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Laptop screenOne bright morning several weeks ago, I received a friendly e-mail message from Amazon. “Benjamin W. Howard,” it read, “Based on your recent activity, we thought you might be interested in this:” Below these words, a handsome new book was displayed: “Firewood and Ashes: New and Selected Poems, by Ben Howard.”

To be fair to Amazon, I was indeed interested in the product described, and my interest was indubitably based on my recent activity. And, all things considered, I was heartened to see Amazon actively marketing my book and targeting a plausible customer. More power to them, I might have said, and may their project flourish.

At the same time, Amazon’s little slip-up highlighted something fundamental and unnerving about life in the digital era. Like other denizens of the twenty-first century, I am aware of the ways by which mega-conglomerates monitor our purchasing histories and manipulate our predilections. Nonetheless, had the book being promoted not been my own, I might have dozily surmised that someone at Amazon was looking out for me, as old-fashioned booksellers used to do, and that the message I had just received embodied an actual human presence.

In reality, the presence on my laptop screen was virtual in every sense of the word. It was a fabrication generated, I assume, by an impersonal algorithm. More disturbingly, the deceptive resemblance to a real human presence was almost certainly no accident. In his book The Four-Dimensional Human, an engrossing reflection on “ways of being in the digital world,” Laurence Scott observes that “[c]onsumerism has traditionally thrived in the real world from our having fixed, demographically analyzable identities. For this reason its agents are understandably keen to minimize the differences between our material and digital lives, to erode the boundaries between the real and the virtual.” Amazon and its like not only monitor the preferences of our demographic selves; they also “promote a conflation of reality and virtuality.” As we have become ever more immersed in digital culture, both the term and the concept of “presence” have grown ever more problematic. “The big bold future,” Scott predicts, “will demand an evolution in how we think about what it means to be present, how we manifest bodily and virtually in the world.”

Dr. Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C., has thought long and hard about what it means to present. And in her book True Refuge, she offers this explanation of the term: “Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience. You’ve surely tasted presence, even if you didn’t call it that. Perhaps you’ve felt it lying awake in bed and listening to crickets on a summer night. . . . You might have arrived in full presence as you witnessed someone dying or being born.” By wakefulness Dr. Brach means “the intelligence that recognizes the changing flow of moment-by-moment experience,” including our thoughts and bodily sensations. By openness she means the non-judgmental “space of awareness” that allows our emotional lives to be just as they are, without interference or evaluation. And by tenderness she means the capacity to respond to our immediate experience with warmth, awe, and compassion. Together these qualities constitute what Dr. Brach calls “natural presence,” which she likens to a “sunlit sky.” Presence of this kind cannot be willfully activated, but it can be accessed and cultivated, primarily through the practice of meditation. By regularly practicing sitting and walking meditation, or merely by pausing for short periods during our daily round, we allow ourselves to “come back to presence” and to live our lives in mindful awareness.

Natural presence may seem categorically different from the virtual presences we daily encounter on our computer screens. Whatever else it might have projected, the message I received from Amazon did not embody wakefulness, openness, or warmth. Yet, in the digital age, the distinction between virtual and actual presence is not always so simple or clear. Laurence Scott notes that “if our bodies have traditionally provided the basic outline of our presence in the world, then we can’t enter a networked environment . . . without rethinking the scope and limits of embodiment.” As an example, he tells the story of a “smitten grandpa” in Pennsylvania who uses state-of-the-art technology to keep in touch with his granddaughter. “I have face time” Grandpa reports, “every week with my sixteen-month-old granddaughter while she’s eating her dinner, and when she says goodbye she hugs the iPad.” A smitten grandpa myself, I have had the very same experience, though our own, two-and-a-half- year-old granddaughter goes so far as to kiss the screen. Virtual and natural presence coalesce, in ways I appreciate but haven’t begun to fathom.

—–

Laurence Scott, The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World (Heinemann, 2015), 26, 24, 14; 4. My italics.

Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2011), 12.

Photo: Intel Free Press

 

 

 

 

ScribbleLast month the holiday season brought three small grandchildren to our home. Jack is five, Isla three, and Allegra two. Three may well be a crowd, but apart from an upset or two, this trio of tots played harmoniously together, and their brief presence brightened our lives.

A few days after the children and their parents had departed, I retired to my study to read a book I had bought just before the holidays: The Essential Brendan Kennelly (Wake Forest, 2011), a richly varied selection of the Irish poet’s work, published on the occasion of his 75th birthday. I had left the book on a low table next to my reading chair. When I opened it, I found to my surprise a waxy red scribble on the title page. Someone had left me a souvenir.

Although I am not one to condone the defacing of books, I was amused by this discovery, and I suspect that Brendan Kennelly would be as well. One of Kennelly’s best-known poems, “Poem from a Three Year Old,” speaks in the voice of a child. Its exuberant verses dramatize the spirit of play, the incessant questioning, and the moments of wonder intrinsic to childhood. “The first moment of wonder,” Kennelly has remarked, “is an amazing moment, as if for the first time something is happening. And that is the moment on which poetry depends.” There is a “strange thing” in us, Kennelly asserts, that is destroyed by familiarity and experience. But through the successive acts of attention that constitute an authentic poem, the familiar can again become strange and the sense of wonder restored. “And I think that’s what poetry is about–a kind of permanent beginning.” Continue Reading »

800px-UH-1H_Flying_over_ROCA_Infantry_School_Ground_20120211Last week two Army helicopters flew over the village of Alfred, New York. Their thunder, my wife confided, unnerved her as never before.

