Managing conscious connection

 Are you – like me – an internet addict?  How does this affect our Zen practice, and does this matter?

One of the things I discovered on the month long August retreat was the extent of my dependency on my devices and on the internet.

Coming back, I found that I am not alone.  One of the things I first noticed was the way that students around the Zen Centre in the Hope Street area of Liverpool are permanently glued to smartphones as they walk in the street.  Indeed, one of the results of this modern addiction apparently is a marked increase in accidents involving pedestrians because they walk into traffic without looking where they are going, and also accidents involving young children in the home because their parents are distracted by their devices and are not paying attention.

Looking at the SWZ Facebook page and at Twitter it’s also very clear that many Zennies are also techies, and one of the things that is often mentioned by the younger beginners on our Beginning Zen courses is just how hard they find it to switch off from the distractions of social media etc in order to do zazen.

Having become aware of my dependence, since August I have been actively trying to manage how I connect; I find for example that I watch less TV and less news, partly because I am not sure how I should respond to all the information that bombards me.

There was a great article by Lauren Laverne in this Sunday’s Observer (16/11/14) http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/16/born-before-1985-digital-immigrant-lauren-laverne.  Here’s an extract:

“Born before 1985? Then you’re a ‘digital immigrant’  Anyone born after 1985 is a ‘digital native’ and can’t imagine a time before the internet, when we weren’t constantly connected…

2014’s best new music sounds lonely. As a firm believer in the theory that music’s evolution follows the path of technological progress…, I had put this down to the fact that artists at the cutting edge these days work alone, by night …, on a laptop or home studio.… It sounds isolated.  

This week, though, I started to think there was something else to that lonely sound, and my connection with it. Technology was still at the root – a book about tech, actually. Michael Harris’s fascinating The End of Absence, which should be required reading for anyone born before 1985. Harris’s topic is us – “digital immigrants”. The last generation that will remember the world before the internet.  Harris writes: “We have in this brief historical moment… a very rare opportunity… These are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After… There’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence – the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.”

The book is a paean to the quiet pleasures (and productive frustration) created by absence – of noise, distraction, entertainment, other people…and the consequences of a partly digitised, constantly connected existence. It sets out to answer questions like: are we losing the ability to think deeply?  To remember?  How is “continuous partial attention” changing our culture and our brain chemistry? Our aptitude for distraction might have an evolutionary imperative, but in the context of the internet, is it damaging us as much as our disposition toward fat and sugar, which was equally useful to prehistoric man? 

I was so engrossed in the book that I read until I realised night had fallen around me. It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I’d allowed myself to do that. I thought about my life as a digital immigrant – I will never be from the place I inhabit, but my children are. What do I want to teach them about where I come from? I think it is yearned for and portrayed in the new music I love. That’s the reason I love it: it depicts and imitates the beauty of solitude. You might think I’m projecting; maybe I am. I do spend a lot of time daydreaming. I learned how when I was little.”

So is this connectedness all bad? No. In my view the internet is a Godsend. It makes it possible for me to run my business.  Modern communication enabled Colin, for example, to stay in touch with his wife and their new baby and so attend the August retreat.  There are host of new possibilities emerging, for example to aid the mobility of the blind using GPS and digital networks.  (And just think how connected we all are with the NSA and GCHQ!)

This problem of distraction is not new.  Rinzai, a 9th century Chinese Zen master said this: “When sitting just sit, when walking just walk; above all don’t wobble”.

The key here is the word ‘just’.  Here’s Steve Hagen on multitasking:

“One of the biggest snares we lay for ourselves in Zen is that we refer to meditation as sitting. This is quite misleading.  It implies (and reinforces in our minds) that meditation has something to do with being seated.  In part this is because the Japanese word we use for meditation is zazen which literally means “sitting meditation”.  In part it’s because another Japanese word we use for meditation, shikantaza, is commonly translated as “just sitting”.  But we miss the essential point here which is the “just” part.  Just doing the dishes.  Just driving…. Meditation can occur anywhere… it is simply collecting the mind.  It doesn’t matter what the activity is … it can reach into every activity of your life 24/7.  It’s not that we can, or even ought to be, fully present 24/7. I have yet to meet anyone who can do that.  I certainly can’t.  But this is not the point.  The point is whenever you notice your attention is shifting away from the here and now, bring it back.

This is not easy to do.  Most of the time there’s a lot of distraction in our lives.  Of course much of the time we invite much of this distraction.  We even try to imitate our machines and multitask, thinking there’s virtue in it.  But this sort of activity actually disperses the mind.  Meditation is just the opposite.”

“Meditation can occur anywhere.…  It doesn’t matter what the activity is.”  So, even using the internet or social media can be meditation!  The question is HOW we manage our connection.  The realisation I had on the retreat was that I had become dispersed by what Lauren Laverne describes as ‘continuous partial attention’ and what I realise now is that I am trying to manage ‘conscious connection’.  Here’s a few practical suggestions that I am using to achieve this:

  • switch off ‘push’ notifications, those immediate reminders that you have mail etc
  • don’t leave apps open on your device
  • choose and ration the times in the day when you connect and how you connect
  • switch off! especially at night.

Why not try this and let me know how you get on?  Use the contact page of this website or the StoneWater Facebook page.

Andy Tanzan Scott