Someone piped up. “I bet you don’t have a TV either!” I hesitated just long enough to keep everyone staring. “No, in fact, I don’t,” I replied, realizing I was sounding weirder every time I opened my mouth. A funny little discussion ensued about Luddites—a term originally applied to English workers who refused to adopt the machinery of the Industrial Revolution—and then we went on with our business. Whew.
Actually, I did have a cell phone, but I didn’t know the number. It’s a pay-as-you-go phone I got just in case my car, which has over 300,000 miles on it, decides to break down along the road some night. Kind of like a CB radio back in the 80s. We lived in the mountains for seven years in a cell phone dead zone, so I got used to living without one. And I still work at home, where I use a land line for my business calls.
Outside of work, frankly, I don’t want anyone to reach me any time they feel like it. I prefer my contemplative solitude to the world’s 24/7 electronic connectivity, thank you very much.
Amusingly, this is what came to mind as I pondered Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Old Poets of China” (Why I Wake Early, 2004).
Like me, Oliver doesn’t want the world coming after her, offering all its busyness. “Now I understand,” she writes, “why the old poets of China went so far and high into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.” They were, no doubt, trying to get out of cell phone range!
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in bringing Buddhist meditation practices to people suffering from pain and illness, notes that electronic communication technologies are turning us into an “ADHD nation.” Indeed, studies show that a typical office worker stops to check email 30 to 40 times per hour—yet even a brief glance interrupts and scatters our ability to concentrate. As a nation, we are becoming increasingly distracted, anxious and stressed. Are we multitasking ourselves to death?
In The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicolas Carr notes, ominously, that “the contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy world’s mechanical busyness”—an exact parallel with Oliver’s poetic observation.
Sadly, these wonderful tools may be eroding our capacity for slow, contemplative thought, our ability to stay present and aware of what really matters. Worse yet, experiments by psychologists and neurologists indicate that “the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.” As Carr says, a calm, attentive mind is essential to the cultivation of our deepest connections with others.
Researchers at the University of Essex discovered recently that the “mere presence” of a cell phone on a table between two individuals engaged in conversation harms their relationship in measurable ways. It undermines their sense of social connection, closeness and even trust. Why? That’s not entirely clear. But apparently the mobile phone represents our broader social network, beyond the immediate face-to-face encounter, unconsciously “crowding out” the full presence of the other person. Paradoxically, a device intended to connect us also diminishes intimacy—especially, it turns out, when we’re discussing deeply meaningful stuff. Aack.
I was encouraged, therefore, to find other contemplative Luddites out there.
On his website’s contact page, psychotherapist John Welwood—who wrote a lovely poem entitled “Forget About Enlightenment,” which you can find, ironically, on the Internet—says, If you want to contact me, write a letter. He graciously provides his street address. “I am trying,” he explains, unapologetically, “to reduce the time I spend in front of a computer screen.” How cool is that? How laudable!
But just so you don’t think I’m some sort of caveman, I want you to know that I got myself a smartphone about two weeks ago. Holy cow! There are “apps” for mindfulness! I can check email 30 times an hour now, even if I’m in the shower! How did I live without this thing for so long? It’s amazing!
Just don’t expect me to give you my number.
—Jay E. Valusek