Digital Dharma teacher Susan Piver. Image courtesy of the author
“It’s not a thrill a minute. You’re not seeing auras and jumping into other dimensions,” says Susan Piver. “Meditation is not a life hack. . . . It’s a way to see clearly.”
The Boston, Massachusetts-based Buddhist teacher often focuses on the ordinary—even boring—side of meditation: the dull moments when the mind, like an unruly toddler, cries out or tries to distract itself. In this age of memes, social media, and 24-hour news, that mental toddler is accustomed to being entertained. A meditator’s job is to “teach that child how to manage what he or she is experiencing,” Piver observes, and this metaphor of parent and child, of forming a kinship with yourself, is right in line with Piver’s style: relatable, down-to-earth, and focused on how Buddhism is experienced in human relationships.
A student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Piver studied meditation for 10 years before becoming a teacher in the Shambhala lineage. For the last seven years, she has been teaching mindfulness both in person and, increasingly, online. As a leader of the online sangha known as the Open Heart Project, which describes itself as “the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world,” Piver shares her wisdom with around 20,000 subscribers, who tune in for her weekly Dharma talks and meditation instruction.
In the digital age, her sangha is embracing new technologies to help Buddhism reach wider audiences in the West. Piver takes a practical approach to teaching, focusing on what will be accessible for her audience. Despite her desire to make meditation an inclusive, modern practice, she remains adamant that, although helpful, it is not self-help. She has authored eight books, including a New York Times bestseller. Focusing on compassion, heartbreak, and family, her written work strives to apply insights from meditation practice to the messy, complicated world of human relationships.
Which is why a virtual sangha might seem, at first glance, rather strange. Piver has written about some of our most intimate relationships: breaking up with a beloved in The Wisdom of a Broken Heart (Atria Books, 2009); caring for aging parents in The Hard Questions For Adult Children and Their Aging Parents (Gotham, 2004); and getting ready for marriage in The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do” (TarcherPerigee, 2007). So how can Buddhist ideas be applied to human contact, without having any human contact? “It seems like the antithesis of intimate, like you’re in outer space somewhere, beaming to someone on another planet,” Piver says, laughing. “How could it be intimate?”
In fact, her decision to create a virtual mindfulness community came out of one-on-one contact. When she began teaching meditation retreats, Piver recommends that new practitioners seek out a teacher who can guide their progress. But in the United States, “there’s not a meditation center on every corner . . . yet,” she jokes. The Open Heart Project was born out of her desire to reach those students, as well to honor her own comfort level as a teacher. Piver, a self-described introvert, welcomes the idea of teaching from the seeming solitude of a computer screen.
Members of the Open Heart Project receive a free weekly video of a 2–6-minute Dharma talk followed by meditation instruction. Like many online entrepreneurial ventures, the project has layers of options built in: subscribers can pay US$20 or US$27 per month to access more features, such as the Mommy Sangha, a writing group, an online forum, and an archive of Piver’s videos. This setup may seem rather businesslike, but many American Buddhist teachers are engaged in an ongoing conversation about how to use digital materials effectively. What constitutes a sangha, in this age of distraction, is up for debate, and Piver is among those who have embraced technology as a means to create community.
For Piver, the Open Heart Project is simply a way to reach people who do not have access to Buddhist teachers in their physical communities. “It doesn’t take the place of the in-person sangha or certainly of the student-instructor relationship,” she says. “But it can be a bridge. It can provide some support for people that just can’t get support, but want to learn the practice.”
About a year after the Open Heart Project launched, Piver taught a retreat. “About five people in the room started waving and smiling at me like we were old friends. I didn’t know them!” she recalls. Having received online videos, the students felt intimately connected to their teacher, despite having never been in Piver’s presence. She believes this is because of the video format. “The felt distance is very close; I’m looking into the camera and you’re looking at the screen,” she notes. “It almost feels like we’re talking to each other.” The difficulty is getting feedback on whether or not her talks are effective, she concedes, and for that, direct contact is necessary.
Looking at Piver’s immense online presence—her TEDx talk, her appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, her YouTube videos, her blog—what you notice is that she’s always talking about the benefits of meditation: physical, mental, and social. Approaching Buddhism from a practical standpoint is a calculated decision to reach Western audiences, she says. “For whatever reason, we [in the West] are scared of things that are spiritual. We think it’s a cult, it’s brainwashing, and it’s an indication of some kind of mental weakness or emotional neediness. When science comes along and proves it’s good for you, everyone just sort of relaxes,” she says. As with the Open Heart Project, her Buddhism is tailored to her audience: seeking an entry into the lives of ordinary people who may not have much experience with meditation.
Her teachings often apply Buddhist philosophy to social realms such as childrearing, marriage, love and heartbreak, and when we spoke heartbreak was very much on her mind. “Right now so many of us here in the United States are utterly heartbroken,” says Piver of the 2016 US presidential election. Despite her unhappiness with the political climate, she emphasizes that being sorrowful is an important place to be in one’s Buddhist practice: “[Heartbreak] pushes you to an edge that is very uncomfortable, out of what in the Shambhala world we would call our cocoon . . . you can’t rest on any laurels.” In other words, moments of devastation often offer opportunities for real transformation.
The techniques learned on the cushion are the ones that carry us into the world, into relationships with our loved ones and our communities. When we’re in a time of heartbreak, as many American Buddhists are now, applying those techniques becomes even more important, says Piver. “It’s a very high skill to fight without aggression, but it’s the only way to work through something like this. Compassion has nothing to do with being nice, and everything to do with being awake and open and then figuring out what to do.”
Meditation is no quick fix, either for personal heartbreak or political disappointment. Instead, it is a way to sit with sorrow and develop compassion. Using the power of the digital age, Piver is focused on developing that clear, awakened mind: beaming her guidance across the planet to whoever might be listening.