The Tamil culture in southern India and Sri Lanka traditionally eat with their fingers. The food is often placed on a banana leaf. A Tamil saying goes something like this: “Eating a meal with utensils is like making love through an interpreter.” This approximates my experience with video conferencing. I see and hear people but there is no tangible connection. It is like looking at people eating delicious food but I don’t get to taste it.
I remember meeting a native East Indian man, many years ago, who was in charge of a large company. Video conferencing was in its infancy but he refused to hold meetings this way. I asked him why he made that choice. He simply said, “No prana.” Prana is a Sanskrit word meaning “life force” or “vital principle.” This energy permeates all elements and living things and is said to originate with the stars. Here was a successful businessman who felt we were on the brink of losing the preciousness of human connection in the name of efficiency.
Now I find myself conducting practices and giving talks through the Zoom video platform—and it leaves me feeling hollow. There is something precious missing. I wonder about all the people who live their lives and relationships through digital media. It is a very different kind of existence—no prana. But, I am an old fogey and did not grow up with this technology. I confess to my limited thinking in this regard.
In order for me to adapt to this changing reality, I have to draw on my experience of watching the projections of my mind as if I am watching a movie. When I see the moving picture, I assign certain meanings. My conceptual mind has a field day. It just decides what it wants to see based on whatever emotion or conditioning habit arises. I certainly do this on a regular basis and I notice the illusion forming around thought. Video conferencing should be no different. It is a matter of choice. As I play in the field of media, I have another opportunity to watch my mind and liberate whatever limitation I project.
But I eagerly await the time in which the real bodies of our sangha gather together once more. I look forward to the prana of connection, the shared breath and presence of proximity. Taste, smell, and touch, energetically convey more meaning and mutual understanding than any digital representation of sight and sound. I recall the scene in the movie, The Matrix, where Neo sees the illusory computer code generating perceived reality—and he experiences an awakening.
While I will continue offer digital Dharma, for now, because it serves the sangha in this time of social distancing, I shall remain in close touch with Buddha’s teaching regarding sangha or spiritual community: “Surround yourself with people who make you hungry for life, touch your heart, and nourish the very essence of your being.” Whatever we do, may we never lose touch with our essential being that comes alive in proximity with other radiant souls.