If you find a wise person, Who points out your faults and corrects you,
You should follow such a sage,
As you would a revealer of treasures.
It is better, never worse,
To follow such a sage.
DHAMMAPADA (verse 76)
A few weeks ago I was sitting at a café in the centre of town, enjoying a few minutes peace with a long black when I noticed three people at the table next to me.
They arrived together and after ordering their drinks they continued to sit at the same table. For the twenty minutes that I was able to observe their interactions they did not speak to each other, instead they seemed to take it in turns to pick up their phone, tap away at the screen and then replace it on the table. Then the next person repeated the procedure. To all intents and purposes it appeared that they were talking to each other by text message. The art of small talk and conversation appeared to have died a death.
I belong to a spiritual community that has spread around the world over the last two and half thousand years. It entertains the idea of spiritual friendship as a force for good in people’s lives. Friendship is viewed as an important aspect of the spiritual journey. When people with shared interests and goals meet to share their experiences with others it can provide an environment which acts as an aid to personal and community development. Allowing a free exchange of information and for each person to be of help to all the others.
This process takes no prisoners. Spiritual friendship is a fierce form of friendship. However, this is not the only form of friendship that matters. Friends are important to all of us in many different ways. They are our support network when times are bad and a source of joy when they are good.
This process takes no prisoners
We need to look after our friendships otherwise they can wither away and die, leaving us on our own and missing one of the necessary parts of being a human.
Human beings are often described as social animals, this means that we evolved to live in groups, and that much of our development towards consciousness appears to have been triggered by this.
Language, social behaviours, play all come from the way we mix as people and with the people in our world. Out of this comes the whole world of culture, art and science. We are driven to communicate almost from the moment of our birth. The evidence is that as newborn babies we start to communicate before we are an hour old.
The success of social media suggests that contact with other human beings is a thing that we all enjoy. But there is a huge difference between the friends we have online and those we see in the flesh.
One problem with social media is that the interactions we have with other people are impersonal and conducted via a keyboard or touchscreen. We have no context in which to understand the messages that we receive. We would do well to remember that according to linguistic research only about 7% of the information that we hear when we communicate using speech is in the words that are used, the majority of the meaning is in our body language, tone of voice, facial expression etc. indeed it is entirely possible that we can make the words that we choose to use mean the exact opposite of what they literally say purely by how we say them.
When we add the lack of context to this mix we can end up in some very interesting, and scary places. There is an aphorism widely used in neuroscience at the moment that says that “neurons that fire together wire together,” in other words, if we use different pathways in our brain a lot they tend to become much easier to set off, and can cause reactions that are semi automatic so that we can respond to both familiar and unfamiliar situations in ways that we would not usually intend.
Similarly if we practice using bits of our brain to excess we find that this can trigger an habitual response to events or situations in our lives. This means that we can have large and unexpected responses to minor triggers in our social environment.
A phenomenon called kindling can come into play in this situation. In much the same way that we can create a fire from a single spark by slowly adding larger pieces of combustible material to encourage the flames to grow, we can adversely affect our mental state by constantly rehearsing and adding small negative elements. If we have been having a bad day we might send texts to several of our friends telling them about it.
We find ourselves typing the same negative comments several times, each time we do this, it reinforces and deepens negative mental states contributing to increased levels of unhappiness. At an extreme it can worsen depression and anxiety and lead to dangerous states of mind.
Kindling can come into play.
When we meet a friend face to face, and discuss our worries, the situation is often very different. We may well tell a friend how awful we feel, and they may listen and sympathise, however, this conversation cannot persist for very long and we will inevitably move onto other topics of discussion.
Just being in the presence of someone we like can have a strong positive effect on our mood and well-being, and if we share our difficulties with them it is likely to be a helpful experience where we have a chance to explore our feelings and thoughts about the issue in much greater detail than would be possible if our contact is purely on social media.
One worrying piece of research suggests that people are considerably more likely to give negative feedback over social media than to make positive, constructive comments. The anonymity provided by the Internet, combined with the human tendency to pay more attention to the negative aspects of our environment (a necessary survival skill) means that there are people who feel safe to say things that they would not normally say in a face-to-face situation.
The result of this is that vulnerable people can be exposed to a great deal of negative feedback which will exacerbates their condition and can lead to activation of their fight or flight response, leading to a strengthening of the mood states.
There has been a lot of research into longevity and the human condition. Blue Zones, those areas where there are unexpectedly high numbers of men and women who are living healthily into extreme old age, have been much in the media over the last few years.
According to the research that has been carried out, one of the main contributing factors to the development of these pockets of healthy old people is regular social contact. This is an important contributory factor that plays a significant part in maintaining their physical and mental health, these are two important factors that contribute to a healthy and long life.
In this twenty-first century we all seem to be too busy to manage our time and environment to allow us to live a healthy life. Over the last 50 years or so there have been various movements harking back to the old days. In the UK the campaign for real ale rebelles against the big brewers who were introducing a homogenised keg beer, preferring to pay more money for a slowly made craftsman brewed product. and there have been similar campaigns around the world directed at bread, and food in general.
A new campaign.
I am suggesting that we introduce a new campaign. It is time to spend more time socialising and in direct face-to-face contact with other people. So I would encourage you all to join the new campaign.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR SLOW FRIENDSHIP.
It is in our best interest to do so.