I had a go at mapping early Buddhist practice systematically. It’s over-simplified, of course, despite the fact that I couldn’t get it to look as elegant as I’d wanted. There’s a lot missing, such as the brahmaviharas’ value as concentration and insight practices, and their role in facing off against the hindrances. Some of the value was in my own reflection, and maybe it highlights a few connections at a glance.
Social media creates an illusion that the world is wrapped in layers of information. We start to think and act in accordance with the idea that reality involves posting photos of ourselves, seeing what our friends did on holiday and writing about what we’re thinking. When we abstain from doing this after some years, the world feels like a claustrophobic dream in which everything that happens takes place inside your mind alone, an exhilarating thought that this and only this is your life.
Carrying the world-as-information in our pockets, it’s tempting to believe that what we experience when we watch a sunset or listen to birds arguing in treetops is only part of reality. The other part, we assume, is the part that can be quantified digitally and reproduced. However, these reproductions are a shadow cast by something no longer there. No comparison is possible between the image of an ocean sunset and the reality, unless we reduce the reality to an intention to photograph and share our experience. We should always entertain the possibility that reality is only what is here now, and that this is not reducible.
Another stealth effect of social media websites is the way in which they exacerbate our sense of self. They invite us to write a definitive bio to describe ourselves, frequently in the space of a few sentences. We quantify our friends, close friends, organise people into lists, promote our doings and cleverness, give our relationships their proper labels. All of this information may be true in a narrow sense but made concrete it becomes a castle in the clouds, far removed from the person who is actually living in one moment in time and changing all the time.
Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head, has some important lessons for maintaining clarity and sanity in a world of proliferating distractions.
In meditation circles, it’s common knowledge that prolonged stability of attention can create the conditions for deep insights to arise. However, we live in societies where attention is being monetised and manipulated by the advertising economy. Social media is engineered to foster addiction; newspapers are engaged in a clickbait race to the bottom. The river is flowing fast – away from clarity, insight, connection, and wellbeing – towards attentional degradation. There is a vicious circle in which we no longer have the willpower to do those things that nourish us and so we just scrape along the bottom: clicking, swiping, bingeing. Is there a way we can pay attention the people, things, and places we really ought to, and so become happier in the long run?
Getting jiggy with it
Fortunately, Crawford thinks he has identified something that will enable just this. He describes a process in which a skilled carpenter cuts several pieces of wood to the lengths she will require other pieces to be. This is called a “jig.” Rather than measure subsequent pieces of wood, she simply cuts the new wood by resting her saw against the jig. The jig is an improvised structure: one that it makes it easy to perform a task correctly and without cognitive effort. Crawford sees jigs everywhere: in the short-order cook’s kitchen, and in the world of information work.
For example, I’m writing this in a notebook on the train to see my parents. I have no headphones and no books with me. My phone is stowed, it’s data connection off. This set up is a kind of jig. I can think, meditate, write—or not—or watch the beautiful West Country scenery roll by. My attention is less likely to be dragged away from these pursuits as it could be were I using a computer, or could feel the bulk of a smartphone in my pocket. Later, if I type this up, working from these notes will themselves be a kind of jig. I haven’t even taken Crawford’s book with me. This is a big deal for someone who can’t usually travel for a weekend without bringing three books, one of which might be 500 pages long and impenetrably written.
What happens when mind and body are in the same place? It’s actually quite nice, often, or has the potential to be. But we need structure to make it happen. Willpower is a finite resource. There are good jigs and bad jigs, and we use them all the time. Pen and paper offer more attentional protection for writers than an iPad; meditation retreats provide seclusion in which the heart and mind settle; joining a gym provides you not only with equipment but a dedicated space – if you go. Holidays are jigs for relaxing; gambling machines are jigs for ridding yourself of money. The internet is perhaps the mother of all jigs, a chaotic uber-jig, that simply amounts to the closest thing we have to a goddess of distraction.
What kind of jigs do you use? Is there a way of arranging these structures to best support your nobler intentions?
If we believe that consciousness is the only ground of meaning and value (i.e. a universe without any conscious beings to experience it might as well not exist) then three conclusions may follow.
1) There would be nothing more worthwhile doing than enriching the conscious experience of self and others through activities like philosophy, meditation, the arts, counselling and cultivating our emotional lives, sciences, socialising and collaboration.
2) We might value neurologically diverse minds not only for their inherent worth as conscious beings but also perhaps as comparatively rare forms of consciousness.
3) Any meaning derived from the exploitation of conscious animals for food or sport would be at least partially undermined by violating this quality that makes all other value possible.
Finally, I’m not yet convinced about an AI singularity but (by these standards) bringing about a super-conscious intelligence may also be one of the most worthwhile things we could do. This providing it didn’t suffer inordinately or inflict greater net suffering on conscious life.
In the co-ordinator’s office of the meditation centre where I’m volunteering, there’s a piece of wood engraved with the following:
A beautiful day. It will not come again.
As a call to appreciation, it seemed more urgent than carpe diem. This came home to me while looking out of the window of a bathroom on the upper floor, having ushered a ladybird from the sill behind the toilet to the ledge outside. I stopped to look at the rain lashing the chimney pots and garden, puddling on the flat sections of roof below. That set of circumstances: the grounds, the rain, me, the people in my life right now, will never line up again in quite the same way.
I took the photo above on another beautiful day, not long ago. The door was on a side street, metres from the shops and harbour of a Cornish fishing town. Afterwards, I had it in mind to start a photography project with impermanence as a theme, but gradually let go of the scheme and decided once again to just get along with life and see what happens. A few Big Ideas have come since, and it’s interesting to see how I grab onto them in response to a need for security, or recognition, for example. Sooner or later the Big Idea passes but hopefully a few, small, good ones will have taken care of themselves.