Thursday, January 27, 2011

Protect the state of no-intent

Photo credit: mollyollyoxenfree/Flickr Creative Commons

Yesterday I came across an article called "What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking and Sacred Space". The author, Scott Belsky, writes about how we are losing our moments of isolation and distraction-free thought. We are forgetting how to unplug and connect in with something else: ourselves, our thoughts, our intuition, and our dreams. It's an excellent article and I'll let it speak for itself. What's interesting to me is that Patanjali saw this coming.

There's no arguing with the fact that the phenomenon Belsky addresses in his article is visible all around us. It's interesting that the very word connected has come to refer to being online - a state I would argue is actually in many cases disconnection from what is, from the self and the Self. I, too, am concerned - even frightened - about the changes that are happening in our culture as we become more and more accustomed to being constantly plugged in, available, and awash in "information". 'm certainly not suggesting that we should all unplug everything and go live in an isolated mountain cave for the next ten years. I have already written here about some of the benefits I think can be found on the internet. The trick (as is so often true) is finding the balance.

In his article, Belsky astutely notes that the instincts that lead us to seek "constant connection" have been part of human nature since the beginning. I can see how, in the dark jungle nights, the drive to find and connect with others was a matter of life and death. But now, does our attachment to constant positive feedback on our Facebook posts or having large numbers of blog followers really serve us? Does it serve our community? Does it make us happy? I think the answer to these questions is clearly no.

The Apple i-Tunes site boasts "everything you need to be entertained", and yet like the cravings we had in the old days, this hunger for amusement and distraction never stops. Patanjali certainly did not have any Apple devices beginning with "i", but he did talk about the causes of suffering (the kleshas, sometimes translated as afflictions or obstacles) in the Yoga Sutras. In Chip Hartranft's translation (which I found in Stephen Cope's The Wisdom of Yoga), they are "not seeing things as they are, the sense of 'I,' attachment, aversion, and clinging to life." I plead guilty.

Really, it is a long chain reaction of the kleshas that leads us to give up what Belsky calls "our sacred space." On the surface, this behavior looks most like attachment, raga in Sanskrit, but I think if I had to pick just one klesha that drives me towards a state of constant connection, it would be the flip side of the coin: dvesha, aversion. Belsky saw this too: "Space is scary," he says. What myriad of fears are we fleeing from online? With this constant flow of information, what evils do we plan to avert? What demons do we seek domination over? In our online communities, are we still seeking to drive out our fear of what waits in the dark jungle?

Bless Patanjali (or whoever wrote the Yoga Sutras). With great compassion, he did not just leave us with the knowledge of our afflictions, but with concrete tools to overcome them: the practice of yoga. "Suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented," he tells us. "The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards... When the components of yoga are practiced, impurities dwindle; then the light of understanding can shine forth, illuminating the way to discriminative awareness."

Although it's hard to find a definitive statistic, I think it's safe to say that millions of Americans are now taking up yoga. I don't think this is a coincidence. We instinctively know something is missing from our lives, even if we don't know what it is. Whether we know it or not, yoga is providing many of us with avenues to many of Belsky's suggestions for preserving sacred space. Even if you never chant "om" or read the sutras, even if you just go to class to sweat, the truth is that yoga classes everywhere are providing people with sacred space to unplug and perhaps turn off some of those persistent, nagging thoughts and worries, maybe even to become more self-aware... and if we're lucky, to fall into that increasingly elusive "state of no-intent". And perhaps this is one of the things that draws us, almost inexplicably sometimes, back to our mats again and again and again.

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