Sprituality, Technology, Connection and the Buddhist ‘aesthetic’

by Ellie Grace

I’ve been wondering for a while about the connections between technology and spirituality, the obvious flagpole of which is the discussion on how damaging the effects of heavy computer use are on our mental and emotional wellbeing. The statistics don’t, on the whole, look good and most especially for young brains still in development. It’s said that the greater the amount of time spent engaging with online activities and technology, the greater the interruption to our sleep cycle (the light emitted from phone and computer screens is said to disrupt the activity of the pineal gland), and the less we’re able to nurture our empathic intelligence – the parts of ourselves that allow us to emotionally read others, make genuine connections through attentive listening, eye contact and the interpretation of body language in real time.

We’re told that the lives we live online are creating too large an identity gap between our sense of ourselves as perceived by others and the experience of ourselves as witnessed by our inner field. Essentially we’re looking so much at ourselves from the outside that we’re forgetting to look at ourselves from the inside.

All this is old hat, or so I thought. It was my understanding that everyone knew this stuff – that too much time spent gazing in to the bright white screen of the apple laptop was – of course!, obviously! – going to make you depressed. It turns out not everyone knows this. I was amazed when a good friend of mine who works as a digital creative turned to me recently and admitted that she thought she was depressed. She said, ‘I suddenly realised, standing in the middle of this party surrounded by my best friends, that they could see me. Like they could actually see me and that all this time until now all they’d seen – or all I’d perceived them as seeing of me – was my online self, like a hologram of me. It dawned on me in a way that moved me to deep, sobbing tears, that I was real for them, that I existed.’

It took some time for me to absorb what she was saying, so inverse was it to my way of regarding technology and what I see as an inauthentic tool for displaying ourselves to the world. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not disregarding technology or social media in their entirety and I have plenty of opinions on why I think both are connecting and valuable but what she said got me thinking further. Beyond what I think of as being a really sad state of affairs in terms of the sickness social media has inspired in self-perception, human connection and identity crisis, I also wonder how much value we can get from meditation apps and online yoga studios claiming to bring stillness into our extraordinarily busy lives.

Aside from the people for whom online classes are, quite possibly, life-saving: the ill or dying; the immobile; the many mothers who are house-bound and exhausted but for whom an opportunity to take 20 minutes to look after themselves while their baby sleeps… aside from these people, I do wonder whether the decision to sell a practice on a screen is just another way to capitalise on the boundless space of the internet and to corroborate what we’ve already bought into in our digital culture: that attention, action and satisfaction are to be found outside of ourselves at the click of a button.

I already find it hard enough to concentrate in my yoga studio in Venice, largely because I’m visually distracted by the clothing, mats, tattoos, music and bodies on display around me. I have to work hard to stay in my own body and with my own breath in order to have an internal experience of my practice. Most of the time, sadly, I don’t, and my practice has – despite very good teachers whose aim is to have their students rewarded from the internal experience – become something of a necessary physical stretchout that my body demands rather than a spiritually elevating one.

The subject got me wondering as well on Steve Jobs’ lifelong interest in Buddhism. The whole Apple design, functionality and aesthetic feels to me to be set up as if in reverence to the ineffable elegance, beauty and perfection of divinity itself. In fact the way that the products and the stores themselves are designed – like temples or cathedrals to modern innovation – communicates something of the spiritual vision I think Jobs possessed as a leader and trailblazer. There’s a clarity in the light of the screens, the way they shimmer as if illuminated by the celestial orb of some higher realm and power into action like the gliding images of our very own consciousness … it’s interesting to me how obviously this mimicry of human consciousness and supreme awareness is integrated with the visual rhetoric of spirituality in a computer interface. The parallels are there for all to see. We’re offered a ‘cloud’ in which to place all of our personal information, knowledge and data, much like the trust we must place in a guru. The cloud-guru will store everything it knows about you: both are omniscient. Once you place your knowledge and faith in the cloud-guru it’s not going to work if you take your information elsewhere – this operating system (of beliefs) is not compatible with another operating system. You must commit to cloudguru in order to reap the benefits of carefully meted-out rewards / guidance / new products. You will bow and express gratitude to both for being so very wise as to hold all of you at once and in return, the cloud-guru will give you expressive, creative, collaborative freedom and opportunity to fully realise and express who you are. The more you submit to cloud-guru, the more deeply integrated as a customer-disciple you become. There are degrees of accessibility to the cloud-guru too. The more money or time you can donate and bequeath to your cloud-guru, the more windows of opportunity and expression open to you, eventually opening up new levels of accessibility and functionality as you progress through the (operating) systems. If you don’t regularly clean out, burn up or cleanse your data / samskaras, your past will catch up with you, limit you, prevent you from enjoying a future free from suffering…

The analogies are fun to explore but underneath these little theories I’m imagining, Jobs did of course have a committed Zen practice. He designed the way his practice allowed him to think and observe his thoughts. His practice revealed to him the limitless skyscape of his mind, the thoughts just passing clouds. He fused form and function in such a way as to allow the object – the ipad, ipod or Macbook seem somehow inevitable, as if they had always-already existed and had merely been discovered by him and his team of designers. As Steve Silberman writes, ‘Apple devices, you might say, are sophisticated tools for evoking, supporting, and sustaining shoshin, beginner’s mind.’ [http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2015/10/26/what-kind-of-buddhist-was-steve-jobs-really/] My question then is, if Jobs knew that the thinking mind and perceived reality was all illusory, was he ever in conflict about the commercial success of his ideas, or of the spiritual deficit so much time spent in front of one of his products causes?

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