In the wake of the mass shootings in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino, fear has become a focus of national attention. In his address to the nation on December 6, President Obama sought to reassure us. “Freedom,” he asserted, “is more powerful than fear.” Perhaps it is in the long run, but for the time being, how can we best address the growing presence of fear in our daily lives? And how can the practice of meditation help us in that effort? Continue Reading »

167. Give it all away

Shinge Roshi, Abbot, Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot,
Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

The practice of Zen contemplation, Zen teachings tell us, is the “action of non-action,” grounded in silent awareness. At the same time, the “non-action” of Zen is best described in active verbs. In her essay “What is Zen?” Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi offers this description:

What is Zen? Stop now. Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness. Taste the breath. Appreciate it fully. Now breathe out, slowly, with equal appreciation. Give it all away; hold onto nothing. Breathe in with gratitude; breathe out with love. Receiving and offering–this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.

It would be difficult to find a more lucid or concrete description of Zen practice. Follow Shinge Roshi’s instructions, and you will not go wrong. Yet, for all its clarity, this description is at one point ambiguous. “Hold onto nothing,” Shinge Roshi advises. “Give it all away.” But what is the antecedent, a grammarian might inquire, of the pronoun “it”? What, besides our breath, are we giving away? Continue Reading »

Open seaAs a boy growing up in eastern Iowa, I savored the word dwell, which I heard on many a Sunday morning. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, I intoned with the rest of the congregation, not quite understanding the context but reassured by the general idea. The word was pleasant to pronounce. It made a pleasing sound.

Only later did I learn that dwell bears a negative connotation. “Don’t dwell on it,” I was advised, in the aftermath of some abrasive encounter. “She didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Used in that fashion, dwell meant to brood, to worry, to concentrate unhealthily on some slight or insult or perceived injustice. Nowadays, for good or ill, many people use the verb obsess to describe the same habit of mind. “Don’t obsess about it,” we might advise a person who can’t stop talking about a personal dilemma, or can’t let go of a painful experience, as though that person had a choice, or our well-intentioned counsel might be helpful. Continue Reading »

AustraliaSkyZen has been called the study of silence. “We need silence,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light.” But how, exactly, are we to study silence? By what means can we cultivate its nourishing presence?

Just be quiet, one is tempted to suggest. Just be still. But in a world rife with noise and distraction, that choice may no longer seem plausible–or even very desirable. In her book Reclaiming Conversation, the sociologist Sherry Turkle reports that many of the people she has interviewed, particularly young people, have an aversion to silence, finding it merely boring. They would rather go online. And as Thich Nhat Hanh observes in his book Silence, many of us are afraid to sit quietly, doing nothing. By keeping ourselves ever-busy and ever-connected, we avoid such negative feelings as loneliness, restlessness, and sadness, which can become all too present when we are silent and alone. If we wish to study and cultivate silence, it would seem, we have first to overcome our resistance, whether it be grounded in aversion or fear. Continue Reading »

164. Soft eyes

BACKYARDOne afternoon a few summers ago, I decided to practice the guitar on our backyard deck. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the mid-seventies. At the time, I was revisiting the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998), a piece I had played for years and knew by heart. Normally, I practice indoors, my eyes fixed on the score. If I’ve memorized the piece, I tend to stare at the fingerboard, as classical guitarists are prone to do. That afternoon, however, I looked out at our spacious and secluded backyard, where the natural world was vividly in motion. Blue jays were foraging in the grass. Leaves quivered in a light wind. High in a tall pine, a dark bird flew in, perched for a moment, and flew out. As I played the first few bars of the Prelude–a lyrical but technically challenging piece–my eyes came to rest on our Curly Willow tree in the middle distance. At the same time, I remained keenly aware of all the peripheral movement. And as I proceeded into the Prelude, I gradually realized that my playing had become more fluent and relaxed. To my surprise, it had also become more accurate, expressive, and rhythmically precise.

That experience was new to me, but it was hardly my invention. Without knowledge or systematic training, I had stumbled upon a technique known to equestrians, martial artists, and other highly skilled performers as “soft eyes.” “Do you know what you need at a crime scene?” asks Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. “Rubber gloves?” ventures Detective Kima Greggs. “Soft eyes,” Moreland replies. “You got soft eyes, you see the whole thing.” In essence an integration of peripheral and foeval (central, line-of-sight) vision, the technique of soft eyes is used in fields as diverse as tracking, performance driving, interior decorating, teaching, yoga, and Akido. The personal and social benefits of this technique can be significant, if not transformative. It can permit us at any moment to see “the whole thing.” Yet in obvious ways, the practice of soft eyes runs counter to the prevalence of “hard eyes”–the type of vision we habitually employ when chopping a carrot or threading a needle or working at a computer. To learn to look with soft eyes may require conscious effort. Continue Reading »

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