Monking in the Digital Age

I ordained in 1992. Facebook was still 12 years away; social media did not exist yet. Google and YouTube were not yet even a glint in someone’s dystopian fever-dream.

So, of course, it was reasonable to have the expectation — and I did! — that monastic practice would look more like this

Kasha Mutual, “Retreat Cave” (2019)

than this

And yet so it becomes. The second image reflects much more my daily life than the first photo, it is so saddening to admit.

The “new normal” of online activity during the pandemic has certainly magnified and intensified this trend — for teachers and explainers across all sorts of spectra. Psychotherapist friends mention how much of their work now involves consultation with clients through computers. Of course, yoga teachers and school teachers are all experiencing this, too.

But even since before the pandemic, I have been noticing what a constant struggle it is to maintain even a shred of solitude in daily life anymore. It is increasingly that energy must be poured deliberately into maintaining some space of solitude, some “uninterrupted” flow which leaves the synapses alone to relax in delicious non-responsiveness to this or that thought or request or suggestion from someone not immediately in my physical presence — and often several time zones away!

There is either total shutdown of the portals of entry into your daily quiet – – the ability of people from close associates to helpers with the many-tentacled life of sharing teachings, to reach you easily through the usual portals of WhatsApp, iMessage, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, the several emails both personal and related to the Zen community’s public-facing work, Skype, and Viber – – or else the constant selective judgment about which incoming-and-waiting messages should be left alone (really, to all appearances, ignored) for another day or two while some pressing task is completed or deadline met.

I was ordained 6 years before the tech writer and consultant, Linda Stone, coined the term “continuous partial attention”. This refers to “a modern adaptive behavior of continuously dividing one’s attention”. But it is not to be confused with multi-tasking: “Where multi-tasking is driven by a conscious desire to be productive and efficient, CPA is an automatic process motivated only by ‘a desire to be a live node on the network’[4] or by the willingness to connect and stay connected, scanning and optimizing opportunities, activities and contacts in an effort to not miss anything that is going on.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuous_partial_attention

I’m really quite happy to “miss anything that is going on.” But this world is not. Your response is constantly being called for. And this constant slog through a stutter-stop onrush of messages is something I have likened to trying to carry a football down the field: you spend so much energy and mental power avoiding “tackles” from those who wish to seize a few inches of your limited energy. And this constant onrush has practical impacts on our stress-response, which I have been making conscious efforts to amend and improve, even heal:

Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention.  There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well.  There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.

The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.

And that’s not all. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. Continuous continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it, can set off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrin and its companion, cortisol.  As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor.  It can attach to any receptor site.  As a result, dopamine and seratonin –the hormones that help us feel calm and happy – have nowhere to go because cortisol has taken up the available spaces.  The abundance of cortisol in our systems has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep.  Read about email apnea to understand how our relationship with screen-based activities plays a role in this fight or flight response.

https://lindastone.net/2009/11/30/beyond-simple-multi-tasking-continuous-partial-attention/

I begin to appreciate more the temple walls I left for this still-uncertain project to inspire effort in practice down in the dusty, noisy world: If even just symbolically, the temple walls represented keeping unnecessary entanglements at bay, so that that precious pregnant space of the great fermentation of consciousness might continue, uninterrupted by some synaptic arousal, some need to provide an emotion or an answer of a “thing” for someone. It is a constant struggle to maintain, this solitude. Even your closest associates expect and demand their drops of juice. And when those are given, it is not long before they are required again.

The best, most sacred gift I can give is often the gift they do not want most: to just leave them alone. To be one “less” bit of the constant onrush of noise or data which needs processing by their own over-worked brains, continuously partially attentive and starved of true and abiding union with the Absolute of this pure, infinite, borderless Moment.

Please understand: If I am not outwardly “contacting” you, we might be in better contact than you realize.

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