day, adding to the total time spent in appreciative presence.  But that same idea applies in the traditional case, and is in fact assumed to be part of what hopefully follows from the “several hours per day requirement”.


Again, it might seem that the idea in PaB is to get maximal efficiency per unit time through frequency of application… that is, by frequently interrupting the ordinary mind, the PaB project is furthered because the approach diminishes the accumulation of ordinary patterns of mind that filter out “Being” … we don’t get very lost this way, so we don’t need much time to “recover.”  But that’s also part of the rationale behind traditional practice, with its much higher standards of time involvement, maintaining awareness not only during informal practice sessions but throughout the day and even into sleep.  If this latter approach still strains to nurture some kind of significant realization, how can the minimal time format recommended in PaB possibly work?


Conclusion: the “nine second” format is just not enough!



1b) “The claim that PaB’s ‘nine-second’ time format is insufficient, is itself wrong.”

The notion that you need a lot of time in order to practice meditation is profoundly confused.  What is emphasized in traditional practice is not spending as much time as possible, but understanding what our typical involvement with time really is, what can and can’t be gained through such an involvement, and how to let go of it.  Letting go of the mind’s ordinary heedless onrush is precisely letting go of this involvement with time and with associated heavy-handed notions of vigilance and “practice”.  Hence, emphasizing the use of lots of time as an absolute requirement is confused.


Someone might object “fine, but that refinement of understanding would also figure prominently in traditional training too and does take time to learn, even granted that the use of time in itself is not the main issue.  So my critique of PaB still stands.” But this is wrong. If “1a)” is going to stand, it first needs to be thoroughly restated and in the process will end up consistent with this new point, “1b)”—we don’t necessarily need lots of time, only as much time as it takes to become aware of our attachment to time. It’s not “more time” per se that aids this awareness, it’s “more awareness”! Even this “more” is part of the problem, since it’s precisely such quantity-oriented language that confuses the issue.


If we are going to appeal to traditional standards of practice, we should also take seriously the point emphasized in higher parts of such traditional training, which seek to take time and practice out of the picture.


Conclusion: the “nine second” format may well be enough, time-wise, or even too much! (“0” would be better.)


Overall judgment: I think both “can’t be right” claims (1a and 1b), are right within their proper limits of application. It’s hard to be completely wrong.