I am increasingly aware of how different my twenty-first century life is from the world I grew up in, and in fact from the life led by anyone more than a very few years ago. When I was a young boy, color televisions were a big deal. I remember the introduction of push-button telephones, audio cassettes, digital watches, and hand-held calculators. But the real revolution, of course, is the Internet.
I work as a software developer for a company that does Web search, so perhaps my immersion is deeper than some people’s, but I am noticing that it feels more and more odd to be “offline”. My life consists more and more of being seated at a computer, managing simultaneous streams of information – email, blog posts, online chess games, instant messages, Skype calls, PubSub alerts, news bulletins, desktop weather data, and so forth. Many times a day I wish to know something or other, and immediately retrieve the datum in question from some or other online source. I can swoop down on any part of the world with Google Earth.
Although this is a natural evolution – our success as a species is due above all to our gift for communication, and the Internet might well, I think, be on its way to being the wellspring of an emergent, collective human intelligence that will begin a new chapter in the history of mankind – we have also increased our risk of losing touch with the very real world around us and inside us.
I realize I am not exactly the first to point this out. And I am no Luddite, either – I’m thrilled by the potential that all of this offers, and am very eager to see where it all leads. What I am talking about is something very simple, but very important: We must not forget ourselves.
Here’s what I mean. You are sitting at your computer, engrossed as usual. Your body is seated. Your attention, that most precious resource, is drawn forward into the glowing screen before you. Now, just for a moment, STOP. Pull your attention back. Look away from the screen. Sense your backside upon the chair. Feel your feet on the floor. Become aware of your neck, your back, your shoulders. Examine your posture; see the awkwardnesses, the tensions, that you were unaware of a moment earlier. Let the breath settle into your abdomen. Now, return to whatever it was you were working on, but try at the same time to hold onto the sense of yourself that you have just acquired. It will be difficult. Before long, you will be drawn out of yourself again, back into the screen. STOP again, if you can remember. Do it all again. Do it as often as you can. Notice the difference.
When we fail to remember ourselves, as we are so prone to do – and as we are so much more prone to do as we are drawn from the real world to the virtual – we lose something very important indeed. We lose our connection to our existence now, in this body, in this moment. It is like being pulled into a dream.
This effort of marshaling the attention, of coming back to mindful self-awareness out of the distracted state of our ordinary way of being, is central to all esoteric teachings, and is profoundly challenging. There are many, many practical ways of working at this, and I will return to this topic often.