Peter Matthiessen, recently deceased, was a writer and Zen practitioner. He expressed a reluctance to write about his experiences because it was the nature of Zen to depend on the immediacy and spontaneity of the present moment. His point brought into sharp contrast what is happening to this present moment in these times. It seems with the digital age the spontaneity of present time is under full assault. If it is true, we can only “know anything in the now,” then we need to examine what is happening to “the now,” and be awake to what it is doing to us.
Today as I watch people on their devices it appears that “being in the moment” is no longer viable. Our plugged-in capacities have filled, to capacity, the fullness of time. The reality of what is in front of us is still a series of present moments, but we now see them as too slow, too uneventful. Our impatience drives us to conclude that this nonspontaneous, opaque present moment is in desperate need of something, a charge of dopamine or a runner’s rush of urgency. When we feel the restlessness of this empty moment coming on, we instantly fill it; we read while we eat, crowd our moments with multi-tasking stimulation, and now most typically, we simply “click on” something. With instant digital response our body chemistry begins to hum at a more exciting rate.
I better understood this attitude toward “the moment” writ large when speaking to a nineteen year-old college student at Le Moyne College in upstate New York. I was explaining our lay Christian lifestyle in a community setting, telling the story of how we cleared the land, designed and built the buildings, a project that took decades. He cut into my story with a powerful fact: “We want everything now. My generation doesn’t want to wait…for anything.” For people under thirty, extended time is not what they want to give anything. Neither is it what they want to have too abundantly.
A recent college graduate who was living and working at our community last month shed further light on our current sense of what to do with leisure moments. She recounted her last Thanksgiving Day with her family. People had traveled from all over the country to be with each other on this rare, special, “entire family together holiday.” Yet, it was not long after everyone arrived, that out came the handheld devices. As emotionally close as the family is, the social pattern has been firmly established… multi-task. Good conversation can be somewhat maintained but only while they are “checking the news” from their devices. Conversation on its own might take time. Our monitors have it now.
A recent New Yorker front page cover captures what 2014 young family life is like. It shows a picture of a mother, father, son (eighteen years old), daughter (fourteen years old), having their picture taken at a beautiful Bahamian beach, on a gorgeous and sunny day. None of the four are looking into the camera; rather, they are riveted to their phones, with their engrossed blank affects, looking down. You can imagine the boy saying to a passerby: “Do you want to see just how beautiful the beach is here? Look at these pictures.” Is it just so “foreign” to be outside, on the beach in the middle of nowhere familiar? “My reality,” Millennials might say, “is what I can make this phone do, which is everything. It is not isolating or antisocial. The Bahamas are still here, but I can just control them, enjoy them better along with my smartphone.”
Time Is the Problem
When dust begins to accumulate on the present moment, we never need to wait it out. We instantly go to the gadget’s words or pictures or plug in the music. Who just stands and waits for a bus any longer? We just can’t ever imagine standing around doing nothing. Time is a problem and time slowing down brings on gnawing fidgetiness. The slightest hint of tedium is nipped in the bud with a cascade of incoming data and visual stimulation. This re-establishes a sense of urgency and purpose with constant music, pictures of friends and shocking personal revelations that excites a predictable thrill, fostering the continual illusion of emotional connection. And what is the outcome of existing in this constant overpowered moment-to-moment? We are now living almost exclusively through anticipation.
We satisfy anticipation by taking steady sips of online connection. The significance of this moment is distracted by anticipating something more. Herein lays the clash between the Zen moment and the digital moment. Asian Religions teach that the next moment you are about to enter need not always have a plan. Insight and wisdom often come of an unencumbered present where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. When your waking hours are dedicated to satisfying anticipation, you experience a dopamine charge. Dopamine is the brain’s neurotransmitter that is stimulated by brain activity. Digital images, data and music are sure to fire brain activity. Being glued to technology now has a chemical habit pattern. Anticipation is now an addiction.
Franciscan nun, Ilia Delio writes in The Unbearable Wholeness of Being of this habit pattern: “Areas of the brain that are linked with emotion and aggression are connected with a neuromodulator that is associated with reward, desire, addiction, and euphoric states, namely dopamine. Release of dopamine puts us in a feel good state.”
A few years back the New York Times covered a group of neuroscientists and psychologists who left their universities and digital devices to immerse themselves in a quiet, bucolic, non-technological world of a National Park in Utah for a week. The goal was to be in the quiet of nature with only their occasional academic conversations for the daily “academic fix” of stimulation. These men were highly educated brain and human behavior specialists who were beginning to be concerned about recent findings related to overuse of digital technology. These recent findings suggest that excess “monitor stimulation”, (i.e. social media, email and texting) is not emotionally or physically healthy and, even worse for academics, it could inhibit deep intellectual mind probing capacities. As professional thinkers, they were singularly concerned that extended use of monitors can derail focus and attention to a task. This is especially evident with moment in, moment out “multitasking”, or jumping around the infinite world of cyberspace until you are “satisfied.” The modern computer is the purest instrument of this form of multitasking.
