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Tiny Revolutions №63: Animal Dreams
"We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human" - David Abrams
As part of an online writing community I belong to, I had the chance to edit a blog post about the Metaverse last week. If you’re wondering what the Metaverse even is, according to said post, “the term refers to the concept of a virtual shared space – in essence, a world where reality could be virtually enhanced.”
Pokemon Go was the first mainstream cultural experience of it – a game that layered virtual elements (Pokemon creatures) over familiar scenes from real life. But it will only get more intense. The post quotes the CEO of Roblox, an online gaming platform that provides another example of the Metaverse in action, as saying, “the Metaverse is arguably as big a shift in online communication as the telephone or the internet.”
And, you know, that’s fine. I have a lot of contrarian/“kids, get off my lawn” tendencies, but in general I’m a technology enthusiast. I Slack, I text, I Zoom, I Telegram, I tweet. And I’m amazed and grateful for all the people I’ve met in online communities – I’ve written about some of the ones that helped keep me sane (and keep me going) over the past year.
But the thing about online anything is that there’s only so much ground it can cover.
In Zen, we practice sitting meditation, and that’s about noticing not just our thoughts, but everything else. The sounds around us. The temperature in the air. Our breath as it moves through our bodies. All the other sensations in our bodies, moment to moment. Over time, you begin to notice more and more the small things you’ve been missing as you sit on the cushion, but then that increased attention seeps into the rest of your life and you start to notice subtleties in other situations as well. The way the light changes at different times of the day. The particular quality of your thoughts over time. How much humans communicate without saying a single word, and, indeed, the way that language fails to capture so much of what’s really happening around us.
I have recently been reading a book called The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, which was written by ecologist and philosopher David Abrams in 1997. Here is a passage from the book’s intro:
“We must renew our acquaintance with the sensuous world in which our techniques and technologies are all rooted. Without the oxygenating breath of the forests, without the clutch of gravity and the tumbled magic of river rapids, we have no distance from our technologies, no way of assessing their limitations, no way to keep ourselves from turning into them. We need to know the textures, the rhythms and tastes of the bodily world, and to distinguish readily between such tastes and those of our own invention. Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.”
Nearly 25 years later this message seems even more urgent. The more attention I pay to what’s actually going on when I put aside the distractions, the more I realize how much we’re missing if we’re spending too much time on our devices. It’s a cliché at this point because I think we all know this. But do we, really?
I say I do. And I actually believe it, but my screen time is still considerable. For the reasons mentioned above and then some. But I think Abrams’ point is that all of our technology is for naught if we neglect to nurture our bonds to the reality we can experience in full sensory detail.
There’s a saying in meditation circles that the mind makes an excellent servant but a terrible master, and the same goes for technology. The mandate seems to me to be to keep a balance of offline interaction along with our online interaction. However, the way things are going, it seems like it’s harder to do that than the reverse – and it’ll only get harder.
On to some things I found worth sharing this week…
Laurie Anderson is in the process of giving a series of Norton Lectures about “the challenges we face as artists and citizens as we reinvent our culture with ambiguity and beauty.” You can read more and register to watch them free online here.
“It can be like five years of therapy in one session.”
If you’ve been curious about breathwork, my friend Ryan Williams is writing great articles about the practice and how it cracks people open, and also leading sessions via Zoom. Ryan is an old soul who I interviewed in early Tiny Revolutions days about his experiences with talking about depression in a professional context.
Spring springing! (cool timelapse video)
More Zen Thoughts
“Teaching doesn’t come from outside of you. Your heart beat, your breathing, are not all that are within you, some cosmic reality is there and you are experiencing it. There is no teacher, so to speak, no student. Teacher and student are just phenomena.”
- Kobun Chino Otogawa in Embracing Mind
"I think to make one be still for a moment and pay attention, to anything, is a good thing. A moment of attention, in a day which otherwise might be lost to ceaseless activity."
A favorite poem of Mary’s.
Some Relevant Lyrics
“I change shapes just to hide in this place
but I’m still, I’m still an animal”
A Tiny Assignment
Spring is here, more of us are vaccinated, the world’s opening up again. How can you open up too? What can you stop doing online?
Thanks for reading, as always. If you found something of value in this issue, I’d appreciate it if you shared it with someone who might too.
p.s. Here’s a short interview I did last week with Chris Harry, who has a cool project where he is talking to online creators about how they work. Good follow if you’re on Twitter.