Now for something different. Over at Daishin's blog "living and dying with eyes wide open" is a short reflection on the digital age. Since starting my yoga teacher training, I'm spending more time on buses, and around people with all kinds of tech gadgets. The same is true wherever I go, even in public libraries, where the noise and busyness levels are much higher than I remember them being when I was younger.
What’s happening to plain conversations between two people — you know, they kind involving eye contact, occasional pauses, close listening, and actual presence? What makes people walk down the street with eyes and thumbs focused on a tiny screen, quite possibly ‘communicating’ with someone walking right next to them? What happened to listening to what’s naturally around us — a birdsong perhaps — instead of electronic sounds coming from earphones? And have we abandoned privacy and courtesy as we subject others to every shouted word on our cell phones?
The other day, I was on a bus heading to a yoga class. There was a guy sitting near me with his headphones turned all the way up. Across the aisle, another guy talked loudly into a cell phone about banalities to some other guy he'd never met before. At one point, head phone dude turned to the woman sitting next to him and said "This is why I got these headphones. For idiots like that," pointing to the guy on the cell phone. Then he returned to bopping his head to the techno music the entire front end of the bus could hear.
It's interesting Daishin mentions privacy. I'm not sure what privacy means anymore. In fact, the whole public/private line has been blown open, and in ways that aren't healthy on either end of the spectrum. Public spaces are being privatized by the minute. Spending more time in downtown Minneapolis recently, it was interesting to read this article, which points out that there is little public space in downtown for people to gather in.
At the same time, other public spaces, like buses, are filled with a mixture of invasions into personal space and a lack of healthy, shared interactions between people. On another ride filled with people on cell phones, blackberries, and head thumping music, the guy sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation with me, but I mostly was checked out, struggling with the bombardment of noise around us.
And maybe it's just me, but just having a conversation with a stranger for the sake of it seems to becoming rarer and rarer. People want money. Or to know what time it is. Or to borrow a cell phone. Or a lighter. But as soon as such requests are fulfilled or not fulfilled, the interaction is over. It's totally understandable that someone who is destitute and desperate will be focused on getting their basic needs met. However, I'm seeing this behavior all over, regardless of background and needs.
And you know, I'm finding myself more shut down as well, less willing to interact or respond because so often it seems that I'm just seen as an object, a means to an end. Even looking someone in the eyes while walking down the street can quickly lead to a dance around not having a cigarette to offer, or a watch on my wrist.
Where all this is going I don't know. The prevailing trend here in the U.S. is to privatize everything, get people hooked on a view that the "good life" means being able to do whatever you want whenever you want wherever you want, and make sure everything is so sped up and blurred together that the majority of people can't see what's actually happening in their lives.
I remember sitting with my great grandmother last summer on the porch, chatting a little bit and listening to the birds. A simple conversation. Nothing really "profound" was said. However, it the was the best half hour I had the entire trip out there (she lived in Michigan). I'm not sure I ever asked great grandma what she though of the world today, but I know that one of her favorite things to do was sit at a table with family and fiends, talking, eating, and playing cards. Nothing fancy.
On Monday, we had a class on the 4th precept - taking up the way of not speaking falsely - where person after person spoke deeply about different challenges they had with upholding this teaching, and where everyone else listened just as deeply. The sharing was rich, and the energy of the room was loving and respectful.
Both those examples feel so different from the general movement of society, which seems to be creating more alienation within each of us.
*Photo from Chernobyl zone - Ukraine