September 01, 2010

Off the grid, into the mind

In today's New York Times, Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, describes his experience returning to technology after a week-long Buddhist meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society (IMS). Having spent his time at IMS "unplugged" from technology---Wright spent five hours of sitting meditation and five hours of walking meditaiton each day---upon returning home he had to confront his email, smart phone, and the seduction of the 24-hour news cycle. Wright describes the wave of complicated emotions that befell him after falling into the trap of clicking on a link to a video of Paris Hilton's recent arrest and then succumbing to his "techno-lust"---online window shopping for a new smart phone (though he admits that he already has an iPhone):

So there you go: covetousness, schadenfreude, anxiety, dread, and on and on. It’s the frequent fruitlessness of such feelings that the Buddha is said to have pondered after he unplugged from the social grid of his day — that is, the people he lived around — and wandered off to reckon with the human predicament. Maybe his time off the grid gave him enough critical distance from these emotions to discover his formula for liberation from them. In any event, it’s because the underlying emotions haven’t changed, and because the grid conveys and elicits them with such power, that his formula holds appeal for many people even, and perhaps especially, today.

Personally, I’m a fan of the formula, or at least of the version of it I’ve seen on modern American meditation retreats. If this column hasn’t featured lush praise for it, that’s partly because I’ve already written rapturously — a year ago, on this very Web site — about a previous retreat. But it’s also because I don’t want to oversell the program. The serenity tends to fade once you plug back into the grid. Sustaining even modest mindfulness in the modern world is a challenge.

For Wright, and many others, meditation retreats offer a valuable window into the world of the unplugged mind, but sustaining the mindfulness cultivated on the retreat becomes nearly impossible when he plugs back in. Nevertheless, as Wright says, "a week of silent meditation can help highlight how technology keeps us in its grip, and what some of the costs of our ongoing surrender are."

For more from Robert Wright, read "Darwin and the Buddha," Tricycle's 2003 interview with the author, in which he discusses whether or not compassion makes evolutionary sense and how cultural evolution can counter the drives of biological evolution. Read Wright's full Times opinion piece here.


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Christian Williams (see-doubleyou)'s picture

As I commented on Clark Strand's 'Green Meditation' retreat, its a matter of finding the middle-way and maintaining mindfulness of the situation. To keep in mind that the technology doesn't miss you if you're gone, nor are you any less "better" for missing any "important" news you may have not read as it were released, its simply a good thing to be unplugged, whether its weekly, or hourly.

Once again, as an IT professional of over fifteen years, and now a Buddhist of a bit over five, I've taken advantage of my trade to inspire my practice. It has helped me to identify a path to a quiet mind, but also to identify suffering as well as another means to relieve it, even globally.