My phone buzzes at least three times an hour, I’m constantly inundated with emails, and messages from friends. Even when I don’t get a notification, I still check my phone just in case. It’s almost impossible to disconnect from the internet, and I’m always quick to come up with excuses.
I’m a writer, I develop online content, I need to be constantly up to date. What if I miss something important on Twitter? What if I miss out on something, anything? These thoughts are harmful, they damage my productivity, and they ensure that whatever I’m doing is less than perfect, and constantly interrupted.
In an effort to change that pattern I dug out an old copy of D.T. Suzuki’s book Studies in Zen. Suzuki compares and contrasts Western thoughts and processes, with Eastern meditative practices. An early observation in the book resonated with me:
‘The person and the machine involve a contradiction, and because of this contradiction the West is going through great psychological tension, which is manifested in various directions in its modern life.
The person implies individuality, personal responsibility, while the machine is the product of intellection, abstraction, generalisation, totalisation, group living.’
Suzuki wrote this in the early part of the 20th century, but it’s an apt description of our contemporary condition too. Our use of machines causes us distress, our digital lives are separate, beautified, and dissimilar to the way that we live in the ‘analogue’ world. This creates a schism, and it leads us to compare the way that we live, to the way that our friends, colleagues, and family members live.
Nowness, and Living in the Moment
We are never in the moment, although we are increasingly led to believe in the importance of ‘nowness.’ This doesn’t manifest in mindfulness in the moment however, instead it leaves us in a state of limbo, constantly anticipating what will come next, refreshing internet screens, and waiting for the typing icon on Facebook’s chat to materialise as a message.
I believe that we need to find some peace, quiet, and solitude in order to create things of true worth. We have to disengage, we have to use the internet as a tool, not as something that’s constantly on. Humans need solitude in the same way that we need companionship. We have to understand who we are intrinsically, separate from the machines that control us and drain us of time.
Mindfulness is a product of a Zen outlook on life. It’s a form of meditation, but it doesn’t require us to sit cross legged, or chant mantras whilst wearing a string of prayer beads. It’s a simple approach to living life. People who practice mindfulness only do one thing at a time, they don’t let their minds race forwards with anticipation, or backwards with nostalgia. They attempt to live in the moment they’re in.
If you’re writing an article, that’s all you’re doing. You focus exclusively on that task, and you work until you’ve completed it. There is no past, or future, to deal with. There’s peacefulness, and your mind is quiet. But this is something that you need to practice, you have to understand that your thoughts don’t happen to you, they’re a part of you, and they’re something that you can control.
We need to guard our perspectives, especially in a world saturated with information, newsfeeds, and updates. It’s easy to slip into worry, or doubt, or unhealthy comparisons between you and your friends. For Suzuki though there is a simple answer – be in the moment.
‘The Zen approach is to enter right into the object itself and see it, as it were, from the inside. To know the flower is to become the flower, to be the flower, to bloom as the flower, and to enjoy the sunlight as well as the rainfall.’
There’s an esotericism to Suzuki’s outlook, but there’s a simple truth that we can take from his thoughts. To truly understand something we have to consider it deeply, from its perspective. We have to understand not only its purpose, but the way it functions, and the way it experiences reality. Understanding something is to become that thing, and for people overcome by information, and their digital lives, it seems that we could find happiness by being mindful, and truly ourselves.
I think Suzuki is arguing for honesty. The flower is a flower, nothing more. It is what it is. Immediately, after writing this, I want to edit it, I feel that I’m stating the obvious, but that’s the inherent problem in Western perspectives. We over think things, and we forget that there’s a simplicity to the world, a way of perceiving things that allows for peace, and a lack of conflict – both within ourselves, and with others too.
‘”What is the meaning of life?” “Are we not facing blank nothingness?” “After living seventy-eight, or even ninety years, where do we go? Nobody knows,” etc., etc. I am told that most modern men and women are neurotic on this account. But the Zen-man can tell them all that they are born artists, creative artists of life, and that as soon as they realise this fact and truth they will all be cured of neurosis or psychosis or whatever name they have for their troubles.’
There’s a sense that we’re all unhappy, that life isn’t what we thought it would be, and that as we grow older we lose more of ourselves to the world, and its requirements. Suzuki’s answer is simply mindfulness. If we exist in the moment then the things we hope from the future, and the things we dreamed of in the past, don’t matter.
Everyone is an Artist
Pablo Picasso said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Like Suzuki, Picasso implies that creation is intrinsically human, and everyone has the capacity to make things of beauty. Art is never good or bad, it’s something created by a person who took a moment to say something about themselves.
Zen, mindfulness, and meditation are important parts of a healthy lifestyle. You can call it what you like, living in the moment, finding peace in your actions, or living without distractions. The truth that emerges is that we need to focus our minds on whatever it is we’re doing, we need to take life one action at a time, and perfect those actions before we move on.
Forget multitasking, and hone your mind. Your perspective is yours to control, it’s unique, and it should be fed, not neglected. Keep a quiet mind, order your thoughts, and see the art in everything you do.