Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for June 7th, 2010

Machine-minded man

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Where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. Within a machine heart in your breast, you’ve spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. (from Zhuangzi, chapter 12, translated by Burton Watson)

In Zhuangzi’s story, these words are spoken by an old farmer who is seen carrying water in a gourd and watering his garden with it, making trip after trip. A passing city clicker sees the old man laboring to carry small amounts of water and tells him he could irrigate the entire field using a mechanical pump.

As I was sitting in silence in the Quaker meeting for worship yesterday, this story and those farmer’s words came to mind. As I thought of putting them aside, a mental image arose of the words appearing on a computer screen in the context of a word-processing program. In my imagination, I closed the file and stored it in a folder. What came to mind when I thought of clearing my mind was the image of shutting down a computer. As I tried to turn my thoughts to other things, all I could visualize was a computer monitor on which I was clicking on concrete thoughts with a mouse, dragging files into folders, deleting unwanted files by dragging their icons to the icon of the trash basket. Even when I tried to put machines out of my mind and to visualize a beautiful meadow in the mountains, it was as though I was looking at the scene through the lens of a digital camera, or seeing it on a television. I could visualize nothing directly. Everything was mediated by machines. A mild panic began to arise in my breast. For a good half hour, I found myself almost completely incapable of having thoughts of anything that was not somehow connected to a computer, or an iPod, or a mobile telephone. When I tried to listen, the only ambient sounds I could hear were the sounds of passing traffic, air conditioners, electrical fans, machines that neighbors were using to do yard work. No sounds of birds, no sounds of insects, no sounds of thunder or rain. For the remainder of the meeting, I felt completely hemmed in by machines, and machine worries. I was imprisoned by conTRAPtions. And indeed, while that lasted, my spirit knew no rest.

There has been a growing literature on the subject of how computers and other electronic devices affect our brains. One recent contribution to that literature is an article called Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Science programs on NPR and CBC radio have chronicled studies showing that multi-tasking actually takes more time than doing a series of tasks in tandem. (Contrary to what may people in our post-literary society seem to believe, “in tandem” means lined up one after another rather than linked together side by side.) Not only does it take more time to try to do several things at once, but the risk of error increases. Trying to do several things at once not only wastes time, but it makes people more careless. And the more habituated one becomes to trying to work that way, the more one deteriorates into conditions very much like attention deficiency disorder (which most people lack the patience to say in full, preferring to call it by the abbreviation ADD).

As inefficient and careless as multitasking makes those who try to do it, most of us are in one way or another seduced into doing what computers and other electronic devices make it possible to do. Many people admit to interrupting their writing of an article by checking their e-mail quickly, clicking on a link to check out a website, downloading a song they have just heard on Pandora.com while doing all the above, and quickly doing a chat with a cousin while checking to see whether there are any voice messages on their mobile telephone, which reminds them that it is time to call their mother-in-law on Skype. And if any of these tasks takes a microsecond or two longer than usual, impatience boils over into keyboard rage. I don’t have to report that people I know have learned to work that way. I myself have begun to work that way, with bad, if not disastrous, consequences.

It has been shown that when one multi-tasks on computers, dopamine levels rise for a moment, followed by a crash into mini-depression as one has to face a few moments in a normal mental state rather than in a dopamine-adrenalin high. From the point of view of brain chemistry, the effect is close to the mental state of a person with mental illness.

Machines are not only giving most of us restless spirits through an abundance of mechanical worries, they are also numbing our awareness of the fact that the manufacturing, transporting, fueling and using of machines is making human beings act collectively in ways that are destroying the planet on which we live. As I write this, oil is gushing into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as a result of one company’s bid to maximize profits by cutting corners in the enterprise of producing petroleum to be captured and transformed at enormously high cost to fuel and lubricate machines, or to make plastic products that are to be used for a short time and then thrown away to produce garbage that will pollute the land and the waterways for centuries. There is deep and serious madness in this way of living. We have arrived at the state where the majority of the more than six billion inhabitants of the earth should be in mental hospitals. But when the majority of the population has gone insane through their restless spirits and machine-worried minds, those few whose spirits are still intact are the ones who seem mad. Something seems uncanny about sane people. They disturb the rest of us.

Zhuangzi finishes his dialogue in these words:

Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up. It’s not that I do not know about your machine—I would be ashamed to use it.

I am ashamed to have written this on a computer, and to be publishing it on the Internet. If you have had the patience to read it all the way to the end, rejoice that you have not succumbed to machine-induced ADD. And then feel ashamed for have read it on the Internet. May your shame lead you into the garden to listen to the bees buzzing among the petals.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, June 7, 2010 at 16:44

Posted in Meditation