My year in books…
Yesterday, I started a new blog series that I’m hoping to carry through to the end of year. My blogs are built of books, much in the same way, and in the same proportion, as syrup is made of sap. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and it takes me almost as much reading to write a blog. The goal of this series then, is to reverse-engineer my writings, to offer an exploded view of the articles and essays I’ve written throughout the year by drawing attention to the books that inspired them.
I had to learn to stop…
This year saw a tremendous winnowing of my creative projects and my social media presence. I stopped making videos and podcasts, I deleted all social media off my phone, and permanently closed my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I’m still active on Twitter, though the app remains absent from my phone and I only check in once or twice a day. I had gotten so caught up in the mindless angst of constant content production for content’s sake alone, without realizing that all my efforts were fueling activities antithetical to what I actually value. I had to stop. I had to learn to stop. I’m still learning. Still sifting through the wreckage of what’s left to find what’s worth keeping. Still living with the withdrawals of it all.
For me, a good day, a good life, is one spent in thought, in reading, writing, and contemplating. In the midst of this depression fueled burnout I turned to books. And, one of the first I read to help me better understand a way to move forward, was Celeste Headlee‘s book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.
I tend to shy away from anything with even a seeming tinge of self-help or personal development, although I’ve still managed to read my fair share. Most are trite expressions authored by a reincarnated Pollyanna offering vapid promises that are usually either banal, unrealistic, or down right problematic. But, I’m glad I took the chance on Headlee’s book. It’s insightful, well researched, well written, and actually helpful. In many ways, the book acted as an intervention confronting me with my own addictive relationships to busyness and restless motion.
While all this was happening, I was asked to write an article about the intersection of spirituality and technology. Headlee’s work was heavy on mind, and ending up playing a pivotal part in my approach to writing the article below:
Spirituality & Technology
“Please do not forget…that you are a person and not just a tool”Hank Green, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor
From the very moment humankind invented and began to use tools we became cybernetic organisms. After all, at its most basic, any organism whose abilities are enhanced by integrating some form of technological component can be called cybernetic. Every time one of us swings a hammer, drives a car, sees through corrective lenses, rides a bicycle, looks through a microscope, or updates their status on a smart phone, we are imbedding ourselves further into our own cybernetic standing. Radio journalist Celeste Headlee explains, that when we utilize one of these implementations “our brains treat them as extensions of our bodies”. We simultaneously become both human and machine. We blur the lines between the two. We become cyborgs.
While the usage of technological mechanisms and machinations is not a strictly modern phenomenon, the obsession with them is. For most of human history prior to the Industrial revolution our species understood the importance of idleness, leisure, inactivity, and rest. In other words, at one time our ancestors were more apt to understand when, where, and how to disconnect from their technology, to put away their tools, and to simply be; to simply be human.
No part of our evolution has prepared us to live with a tool that has an always-on connection, especially one that we can be so seamlessly un-severed from. In our pocket, and ever at the ready, is perhaps the most magnificent and the most malicious of all our cybernetic enhancements; the smartphone. It is a window to the entire world insistently at our disposal. And, it is a labyrinthian prison that is almost impossible to escape from. It is glorious and beautiful, dark and terrible, and it’s integration is almost effortless.
For years I have over-utilized the instant access of unending availability. I labored with tenacious intensity. Bent on trying to matter, trying to use my cyborg identity to make a difference. But, as Nietzsche warns “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” I looked long and hard into the abysmal void, and its stare bore a hole in the center of my being. The more I sought connection through the content I made to feed the wendigo of the infinite scroll, the more discontent I became. Caught up in the insatiable cycle of creating, consuming, creating for consumption, consuming for creating, I failed to recognize that I was becoming ever increasingly disconnected from what matters most; my mind, my heart, my well-being, my sanity, my humanity, myself.
This is not intended to read as an admonition of the internet, or a protestation against technological progress. I am no luddite, nor do I have any aspirations to be. It’s unrealistic to think that we can remove ourselves from all the machines, that we can switch off every cybernetic appendage we have ever attached ourselves to. They serve a purpose. They have a use. We are tool-beings by nature, and their utilization is built into the DNA of who we are. We can be nothing else. The question, then, is not whether or not to use technology. The question is what technologies to use, and how?
Reading, writing, art, meditation, are all tools available to us. A spiritual practice is a kind of biotechnology. They are a conglomerate of raw materials that engage and infuse themselves with our living systems for the purposes of creating improved changes. Books inject themselves into us and they “leave parts of themselves behind in [our] thoughts”, as if it were “a memory that [we] were lucky enough to gain without experience”, journalist Annalee Newitz suggests. Writing interacts with us on cellular, molecular, and perhaps even on an atomic level. Meditation increases the performance of our neurochemistry and it’s responses to stimuli. Art is an implant that enhances attention, awareness, wisdom, and love. They each operate like a prosthesis. They are restorative, rehabilitating, and augmentary. Once grafted into our essence, we become hybrid beings; altered in ways that improve who we are. We become better, stronger, faster.
Writer and cultural critic Maria Popova says that “one’s work should be a salute to life.” So it is when its comes to our tools. They are modifications ultimately meant to make life appear more in focus. They should give more than they ever take, add more than they ever subtract.
There is no sense in being nostalgic for a simpler time. Evolution is unidirectional. There’s no going back, no turning around. The only path is forward. The only way is through. But, there are also no easy answers. No ready-made remedies. No solutions that are one-size-fits-all. We have to adapt and change. We have to be different. We have to do the work of discovering what is possible. We have to experiment, and iterate, and try, a lot. We have to be willing to get things really wrong, and we have to keep going. That’s the most pivotal piece actually; the persistence, the resilience. Maybe we don’t get a say in whether or not we are cyborgs, but we can still decide what kind of cyborgs we want to be. We can choose to be more human than we were before, perhaps more than we have ever been.