Dialogue Nights #31: Are We Really More Connected in a Digital Age?

| Mitch Bogen
June '24 Dialogue Nights

The June 21, 2024, Dialogue Nights on finding connection in a digital age got off to a deeply analog start. After welcoming everyone to the Ikeda Center – founded by Buddhist peacebuilder Daisaku Ikeda with a mission to build cultures of peace through learning and dialogue – the Center’s Preandra Noel invited the nearly 60 attendees to engage in a “quick grounding exercise.” For this activity, they closed their eyes and focused on what “makes them like every other person in the room” – for example, said Preandra, “all our hearts are beating, we’re all breathing.” Then, as everyone opened their eyes, she invited them to join her in the affirmation: “I offer a unique contribution to this space with my presence.”

From its earliest days, Dialogue Nights has been guided by four “dialogue commitments” [view here]. Now, in order “to make the commitments easier to practice,” said Preandra, the Center has fleshed out the commitments in nine new “ground rules.” These are: 

  1. We will give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust that we are all doing the best we can.
  2. We will work together to create a safe space where we can be vulnerable and imperfect.
  3. We will be mindful of the time we take to speak and give others space to do the same.
  4. We will embrace new perspectives with the openness that we may not always be right.
  5. If there is disagreement, we will challenge the idea referred to and not the person sharing the idea.
  6. We will listen to one another with curiosity and courage to expand our awareness and understanding of each other.
  7. We will not devalue or “put down” anyone’s experiences or lack of experiences.
  8. We will strive to courageously share our thoughts and stories with the belief that what we have to say matters.
  9. We will acknowledge and celebrate the effort that we all took to show up today.

For an icebreaker activity, the attendees participated in two rounds of “speed connecting.” In pairs, they responded to the following questions: (1) If you had the chance to go on an all-inclusive vacation without your phone, would you still go and how would you navigate that experience? (2) Do you feel more connected to others in this digital age? Why or why not?

Then, to provide a focus for the first small-group discussion session, attendees watched a brief video on the evolutionary roots of loneliness. It’s core message was that until recent centuries the human experience was defined by membership in close-knit tribes or residence in intimately-scaled villages. The need for the tight social bonds that developed in such settings is in our DNA now, but contemporary modes of social organization often fail to meet that need, both because of our move to industrially-oriented urban environments and now with the emphasis on digital or virtual relationships and entertainment. The result? “One day you wake up and realize you feel isolated.” Upon the conclusion of the video, Preandra said that, for her, the main takeaway was that “if you are feeling lonely, then you are lonely.” This is a “validating” idea, she said, and lets us know “it’s okay if you feel that way.” And, she explained, many people do feel this way. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in three Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 say they feel lonely at least once a week, and one in 10 say they do almost every day.

Breakout groups during the June 2024 Dialogue Nights

Following the video, participants broke into small groups to discuss the questions: How does our reliance on technology influence the way that we experience loneliness today? Why can we feel more lonely when we can be connected to so many more people in this digital age? During a brief “open mic” session, a few group representatives shared some of the key takeaways from their discussions. The first person to speak framed their takeaway around the fear of being seen as “uncool” if you don’t engage with every social media app that’s out there. How often, they wondered, do you “feel compelled to use those apps just because you don’t want to feel left out”? In response, another participant said that they don’t actually participate in much social media, saying “I prefer doing things that eventually would be spread by word of mouth and they eventually find the right ears or eyeballs. And then that brings me to people who I want to be around with or the people who I was intentionally looking for.” Ultimately, whether or not you are on social media, you want to do things that “provide momentum” versus “stagnation.” The third person to share emphasized how a “lack of understanding” contributes to feeling lonely. As someone who grew up in a huge family, this participant nevertheless often felt alone since “nobody understood my perspective.” The next takeaway also addressed family, but in this case the participant shared a paradox in which continual checking in with loved ones to see how they are doing can lead to a its own kind of loneliness if “you don’t know what they are doing all the time.” Finally, another participant shared from the perspective of being “a huge extrovert” who can easily hang out with people 12 hours a day. What she needs to focus on is spending more time with herself and nurturing that sense of productive solitude.      

For the second small group dialogue, participants stayed in their same groups to discuss the quest for connection in our current moment. For context and inspiration, Preandra shared this quote from Daisaku Ikeda: “When people have a genuine sense that, no matter how difficult their present circumstances, they are not alone but are vitally connected with others and with the world, they can stand up without fail. This is the power inherent in life.”* She then asked everyone to keep the quote in mind as they discussed the following questions: Within this digital age, how can we feel a genuine sense of connection with others and with the world? Are there examples in your personal life when you have felt more connected because of this digital age?

The evening’s final activity was introduced by the Ikeda Center’s new program intern, Lanre Adeyanju, a rising senior at Harvard. After expressing her delight to be part of the team at the Center and to be participating in her first Dialogue Nights, Lanre explained that each person would be given a blank cut-out of a smart phone on which they would be invited to respond to a prompt relating to the evening’s theme. Once completed, all the responses were gathered in a basket which was then passed around, with each participant selecting one at random to read aloud. Rich with insights, these card responses completed the sentence: In this digital age, I will connect more deeply with others by …

  • Doing more outdoor activities with my friends!
  • Letting go of my expectations and judgments; creating a space for life to unfold in between us through each and every moment.
  • Treasuring the meaningful moments of connection that I do have with others, online or offline, and reflecting on how these moments impact my life.
  • Reaching out to people first and with no plans in mind. Just see how they are doing.
  • Skillfully using my attention to listen more deeply to others, to seek to understand before I’m understood.
  • Expressing my appreciation for those around me.
Takeaway activity at the June 2024 Dialogue Nights

Upon the conclusion of the activity, Lanre offered her heartfelt thanks for everyone’s responses, observing that they were “so beautiful, deep, and powerful.” She also offered her hope “that as you leave tonight’s Dialogue Night, you continue to just make deeper connections with new people that you meet and people that are already in your lives.”

* See The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 4, (World Tribune Press, 2002), p. 105.