Monday December 7, 2009
It is almost seven o’clock in the evening, and I’m sitting down in a beanbag with a cup of tea, Bodhicattva in the beanbag next door (and looking, it has to be said, very pleased with himself), and writing a new blog post. Somehow, in the last few weeks – what with the demands of work, and the excitement of the book launch and so on – I’ve not had as much time as I would like to give to this site. Nor have I had as much time as I would like, now that I think about it, for reading and writing. Nor for meditating. Nor for simply hanging out with the cat.
But tonight, something is different. I am writing in a text-editor on my laptop, but I’ll not post what I’m writing until tomorrow morning. Because, as of a few days ago, we have a new regime; and at 6pm every night, we have decided to turn off the modem at the wall, so that we can keep our evenings internet-free.
The necessity of this regime change came home to me starkly a few days ago, when I started to ask myself why it was that I had found myself without enough time to write. It was only then that I began to wonder if the story I was telling myself (“I’ve just got too many things to do!”) was the whole and unadorned truth. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that one of the problems was not so much the quantity of work, but the quality of attention that I was bringing to it. And one of the things that was degrading the quality of this attention was, alas, the very thing that allows me to write this blog: the internet.
Now, it is true that the internet is a great and wonderful thing. I love writing thinkBuddha.org. I love keeping in touch with friends across the globe. And when you are looking for obscure fourth century Chinese texts about tapirs (don’t even ask…), there is nothing like it. But the trouble is that there is simply too much out there. It is the perfect playground for what they call – in a somewhat hackneyed image – the monkey mind: the mind that swings through the forest, grasping now one creeper or hanging vine, now another.
There is nothing, of course, particularly wrong with the monkey mind. The monkey, very often, needs to be somewhere or other, and needs a bit of low cunning to get there efficiently. It is good to make use of the resources that are out there. And there’s certainly a kind of delight to swinging through the trees (“Oooh, look! A tapir!”). But when you find yourself checking email at ten thirty in the evening, and rubbing your brow anxiously, it is clear that there is in this particular form of 21st century madness neither purpose nor delight. The desire to “just check” what the weather is going to be tomorrow, what your email says, whether anybody has posted anything new on Chinese tapirs, or what have you, is one that can colonise far too much of your life.
The monkey grumbles for a moment, then settles down for a kip. And then the evening is free – for reading, for writing, for hanging out with the cat. And it is remarkable the difference it makes. The thing is, the internet is a demanding medium. Emails flood into your inbox in a torrent. Information is always just around the next corner. The world is happening, and asking you to be a part of it. And when life is busy, when there’s a lot to be done, it is all the easier to get tangled up in this kind of thing. But when you switch off, and then switch on again the following morning, you realise that things were not as important as all that, that the world has done perfectly well without you.
The time reclaimed by the simple flicking of a switch! Hours on end to read books, to think, to write. Life again begins to feel rounder, calmer, less restless, saner. The various things that need to be done – all good things, all things worth doing – seem less burdensome and more pleasurable. The evening is no longer filled with fretful monkey business, but feels more like an oasis. And the pile of books and articles that I had, until now, given up hope of reading until next summer, is beginning already to dwindle.
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