Amongst the many fine characters that grace Ashram Yoga, Patrick Usmar is certainly one of them. His colourful presence, great humour and love of yogic indulgence was a constant each New Year at Ohui Retreat where he became part of the experience. Professionally, Patrick has worked in media and communications since 1998 and has taught at the School of Communications at AUT since 2013. More recently he has taken on the daring challenge of stand-up comedy. Many yogic salutations to you Patrick!
How do you see the world now in relation to our use of communication?
The human need to communicate and connect never wanes, and the richness possible in our connections remains infinite. In many ways the multiple ways we’re now able to reach each other has lots of benefits. During the recent lockdowns, where would we have been without Zoom helping us connect for work, friends and family?
That said, the expectations of digital communication seem to be out of control and have a palpable negative impact on our wellbeing. Imagine trying to meaningfully read and respond to every message you received today – whether email, text or other message service. This would take hours, if not days. So we take mental shortcuts, every day. The kind of compromises that affect our communication in complex ways. The cognitive load for this is baffling. And it can create a dis-ease or discomfort that we have no doubt all felt at some point.
Emphasis seems to be on the speed of communication and the commodification of time. Where is all that time and money going that we have supposed to have saved by doing things smarter or faster? For some years now, there appears a collective imperative that communication must happen in a hurried and instant way. This impacts our expectations of each other and our relationship to communication and time. Especially with digital communication that removes an awful lot of the ‘feel’ from communicating with someone. Put it this way, when you have a face-to-face conversation with someone our brains are, or at least have the opportunity to be, finely tuned to absorb or process every moment of the exchange – body language, paraverbal cues (the use of tone, pitch and pacing) and verbal language. Together as listener and receiver alternate there’s the potential for a rich exchange. Imagine if our expectations of a text, email or other messaging service were the same as a face-to-face conversation?
Ultimately, this can lead to frustration, misunderstanding and disappointment. This doesn’t mean that every face-to-face conversation is perfect, or even always preferable, but it has the best chance of people connecting in a sincere manner with the greatest potential for authentic exchange.
A great way to illustrate this is what happens at a meditation group I belong to. With Covid lockdowns we have been doing this on Zoom rather than in person for some 8 months. It is a reasonable substitute but of course does not compare to the real thing. At the end of our weekly get together we say the same chant, and have been doing so for years. When we are in the room, we routinely say the chant in pretty much perfect harmony. Everyone in the room can feel the moment the chant needs to be said, and we all pick up each other’s rhythm. We’ve never actually stopped to say, “hey, we need to say this in unity”. It just happens because that’s the richness of human connection. In the 8 months we have been having these same mediation meetings online rather than in person – not a single time has the chant at the end resounded in unison. Try as we might, it is impossible. Whether digital time delays, or not being in the room, this disjuncture is the perfect allegory for the dissonance possible when communicating digitally.
A pleasing trend is the persistence of principles of mindfulness in communication. The quality of communication, in whatever form, might be allowed to persist over quantity. Simple things like – make a phone call rather than sending a long email. Or strike up a rapport with someone in the next shop or café you go to, simply because it might create a warmth of experience for both parties. The irony never escapes me that the antidotes to contemporary pressures and the stresses digital communication place on people, were largely conceived before these pressures existed, are fairly intuitive, and will likely endure long after this phase morphs into something else. That doesn’t mean they aren’t challenging, but what rewarding things aren’t challenging? Acceptance does however persist as the answer – things will improve, or they won’t.
There’s obviously been swift changes in the last decade with the way we are communicating. What do you think is next?
We are in an unprecedented era of what some argue is an ‘epistemic crisis’. That is, a collapse in our collective sense of how truth might reliably be discerned. In short, trust is at an all time low. Trust in social institutions, civil authority and in each other. Formerly, we might have relied on news media, scholarship and other social or spiritual institutions to understand the wider world, and the people and practices in it. What we might term informed citizenry. This doesn’t mean those institutions were always right, but to apply pragmatism to the seeking of knowledge and truth, means at some point, having some faith, and using good judgement to discern what is more likely to be true, from that of bias or conspiracy theory.
We don’t all have to experts in everything – nor could we ever! It sometimes might pay to listen to trusted guardians or gatekeepers of knowledge and wisdom. In the last 12 months there’s been pressure on us all to become epidemiologists, experts in the understanding of previously unknown viruses, and now we feel pressure to have an opinion on the Russia Ukraine conflict and become experts in complex diplomatic affairs. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be angry about what’s happening in Ukraine or offer our assistance, but the polarisation and hate this can cause is bewildering. Restaurants in London are being boycotted for serving Russian dishes. To distance itself from Russian ties, Stolichnaya Vodka recently changed its name to Stoli, more convincingly they have pointed out that the company is owned by an opponent of Putin, the vodka is produced in Latvia and sources its grain outside of Russia.
The digital era we’re immersed in has eroded some of the ‘common sense’ type trust we might have once had, and puts pressure on us to live and die by our opinions, no matter how ill-informed we might be. Being well-informed, building a careful picture of a situation is one thing, but we’re in a time where the questioning of everything means the questioning of everything, and sometimes this isn’t helpful! What’s next? Public moods and discourse tend to swing with the inevitability and pleasing rhythm of a pendulum, if we all hold ourselves with some grace, we can ride the pendulum back into calm. I remain optimistic that light, life and goodness is possible in us all and will prevail. It’s worth remembering the old maxim: does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me? If the answer to all these questions isn’t ‘yes’ – then keep it to yourself!
What are some of the ways with the current methods of communication can we deepen and develop our yoga practice?
Acceptance is always the answer. Accepting conditions beyond our control (and deciding to let go). Accepting conditions within our control (and so acting where necessary). Accepting that, for example, the sensations of sadness and gladness have equal chance of being temporary. I consider my yoga practice to be something of an insurance policy to be able to put these principles into action. The unity of mind and body, and the peace yoga brings, the better ability to let go, prepares me best for the complexities of modern life. If I want to get good at a sport, or other skilled hobby, I must practice practice practice. If I want to get good at handling stress- how do you practice that? I can’t wait until it happens and then try to act, it’s too late. Ashram Yoga always taught me the critical path to this kind of peace is having an open communication channel between your body and your mind. So if this channel is compromised by something, then this can be a threat. If my mind is overly distracted or preoccupied with the pressures of modern communication, what chance do I have?
The simple answer is maintaining our practice at whatever level is manageable and that has been working for us, is vital to hold the line / hold your emotional, spiritual, and physical form whole. And perhaps with greater uncertainty comes the need to communicate these needs more carefully and with conviction – to oneself, and to others around us.
What’s one thing you would like to communicate to the world right now?
It would be arrogant of me to assume the world wants to hear from me! That said, I have been working in communications for 24 years – if I had to say something, it would be always to stay curious. I use an activity with my students where they must take an interesting photo of a boring object. This forces them to be curious, to consider new perspectives on a previously neutral idea or ignored item. The results are always fascinating and fun. Whatever the communication mode – in person, digitally or communicating within – curiosity is one quality that can inform and elevate any communication exchange. Curiosity about the others’ point of view, curiosity about the context in which you are communicating and curiosity without judgement. Curiosity allows us to advance our understanding and assimilate new perspectives, knowledge, and points of view. Curiosity allows those who think they aren’t creative, to find their creative mode. Or those that assume they can’t trust their own thinking, to find some faith.