To say that blogging can be dhammic is not to claim that it can substitute for formal techniques of spiritual practice. Those techniques are designed to help bring us face-to-face with the hard lessons — otherwise, it becomes just another feel-good affair (or, as I once heard Mary Ann Brussat call it, “salad-bar spirituality”). Still, with any spiritual teaching, it’s easy to get too wrapped up in literalism and formalism. So we have to remember to engage creatively with the mundane — the materials already before us. Whether that’s blogging or boxing or BDSM roleplaying.
Yesterday I talked a bit about how sexism keeps us from taking journal blogging seriously. Today, 5 reasons the medium suits dhamma practice terrifically, with particular advantages as a new form of spiritual autobiography.
1. The highest wisdom comes from experience. In the dhamma, there is value in both wisdom heard from others and wisdom reasoned out for oneself, but ultimate wisdom comes only through direct experience. We can understand the texts and lectures, we can meditate, but unless we apply the dhamma in life, we won’t be able to realize and internalize its benefits. Memoir blogging can help put the focus squarely on the stuff of everyday life, a rich and often underestimated field of dhamma. As Chokyi Nyima says,
[H]onestly, it’s not that one has to go to some other place and close the door and be quiet in order to practice. That’s not the only way. It’s definitely the case that we can practice at any given moment. We can always try a little more to be kind, to be compassionate and be careful about what we do and say and so forth.
2. Dialectical praxis. Theory makes practice makes theory makes practice. A basic understanding of journal blogging might be: harvesting raw material from real life, then fashioning them into stories for online distribution and discussion. Something like this:
But we can also choose to use blogging not just for communication and performance, but reflection. We can establish a dialectical relationship between online and offline activity: particularly when mindfulness and reflexivity are applied in both contexts.
Imagine a mindful blogger who witnesses a beautiful sunrise. With mindfulness and presence, the blogger allows the experience to unfold as it is. Later, composing a blog post, the blogger reflects on the sunrise, sharing the awe, pleasure, and insight into the brevity of human existence that the sight inspired. Through the writing process, responses from commenters, or both, the blogger’s own insight deepens, matures, and evolves: the lesson of the sunrise expands for both blogger and readers, assuming new forms and nuances. In the future, when the blogger or reader witnesses a sky at dawn, the insights developed online may arise: a reminder to remain present, and a sense of connectedness with others in this brief, precious human existence.
This model is more complex than the harvesting idea because it demonstrates the circuitry connecting online and offline experience. Still, as yet there is nothing distinguishing such a praxis (mutually constituting practice and theory) as particular to the art of blogging. A traditional memoirist, for instance, in writing a book, may pass through the same phases: experiencing life directly; communicating these experiences; teasing out and developing lessons from these renderings; and applying these lessons to future life experiences.
3. Temporal location. The “now-ness” of blogging can prove particularly auspicious for ongoing mindfulness practice. A traditional autobiographer reflects on their past, carefully condensing and constructing the messy life-events of decades or quarter-centuries into a digestible, contiguous narratives. Blogging’s structural focus on the present — with posts displayed in reverse-chronological order, showing the most current entry first, and updated far, far more frequently than books are able to be published — shifts attention to ongoing influxes of new experience. This forward motion propels the praxis of mindful blogging in a manner different from autobiography. While the memoirist resides at the front end of the past, the blogger perches on the cusp of the future.
4. Greater room for, and emphasis on, reader participation. I’m fascinated by the participatory nature of blogging because I think it challenges our idea of ‘authority’ or ‘authorship’ in ‘auto’-biographical writing. When a post is published, its life is just beginning! While reader consumption and response certainly reflect and influence the overall impact of a memoir, the memoirist doesn’t turn right around to compose and publish another commentary in response!
When bloggers are open to it, their reader participants can shape the project as much as they themselves do. Threads with intensive back-and-forth replies resemble nothing so much as published correspondence: exchanges among equals, rather than footnotes to the main event of a post. Readers have shared insights with me that I never would have come up with on my own — and oftentimes my favorite part about a post is its thread.
Plus, reader participation provides opportunities for compassionate communication. (Again, the “Ennobling Speech.”) Aware of the ‘realness’ of online community, mindful bloggers can treat reader/participants on their blogs with as much care as they would in real life, considering comments seriously and joyfully, and understanding them as a crucial component to the knowledge-making occurring in the online/offline space.
Journal writing, whether public or private, can help us get a handle on our own experiences. But blogging also remind us that we’re not the sole author of our life story.
5. Shifting focus from media to mindfulness. On a site like Feministe, this probably deserves a whole conversation to itself! But to put it briefly: it’s extremely, extremely hard to maintain mindfulness — the kind of full-body awareness that’s open and receptive — while consuming media. We get sucked into the article, the radio spot, the TV program, and become totally mentally identified with it.
Have you been trying #3 of the dhamma comment guidelines, “honoring the body”? Shit is mad difficult!
I’m not here to tell anybody how to live, or that you should cut down on your media consumption. But I will say for myself, I’ve noticed:
(a) I tend to feel ‘more productive’ or ‘smarter’ when I’m reading — especially reading political media and commentary — versus when I’m sitting and meditating, or just bringing awareness to everyday activities. But ultimately it’s the work on the spiritual path that most affects my quality of living.
(b) I often reach for online reading compulsively, when I’m bored or anxious, specifically as a distraction.
(c) Reading and watching videos creates a lot of noise in my mind. A LOT of noise. Most of the time I don’t notice it unless I put forth exceptional effort to pay attention. But when I go into a 10-day silent meditation retreat, with no reading, writing, music, speaking, or touching other people, there’s no hiding from it. All that agitation is just swirling around, and there’s *nothing* I can do to stop it. Just gotta wait for it to settle down.
Again, this isn’t about condemning media as toxic or something. Media-based blogging is a great tool for the harm side of the equation. But how to keep it balanced? What if we took some of the energy we spend consuming and analyzing media, and devoted it to spreading mindful awareness in our everyday life?
There could be a big payoff for all this internal work — this mindfulness stuff. As S. N. Goenka, one of the teachers of my tradition (Theravada/Vipassana/Insight Meditation) puts it:
By learning to remain balanced in the face of everything experienced inside, one develops detachment towards all that one encounters in external situations as well. However, this detachment is not escapism or indifference to the problems of the world. Those who regularly practice Vipassana become more sensitive to the sufferings of others, and do their utmost to relieve suffering in whatever way they can—not with any agitation, but with a mind full of love, compassion and equanimity. They learn holy indifference—how to be fully committed, fully involved in helping others, while at the same time maintaining balance of mind. In this way they remain peaceful and happy, while working for the peace and happiness of others.
*A little joke based on the Zen saying, “When walking, just walk. When sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.”