For more countless millennia, people have been seeking to understand why we are here. For some, they seek not just understanding, but Wisdom, union with God, mystical experience – some form of transformation of experience. For others, such transformation is thrust upon them. And some have felt the desire to share what they have learned with others.
In this post, I’d like to look at the systems that people inevitably create in order to share these learnings with more than a close few, and then note how the advent of the Internet fundamentally changes these dynamics.
In the past, whether recent or distant, the range of options for sharing wisdom were limited: gain physical proximity with those you wish to teach, or write a book. In gaining physical proximity, they lose access to those that cannot travel to the same location as the teacher. They are also limited by the number of people that can be accommodated – physical premises are expensive to build and maintain. They can reach more people by writing a book, but that requires a one-size-fits-all approach, with the same words read by every reader. The strongest form of teaching – one-to-one – is the most expensive in terms of effort, and the hardest to achieve.
To be successful, a teacher may end up cultivating ‘status’ – even though their insights undermine a sense of self-importance, they still need to be seen as someone who “has it” in order to draw students – to induce them to make the efforts to get themselves into physical proximity with the teacher.
This is certainly how it was during my formative years as a Buddhist. I was encouraged to live in ‘communities’ so as to have regular close contact with other Buddhists. I was encouraged to go on retreat for six weeks every year – in part to be in contact with those I might want to learn from. As my practice deepened, however, it became clear that many of these people were engaged in persisting the structures of the retreat, and not in deepening their own insight or understanding – at least not in a form that I could recognise.
I am describing these as ‘constraints’, while for many people these will just be ‘how things are’. Hopefully in the following paragraphs I will be able to show that whilst it has been that way for a long time, the Internet is starting to change that, and we can only expect its impact to increase over coming years.
Whilst the Internet was first invented in the 1960s, it first arrived in public consciousness in the mid-1990s with the invention of the World-Wide-Web. Then, with the arrival of smartphones, everyone had it in their pocket. It was no longer a geek toy, it was a social necessity.
Then came Facebook. Like it or loathe it, what Facebook brought to the table was a global identification system. Your online identity was supposed to be the same as your in-person identity, and once enough people had Facebook accounts, it meant that if you wanted to communicate with someone, there was a reasonable chance you could do it on Facebook, regardless of geography, regardless of physical ability. Conversation can now reach vast numbers, with a speed that can make it feel more like a conversation.
Just to be clear – this isn’t me defending Facebook, or suggesting that their business model is good, or even that everyone should be on it. In fact I could easily write another blog post on how and why we need as a society to be replacing Facebook, but for now I’m just making an observation that Facebook has changed the world we live in in a likely irreversible way, and that this needs to be taken into account when planning for our collective future.
So how does this bear upon those who are seeking, or trying to share, Wisdom?
With the availability of the Internet, the issues and limitations experienced by teachers are very different – and they are much more malleable and open to change. Teachers are increasingly sharing their teachings online, as blogs, as videos, and in various online forums that form from their communities.
One particular community (or set of communities) that has been fascinating to watch is Liberation Unleashed. They have made very effective use of some quite old fashioned software, with people “guiding” others in a particular kind of search, using a technique called Direct Pointing. Whilst as an approach it certainly does not work for everyone, I know enough people whose lives have been transformed by their experience of being guided to recognise its worth.
What we see with LU is a commoditisation of Wisdom. Once someone has seen, they can guide. It is no big deal. They have had 1000s of people witnessed as having seen their particular insight. So no-longer is someone a Great Teacher, they can just be someone on the other end of an online exchange. Not only that, they can be anywhere in the world – proximity is no longer a requirement. And for the guide, their engagement with a particular client could be as little as typing a paragraph or two per day, meaning their reach is far higher than it would be face to face where conversations naturally ensue as people meet.
At this point in time, no-one knows how this will pan out. All I know is that I deeply believe that this is going to change the way we think about Wisdom and how people pursue it. Those seeking Wisdom are in for some interesting times ahead.