Unbridled computer use (and cell phone use) can compromise true intellectual ability and worse, create anxiety in its place. The socalled “information age” is not providing this never before factual advantage we thought it would. Conversely, it can have us in a constant state of feeling over-loaded. The creative power of the unimpeded moment is lost when we consistently anticipate arrival of new data.
These social scientists on a digital fast were “seeing” that constant data, even the expectation of professionally critical email information and fast breaking news of program funding that can be careeraltering, can seriously limit their working memories. These overworked professionals began to notice that getting into nature void of technology, gave them distance on their addictive dependencies, and for the first time they became aware of the harm of digital use, overuse and dependency. Further studies suggest that spending time in nature void of technology can liberate the present moment and reinvigorate the creative potential of the mind. Stress that we can’t manage appropriately leads to compulsion driven stress and anxiety, the feeling of being overwhelmed. This overdrive of our daily routines happens when we are constantly managing the future, which is, being “here” but wanting to be “there”, being with “these people” but secretly desiring to be with “those people.”
We need to retrieve the transparency of the unintimidated present moment, trusting in its clarity and spontaneity. We can expect that our creative potential will always happen in some accessible form if I meet many of my moments relaxing, breathing, letting things be as they are, and more willing to let present time just happen. 24/7 digital access can foster anxiety, or FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, when we know that infinite stimulation lies a click away. But surrender to a more creative process, the serene emptiness and detachment of a moment can encourage JOMO, or the “Joy of Missing Out” of news from everywhere.
Existing on the Level of Being
What kind of moments would explode with creative and contemplative force if we weren’t always focused on becoming someone, looking to get something to satisfy and working every moment to our advantage? Mystics talk of being present in this moment or existing merely on the level of “being” not solely on the level of “doing.” It is the simplest yet rarest of spiritual practices, the art of holding that tone of “being present.” It is a radical trust in this self-initiating yet self-contained way of existing dynamically in the now.
Meister Eckhart wrote: “There is nothing in all of creation that is so like God as stillness.” Stillness is the experience of something deeper in the moment than just silence or the peace one might feel with the solitude of resting alone in the quiet. Mystics like Quaker Thomas Kelly locate the Divine nature of this stillness: “Deep within us all there is an inner sanctuary of the soul, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice to which we may continuously return. It is a Light Within, and it is the beginning of true life. It is a practice of inward orientation, of inward worship and listening.” Not requiring a perfect aloneness of a quiet desert or mountain sanctuary, this sanctuary “becomes so like God” by being patiently present to the stirring of the unencumbered moment.
This quest for this deepest inmost center is accessibly fathomed when we rest innocently and without expectation in the present moment. As in the true practice of meditation, we seek not to add anything to this moment. There are powerful fruits to this practice. In entering this place within, we will progressively dissolve boredom, heal anxiety and begin to chisel away the fitful need to fill up “empty time.”
Recording More and Experiencing Less
Psychologist Linda Henkel spoke recently in an interview with NPR about the significance of being present that illustrates how the mind can capture the moment. She referred to actor George Clooney’s complaint that when people recognize him they don’t go to shake his hand or greet him but pull their phone/cameras out and grab this amazing moment forever with a click. He laments: “We are experiencing less and recording more.” Dr Henkel adds, “as soon as you hit click on that camera, it’s as if you’ve outsourced your memory. (Our experiences) count on external devices.” She too opts for spontaneity in the moment. The most vivid and lasting way to remember meeting George Clooney, she posits, is not to take his picture but to make eye contact, shake his outstretched hand and relate to him. Picture taking especially as a first gesture of human contact, like overcrowding any moment, is secondary and indirect experience in the moment that is happening right before us.
Allowing time in the present to happen without manipulation needs to be joined with a trust or conviction that we possess an inmost spiritual core that will, in the now, unite us with The Divine. The only time we can truly experience ultimate things is…now. While in the season of Pentecost, Christians celebrate and acknowledge the reality that the Holy Spirit, this animation of the Divine Jesus, is given to all who wish to believe that the gift of Divine Love is available to them within themselves. Jesus appears to his disciples and “he breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). The spiritual leading of the soul that is still, “that is so like God,” makes us contemplative listeners, putting at our disposal the power and energy of the Divine Spark within.k