The greatest gift we can offer the future is the example of our daily lives, how we are living in the present moment. All the specifics of cultural, political, religious or national identity amount to trivia if they only make us merely distracted, merely angry, merely arrogant, merely unable to care about anyone but ourselves, merely empty of empathy.
All things point to empathy, to an understanding of others and an identification with them, and whatever detracts from empathy, whatever makes the present moment one of ignorance, poisons the past and the future as well.
There are many roads to empathy, and below are a few that help me, the most basic of which is the ability to do one thing at a time, to focus almost ruthlessly on the experience of the present moment. Achieving this destroys so many of our assumptions about those pillars of our culture: speed and quantity.
After work and on the weekends I rarely know what time it is. The clock on my laptop has been disabled for years. The clock on the kitchen stove is covered, the one on the microwave not set.
There is a need to become aware of the rhythm of the days and weeks and months and seasons in a way that is not merely a matter of counting off seconds and hours.
There is a need to not be bound to the schedule of anything on TV, anything on the radio, anything on the internet.
There is the need to experience time, and experience time passing, not how clocks tell it but how it’s actually felt: that familiar feeling of time dragging on a bad day, or going fast or feeling endless on a good one.
This need is not for something meaningless, some random desire to not be beholden to a schedule or a structure, but to find meaning and structure and discipline intuitively, outside the bounds and concerns of what keeping time has actually been turned to: advertisements, shows, games, and more advertisements.
There is a need for an experience of time that makes more sense to our bodies, to our minds, to our souls, and how we live with one another.
Talk face-to-face rather than on the phone. Talk on the phone rather than through emails or letters. Write emails or letters rather than text. Avoid all social media. Use technology less in order to use it better. Stop doing whatever it is just because technology allows you to.
Leave no negative comments on any webpage. If you want to argue how horrible a product or movie or anything else is, do it with someone you know, or privately in your own head or in a journal, or not at all. The impulse to anonymously insult strangers is a poisoning one.
Of course there are exceptions. I have great correspondence with people through email; I love being able to text my wife throughout the day when we’re apart; and social media has greatly assisted political and social movements. The point is not what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it, and aside from a few exceptions, there is hardly any reason but “distraction from distraction by distraction.”[i]
So if you must write, write real letters or emails, write using whole words and entire sentences and actual thoughts. Write not just to expect an immediate response, but assume that what you’re communicating is worth some time to consider. Write not as if you’re just passing the time, but actually thinking and giving another human being all of yourself, your entire attention. And receive their response in kind.
In the past, I was able to walk down a hallway, walk from my car to work, sit waiting for my laptop to startup, or do so many other things, and I only did those things. Now I can’t do any of them without checking my phone, or loading something I can listen to or watch or read. And even when this is done, I’ll be distracted by some other second, third, and fourth thing to also be doing.
I am unable to tie my shoes without tying the first, tapping the weather app on my phone, tying my other shoe while the app loads, and then seeing what forecast is. And this as I’m sitting next to a window where the weather is plainly seen.
(And here, as I write these very words, what do I do but pick up my phone to check my email!)
No one speaks of concentration and awareness on the most basic things better than the Buddha:
Again, monks, a monk is one who acts with clear comprehension when going forward and returning; who acts with clear comprehension when looking ahead and looking away; who acts with clear comprehension when bending and stretching his limbs; who acts with clear comprehension when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl; who acts with clear comprehension when eating, drinking, chewing, and tasting; who acts with clear comprehension when defecating and urinating; who acts with clear comprehension when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent.[ii]
The very stuff of our lives is all we need. We are not deficient, and do not need what is being sold to us. The comprehension of our muscles and our minds is greater than any marketed creation.
Indeed, I think of when baseball is in the offseason, and how easy it is to get wrapped up in who will or won’t get traded, so that the morning paper is filled with gossip or glee that someone’s coming back; or they aren’t; or the owners will be talking to them soon; or they’re refusing to talk; or that while it’s been “reported” that they’re talking, the players themselves—or their agents—deny this entirely.
What is the use of knowing and following this, or the religious equivalent?
