September 6, 2010

Because The Net Is No Bodhi Tree (Part One). ~ Dan Slanger

The start of something on being mindful and being online.

Although people seem unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree.

School children and students who love God should never say: “For my part I like mathematics”; “I like French”; “I like Greek.” They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.

~ from Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”

What Weil writes — that attention is good and that activities become good insofar as they demand and develop attention — is true.

Not ‘snow is white’ true but ‘thrown from a mountain, canonize the commas’ true — a truth to hang about the neck.

But that might just be me, because, even before my professor assigned the essay as a preface to his course, I had already formed a fetish for ‘the faculty of attention’.

(After I wrote ‘fetish’ I had to look it up to make sure the term had broader permissions than ‘odd sex’. I had come to use ‘fetish’ for any idea whose pull upon me came from, if not nowhere, nowhere clear enough to see the whole source of its strength. The entry read:

an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit

and then disambiguated between — to paraphrase — kinky stuff and — to quote — a course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment, which is precisely how attention and I have come to relate.)

We began to relate when — a sigh for my self-seriousness — ‘truth and goodness’ introduced us. (Another sigh for measure.)

Nine or ten, I called my father to my room near every night to confess this or that small crime that, left unsaid, kept me up. And he would, near every night, assure me of my goodness. (The rite, which lasted a year, was my — not my parents’ — compulsion.) From the conjunction of unconditional honesty and unconditional amnesty, I felt truth and goodness come together.

I kept them together, too. As I aged, my goods became more affected than a father’s hug and a night’s sleep. I wanted art, wit, and virtue. And all goods worth wanting, I thought, had a root or two in truth: Worthy art had its beauty only insofar as the artist could see the world’s stabler features. Sharp wit had its edge only insofar as the comic could see the world’s odder inconsistencies. My virtue had its strength only insofar as I could see my sin in any situation and, blushed, slow it down.

But I could not see and slow down truth, blushed about its absence. I made a grail of it with “What is Truth?” and other puzzles of that sort. But the question mark never budged for an exclamation.

So I settled some and looked for truth’s kin: something truth was like, or, something truth required.

After reading a few good books — Plato, Stoics, Kierkegaard — and forming a few bad metaphors — ‘truth is a steady squint’, ‘truth is a blink-less look’, ‘truth is a stable hand’ — I found a cousin in ‘the faculty of attention’. That, I convinced myself without full reason, was what it took to see ‘what is’: a near unnatural attention. ‘Near unnatural’ because attention, like truth, comes hard. It must steady itself through life’s illusive fears and distractions, fears and distractions which, it seems, constitute the whole of life.

Truth, then, remained a ghost; but I had a medium in ‘the faculty of attention’ — however hard to come by.

And I could, in fragile bits, come by it. There were practices, practices with tradition and testimony. When I sat, I could watch my back and breath. When I ate, I could attend to my chews. When I walked, I could look after my left and my right. And, after each practice, an almost ‘magical’ calm would come to me. I felt — feel — attention and goodness come together.

All this to say I worry.

I worry when I see how much my life, if at all long, will be online and how, online, attention comes all the harder.

I worry when I’m linked to links by a link I never intended to attend to in the first place.

I worry when I read books like Nicholas Carr’s recent The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which argues that our ever increasing time online displaces our capacity for sustained attention not only while we are online but after we log off.

I worry when I need software that temporarily disables my internet connection so I can focus enough to write a 1,000 word post.

I worry because, let’s face it, the Net’s no Bodhi tree. (‘Face it’ as oppose to ‘consider arguments for and against it’, which we’ll save for future posts.)

But the Net, however much it parts from my precious mat, brings some seemingly obvious goods — not the least of which is a return to community and conversation. (Though that could be — hopefully will be — debated.)

There exists, then, an apparent tension between the goods of ‘being online’ and the goods of ‘being mindful’ and I’m looking for a middle way.

I’m looking, with irony worth discussing, to elephant, an online community that ties ‘mindfulness’ to ‘a good life’.

So, with this and future posts with nearly the same title, I hope to start a sustained conversation on ‘being mindful and being online’. We can use the issue to help tighten — or perhaps loosen — the lines between ‘attention’, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘a good life’ and see how the triad mixes with our time online. We can argue that a mindful life should strive to fill itself with only those ‘studies’ that demand and develop attention. Or, we can argue that a mindful life should strive to attend to all life’s activities — ‘should learn to like all these subjects’ — and that attention’s roots become all the thicker when asked to grow through tough soil. We can share tips and tricks for how to keep a steady gaze in a ‘world’ so seemingly distrait.

I thought for the next post I’d look closely at Carr’s arguments, using them as a foil to pick out those issues most salient to a community that celebrates — among other goods — mindfulness.

In the mean time, if the topic is something you think about, please, perhaps with some irony, share your thoughts below or in a separate post. (Or, if you want to share your thoughts in a less public forum, please email me at the address below and I’ll share the resulting exchange on elephant only with your permission and editorial control.)

Thanks for being whatever part of elephant you are and for paying attention to the good life.

Now, again with some possible irony, here’s a You Tube video to reward you for keeping focus through my M-dash-heavy prose.

Dawn of Mankind’s Monkey Mind, Return to Community or Janus of the Two?

Dan Slanger recently moved to Boulder to be with mountains and friends. He enjoys biking about town and his one big desire in life is to have sustainable desires. Write him at dslanger(at)gmail(dot)com or visit his neo-natal blog not quite worth going to yet.

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