Robert Wright offers solace to those who still hold to the value of meditative thinking and the romantic notion of unplugging from the technological world of communication. In two separate articles for the New York Times Wright explores the value of insight meditation and credits its insistence on silent meditation for helping him to observe his reactions to the ecstasy of communication.
Like many meditation retreats, this one emphasized “mindfulness,” which involves a calm focus on the present moment — much the kind of focus that is said to be endangered by the infinite regress of distractions and disruptions brought to us by digital technology. And this awareness of the moment includes awareness of your internal states; you’re supposed to carefully examine your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions. So when you come back from a retreat and plug your newly mindful mind into the grid, the subtle sources of the grid’s power seem more salient.(Minding the Grid, NYT accessed on 9/7/2010)
Carr, Heidegger, and Wright have all done us a service in pointing to the difficulty of unplugging from the grid to engage our more meditative sides in deep reflective thought. The dark underbelly that no one mentions is that we voluntarily choose the grid over meditative thought because it helps us to satisfy the hollow demands of the Protestant work ethic and reifies our ego with a sense of importance. Contemporary business practice in the United States holds that someone with a strong work ethic is constantly busy and never sleeps. People complain about working 60+ hours a week even in times of a deep recession.
I contend that we choose to fragment our consciousness by plugging in because it reinforces the narrative that we are important people with plenty of requests for our time and opinions. Being constantly plugged in reifies our sense of self and tells us that we are productive citizens even if we can’t think too deeply about the implications of our fragmented productivity. The “false productivity” of multitasking ensures we will do many things, but perhaps none of them well. For a sample of the anti-multitasking research see Ron Ashkenas’ “To Multitask Effectively, Focus on Value, Not Volume.”(Harvard Business Review, September 10, 2009) Ashkenas notes a study that “found that multitaskers were actually quite ineffective at managing information, maintaining attention, and getting results. Compared to study participants who did things one task at a time, they were mediocre.” Nevertheless false productivity and fragmentation of conscious attention have a great payoff: both activities make us feel better about ourselves.
The phone that constantly buzzes with an arriving text message reaches out to tell us we are important and that someone cares what we are doing. This is far more intuitively appealing than deep meditative thinking which can reveal the hollowness of these interactions and their inability to enhance our happiness or satisfaction with personal relationships. On the other hand, contemplative thinking, or meditative thinking, forces us to confront these uncomfortable issues head on which explains why so many people are uncomfortable with silence throughout the day. Silent cars and homes are filled with multiple distractions ranging from television to YouTube in an effort to bombard us with the trivial and direct us away from the significant facets of human existence that have the potential to increase our satisfaction.
Becoming a fully realized human being means understanding what we value and why. In the Socratic sense, it means leading an examined life, one that consciously engages us in activities we find meaningful and relationships we value. Deep meditative thinking requires us to confront our real lives (RL) and admit that there is some contradiction between our idealized notions of a contemplative lifestyle and the realities of an always-on cell phone that demands attention for the most banal of text messages. We choose fragmentation because it helps consciousness avoid the unpleasant discordance between what we say we want versus what we actually do with our lives. No one wants to admit that they spend all of their free time tracking Twitter followers or updating friends on Facebook about the latest family vacation, but both serve as busywork distractions from the reality that meaning and satisfaction cannot be derived in a world of ubiquitous presence. It is only by unplugging from the 24/7 culture that we can critically look at its unreasonable demands.
On a phenomenological level everyday realities demand that consciousness live in a series of fragmented moments often unconnected by anything other than their rapid succession and ability to disrupt whatever thought stream is currently in progress. Perhaps the type of the Vipassana meditation advanced by Thich Nhat Hahn can be of help here: when a text message arrives or e-mail bell chimes, we can stop just for a second or two to note our reaction to the disruption itself by thinking silently “disruption.” In that second we can take the time to decide whether or not we want to give in and cede the meditative contemplation of “disruption” for the more banal content of the arriving message. With some practice, by noting these spaces in-between, the buzz and the grab for the phone, we can recover a sense of meditative presence even in the realm of fragmented information flows.
To conclude, it is neither the computer nor the cell phone, nor even the Protestant work ethic that can pull us away from a mindful existence. Rather it is our own choice to surrender control to the demands of constant interruption and assaults on mindful contemplation of the now. Each time we give in, each time we surrender, we may be damaging the brain’s neuroplasticity and our ability to live deeply in the present in exchange for empty realities that will fade only to be forgotten by dusk or the coming daylight. We are not unwilling victims of some informational bomb, but rather willing participants in the dismantling of our ability to creatively connect with both our own thoughts and those of the people in our presence. We exchange the now for the “future” in hopes that the next piece of information will bring some peace or reassurance that we matter, but alas we are fooled each time by the call of the banal, striking out to pull us away from those ideas that could really change the world. The answer: tune in, drop out, unplug and practice mindfulness. It is our only hope for seeing the present as it is and not as we wish it to be.
For more information on Vipassana/mindfulness techniques, see:
- The Mindful Awareness Research Center @ UCLA,
- The Vipassana Meditation page As Taught By S.N. Goenka
- What is Vipassana Meditation? – a valuable explanation of the basics
Links & References:
Carr, Nicoloas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company (June 7, 2010)
Heidegger, Martin. Memorial Address. Originally published in Discourse on Thinking. Accessed @ http://friends-of-wisdom.com/readings/Heidegger1955.pdf on September 7, 2010.
Peluso, Robert. “Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sunday, August 08, 2010.
Wright, Robert. “Mind the grid”. The New York Times, August 31, 2010, 9:00 PM.