“Your soul is in great need, because drought weighs on its world.”
~ C G Jung, The Red Book
It is a short video, done in that vaguely manic, 1920s cartoon-style featuring a big-eyed little boy who wanders through various situations, through city streets, on trains, etc. Harmless enough. He is also the only colorized person in an otherwise black and white procession of hundreds of people. He walks through crowds, between people’s legs, on streets, and in subways. But everyone he meets, everyone he passes, all who ignore him as he looks up at them, are staring with hypnotic mechanicality at their phones.
All of them, as they too walk through the streets, sometimes falling obliviously into manholes, riding trains, and going through various episodes, never lift their eyes from the phones in their hands. Never. In what I thought its most poignant sequence, we watch as one girl pauses, appearing to reach out – to something or someone – before jumping to her death from a tall building. The only movement from the crowd gathered at street level is the downward movement of their hands as they film her fall until she lands, each phone then simultaneously flashing, taking one last picture, before they all walk away, automatically staring again at their phones, blithely ignoring what they just saw and, each other.
It is perhaps the emblem of our time. We are all alone. Locked too often, for too many hours a day, into a simulacrum of reality, which we choose again and again, over real connection to other, real people. No matter how much our world’s population grows. No matter how much more information we receive daily. No matter if we are all more connected to each other, through social media, smartphones, technology, etc., we are all simply more alone than we have ever been.
And sadly, we are as well the girl before her leap, desperately wanting connection but knowing within that, for far too many of us, the only connection we are guaranteed is with those who will finally tag and tuck our bodies into burial shrouds before disposing of our corpses and returning back to their own isolated worlds. Alone, just like we were.
While Ani Pema Chödron urges us to, in the words of Machig Labdrön “go to the places that scare us”, the fact is for too many of us, what truly scares us is, paradoxically, what we need most: connection. We are so conditioned to disconnectedness, or better put, virtual connection that to put away our distractions, if only for a little while terrifies us. Studies have shown that our youth are increasingly anxious, requiring constant check-ins on their Twitter or Snapchat accounts, in classrooms or playgrounds even interrupting sleep to see if anyone has noticed them or, conversely, if they need to notice someone else. Adults are no less troubled. We check into our Facebook status dozens of times during the day, more like hundreds for many, to ensure we don´t miss out on something, some news, some fun meme, some outrage we absolutely have to share with our friends.
But the fact is, we don’t know these friends. We don’t have dinners with them, joy ride on the streets or sit together on beaches or on rooftops, in parks, or on front porches, dreaming together, laughing together, crying, and sharing the pains and pleasures of life. No, the great paradox of our time is that the more connected we have become electronically, digitally, and virtually, the less connected we are physically and emotionally.
We are alone together.
This lack of what might be called, as Jung suggested above, soul connectedness, to the deeper aspects of our interior world, has become replaced instead with endless distraction and continuous, immediate, bombastic stimulation, and it is exhausting. We are not only constantly struggling with what assaults us daily, by the minute, in fact, but, instead of seeking out another with whom to commiserate, or a field of others to simply enjoy some real human connectedness, we are now trained to seek further stimulation and excitement, only to find it as empty of substance and dry of human touch.
We are alone and too tired to do anything about it.
All of this points to a dangerous development where with it, the urge to be silent, to commune with nature or explore our interior lives, is de facto proscribed by our addictions to speedy information and the constant buzzing of our terminally distracted mind. But lest we mutter to ourselves (we who are Buddhists, anyway) that this is simply samsara perhaps we could instead examine this phenomenon a bit further and better figure out what is going on so that we might address this it head on without casual dismissal or glib philosophical pabulum.
What these new technologies have given us is not more grasping, that is certainly in part, our fault, but more things to grasp at. We love the new and the quick and easy and as all three are quite united with, as the video critiques most, our phones (as substitute computers, gaming devices and communication tools wrapped in one palm-fitting handheld, finger touch altered device) we have at our disposal, the easiest distraction ever made. Cigarette breaks at work might once have given us something to do with our hands before too, but we often found ourselves joined with other smokers on porches or outdoor steps, sometimes commiserating in silence, other times, at least sharing our infernal habit with naughty glee. But now we are constantly engaged, enraptured even, by something different, something so powerful in is novelty and remarkable in its range, that we can’t part with it on the toilet, or during intimate meals. We see more and yet paradoxically, feel less. We are exposed to more cultures, languages, media, images and stories from around the world but we retreat more and more from them as they are only pixels on a tiny screen, to be instantly replaced by another set of pixels more entertaining. It is an incredibly addictive new world with constantly amusing and vibrant expressions which, compared to our ordinary lives is simply too magical to resist.
In addition, while Buddhism enthralls millions via meditation apps and McMindfulness courses offered by some of the most telegenic, happy, and glossy-eyed people imaginable, across the planet, increasing wars, disruptions to eco-systems, a crisis in refugees uprooted and wandering in search of a new homes, are all less magical phantoms we are bombarded with on our phones, which we casually ignore, retreating back into the safe space of our cushions and taped talks by great teachers. This version of Buddhism is not only unsustainable, it is a dangerous parody. Until we utilize all our insights and acquired powers of concentration to reach those who suffer, in the immediate, “meat space” world we all live in, we have no right to suggest we know something about compassion. Until we recognize that the other´s suffering is MY suffering, that the other´s pain is MY pain, that the other is simply another version of me, caught in the same whirlwind-like matrix of samsara for which there ARE immediate remedies we can demand and create, until then, we are simply alone in our own, fake world of Buddhist bliss.
Perhaps in the end, instead of proto-existing in our own separately closed off lotus buds, we may awaken and, upon rising, see that all around us are the newly opened buds which contain within them other people who need our help. Just as importantly, we may come to recognize that we need them, too.
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