What is the use of being filled with the minutia of so many small processes, and being able to talk about it, or the religious equivalent?
What is the use of our minds being filled with nothing but data and statistics and anecdotes, or the religious equivalent?
The media loves to create grand oppositions to keep us distracted from the lack of substance it presents. One of the most successful fictional oppositions is between religious conservatives and liberal entertainers. But the real opposition is between substance, and lack of substance. Cheap and easy religious fundamentalism is not actually opposed to cheap and easy Hollywood movies: they are equally thoughtless.
The opposition is not between one cable news network and another, or one talk show host and another, but between all cable news networks, and actual substance; the opposition is not between one political party and another, but between the way politics is approached today, and actual substance; the opposition is not between someone with a face and a voice on TV arguing with someone else who also has a face and a voice, but between this horrid way of communicating, and a way of communicating that has actual substance.
But our culture makes sure we only focus on the personalities, never on the lack of real ideas, the lack of actual substance. We rarely argue about or discuss ideas: instead we argue about people who argue, about their gaffes or one-liners.
This is why I hardly ever mention specific people here, as much as I’d like to put down talk show hosts or celebrities by name. To do so would continue the distraction. It’s amazing to see that in our supposedly self-reliant, self-referential, self-confident and individualistic culture, individual people are actually completely irrelevant, and are little more than labels and lemmings, marketing data and exaggerated opinions.
We desperately want a great mind or a great personality to represent our goals and aspirations; and this desire isn’t entirely mistaken, since history is defined by truly great individuals who can represent an entire people, an entire time. But a talk show host or celebrity is not this kind of person.
Speaking of which, I don’t understand why one of the first things a celebrity just out of rehab decides to do is appear half-naked on the cover of a magazine, to describe their troubles. I don’t understand the kind of life that demands this, and why anyone would want to live that way.
And what does this mean for the rest of us, to be given such easy targets to ridicule and hate and mock, to have examples of living train-wrecks put before us every day, and to feel glee at the dumb decisions they’re making again and again? Especially since most of us would be exactly like them if we, too, were suddenly given all those things we are all supposed to be striving for: money and attention and the gratification of every outward need?
It’s simply a matter of pointing out that, by and large, movie studios, television stations, record companies, book publishers, and all the rest, don’t care about you. Television and movies and the internet and popular music and fast food are mostly obsessed with making sure you give no one and no thing your undivided attention. They are obsessed with making sure you do as many things at one time as possible; they are obsessed with you focusing more on who is speaking and how they sound rather than on what they’re saying; they are obsessed with turning your day into a grid of time given to various entertainments, to the collecting of your interests, and the transformation of you into mere statistics.
In their obsession with our perpetual distraction and amusement and hatred of ourselves, the media de-emphasizes the endless stream of events they are presenting to us, and instead focus on the dissection and criticism of it before, during and after. In religion, this is called theology; in everyday life, it’s just the mass of sludge that is popular opinion.
After all, the shows and movies we are given aren’t supposed to be total experiences: they must be talked about and criticized whether ironically or cleverly. None of them are made to engage our entire attention, and as a result there is no present moment here, only a perpetually distracted and discursive and categorizing one.
What to do? As it has been said, “One should be addicted solely to the task that one is undertaking. One should be intoxicated by that task, insatiable.”[iii] If the things which occupy you are not intoxicating and insatiable by themselves, abandon them.
All of this is simply a matter of pointing out that the greatest evil lies in the fact that what is destroying our ability to communicate with and care for other human beings is not perceived as being destructive at all.
No grand gesture is needed, no protest. Cut your TV watching in half, and then in half again; ignore celebrity culture; ignore all the ploys to dissension and opposition; stop being entertained and amused to death; stop accepting most of what you’re offered; use technology sparingly but consciously, and usefully; stop mistaking mere information and quantity for an end, for quality.
As it was said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.”[iv]
[i] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” line 101.
[ii] The Buddha; In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, tr. Bhikku Bodhi, 283.
[iii] Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, tr. Crosby and Skilton, 72-3 (7.62).
[iv] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, tr. Benedicta Ward, 178.