A few years ago I was in the bathroom with my headphones on, holding my cellphone up and balancing that hand against the mirror. I was watching some video while trying to shave.
I suddenly felt ridiculous. I couldn’t even shave without watching or listening to something.
In the summer of 2001, while getting over the end of a relationship, I came to an intersection—I still know which one—and vowed I would make every second signify, and not waste a moment even of mourning. As a young man intent on educating himself, this meant that when not writing or reading, I was to continually fill every moment with something, to always be listening to a lecture, a piece of music, a reading of poetry or an interview or an audiobook, or watching a great documentary or movie.
In other words, to always be doing these things while I was doing some mundane other thing that wasn’t good enough on its own for my complete attention: driving, doing the dishes, walking from the car to work, exercising, cleaning, doing laundry, eating, cutting the grass, ironing clothes, scooping out the litterbox, waiting for takeout or delivery—and even, in the end, while shaving.
I somehow thought that by doing this I was embracing that ideal which is best expressed in Zen Buddhism—that is, recognizing the shining nature of every moment, the virtue of the supposedly everyday: “When you are asleep, study Zen as you sleep. When you are eating, study Zen as you eat…[i] The great cause of the Buddhas is not apart from your daily affairs…[ii] And now, every move I make is also the living meaning of Buddhism.”[iii]
Or, as Jesus says, “The kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.”[iv]
At some point, though, what had been a real education merely became filler, and suddenly the whole point of this immersion was lost in the impulse that because something is immediately available, and isn’t that amazing, I should access it.
In one of the lectures sets I loved, I even heard a teacher say that his students no longer know the sound of their own feet on the ground, or the sound of a street or a hallway, or even the sound of their own thoughts, so perpetually consumed are they with what’s coming in through their headphones. But I kept right on listening.
And as we are a lonely species that’s been told for years, whether by advertisers or well-meaning parents and educators, that to make one’s mark in the world is to be known, and to be actively “achieving” things of outer value, it’s no surprise that we will always choose outward expression and experience, rather than quiet introspection, without even thinking about it. Yet: “If the mentality that seeks honor and advantage does not cease, you will be ill at ease all your life.”[v]
In a culture obsessed with fame and brevity, a culture driven more by images than words, and not images worth looking at again and again, but only quick images that get us to the next one; and as the only things allowed are the simplest ideas and the simplest emotions, in general anything which encourages hatred, envy, gossip, and the humiliation of others; it should come as no surprise that the combination of cheap fame, cheap images, and even cheaper words only gives birth to a populace in love with cheap and easy ideas, a populace completely unable to deal with complexity or contradiction, or anyone at all different from them.
I’ve heard it said that the internet has opened people’s minds to other cultures, but I don’t see it: rather, it’s only created ways for people to form larger groups who think just like them. Online culture encourages more, rather than less, sectarianism.
There is no reflection, only a continual exposure to something new; not any sense of living in the present, but only of constantly being pushed into the future. Because when the present moment isn’t apprehended as a sacrament, it’s always the future that becomes sacramental, whether in repeated certainties about the afterlife, or just in our culture, or in the diet program which tells women that “if you work hard enough, in a year you will finally have the body you’ve always wanted.”
Most of our culture isn’t much different from this, since a good definition of culture is masked advertising, whose intention is to make us hate ourselves. Indeed, our culture is obsessed with telling us that the present moment we’re experiencing is simply substandard—we need to do other things, watch other things, buy other things. We need what they are selling.
A housewife’s words from the 1970s could as well be our own, right now, an eternal suspicion that who we are is deficient:
A housewife is a housewife, that’s all. Low on the totem pole. I can read the paper and find that out. Someone who is a model or a movie star, these are the great ones. I don’t necessarily think they are, but they’re the ones you hear about. A movie star will raise this wonderful family and yet she has a career. I imagine most women would feel less worthy. Not me.
Somebody who goes out and works for a living is more important than somebody who doesn’t. What they do is very important in the business world. What I do is only important to five people. I don’t like putting a housewife down, but everybody has done it for so long. It’s sort of the thing you do. Deep down, I feel what I’m doing is important. But you just hate to say it, because what are you? Just a housewife? (Laughs.)
I love being a housewife. Maybe that’s why I feel so guilty. I shouldn’t be happy doing what I’m doing. (Laughs.) Maybe you’re not supposed to be having fun. I never looked on it as a duty.[vi]
It is comforting, then, to see that even the Desert Fathers, those early Christian monks who lived in solitude in the Egyptian desert—even they dealt with this.
Even those devoted to a completely isolated life, even those who knew the dangers of living in the world—even they dealt with this. A monk who went around interviewing them, says as much:
Even when a person is staying in the desert or in his cell it causes him to picture himself going around to different people’s homes and monasteries and obtaining the conversion of the many who have been inspired by his imaginary exhortations.[vii]
Contrast this with the report of a nurse, who for years cared for patients in the last twelve weeks of their lives, and wrote a book about the regrets of the dying. None of the top five have anything to do with commerce or wealth or fame:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends;
I wish that I had let myself be happier.[viii]
What can we learn from this? Is it really so idealistic to wonder if our emphasis on others’ opinions of us, and our desire for fame and our love of envy, or our obsession with work, or our inability to express our own feelings or accept the feelings of others, isn’t just a waste of time? Are these really just the ridiculous notions that only the dying suddenly have time to feel wistful about?
[i] Foyan, quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 178.
[ii] Daio, quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 153.
[iii] Quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 32.
[iv] The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 113, in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 3rd ed., ed. by James M. Robinson, 126-7.
[v] Dogen, wuoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 152.
[vi] A housewife, interview in Studs Terkel, Working, 301.
[vii] John Cassian, The Institutes, tr. Boniface Ramsey, 246.
[viii] The Guardian, February 1, 2012: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/01/top-five-regrets-of-the-dying.