Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Tyranny of Disharmony

Today's post is from the Zen Master Santee Poromaa (top row, second from left), and captures an interesting perspective of the predicament that many of us find ourselves in today - the feeling that something is not quite right.

Hedonism is the answer to the question how to live life “to its fullest degree”, to search for pleasure and avoid discomfort. To do only what pleases us and in that way fill our lives with maximal pleasure. Hedonism today lives as the ruling religion in our secularized societies. Just as before, hedonists today seek to shape their life and spend their time so that each moment will be as comfortable, pleasurable and joyful as possible. Since we no longer believe in higher powers and a predetermined world there is not much left but to enjoy each moment as if it was the last.

But the difference between the hedonist of the past and those of today is worth reflecting upon. The image of a hedonist in ancient Greece is perhaps the one of a person, laying on a daybed, sipping a good wine and listening to divine music. The hedonist of today however, has not time for that. He’s rushing ahead in a fast car, listening to his MP3 player while talking on his cell phone. Today we’ve convinced ourselves that the more we can fit into the moment, the more meaningful it becomes. Our simultaneous capacity is stretched to its fullest and in our inner sphere numerous different voices now live, fighting for space. We want to do so much, see so many things, live so much more. SMS, MMS, Java, Bluetooth, DVD and MP4. They’re all fighting for a place in our inner sphere, now known as Our inner sphere, the place where we are free and present, lucid and attentive, has been occupied by demons fighting a war for our attention. Most of these demons come from the special hell known as the Market.

The truth is that modern life demands a lot more from us than we have time for. The only solution is to do many things at once, to pay attention to many different voices at the same time. The effect of this “multitasking” is a sense of disharmony, or what the writer Saul Bellow described as “an unbearable state of distraction”. This state of disharmony is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of our time. The feeling of having too many forces fighting for our attention and demanding something of us is causing more and more of us to live with a constant feeling of not “having enough time” - as if everything was going faster and faster. The paradoxical effect of trying to fit more life into each moment is that we never seem to be quite in it ourselves; the moment we want to enjoy is the place and time where we are not. “Life is what happens while making other plans”, John Lennon sang. Life goes on while we are someplace else.

At the same time this extreme disruption has had another effect as well. It has made us bored. We can’t stand long pieces of music anymore, but prefer classical favorites in short version. While watching films from the fifties and sixties we feel an almost subconscious urge to fast forward through the “dead time”. Impatience and a disability to do nothing is the result. We all, compared to older generations, suffer from attention disorders. In other words, we have become addicted to our own simultaneous capacity and constantly demand new impressions, just as a junkie needs his fix. In the fifties, before television, an entire family could sit at home and listen to the radio. Just listen. Without cleaning or talking on the phone or play video games at the same time. Just sit silently and listen.

Nowadays we rarely give something our full attention. We may give the radio twenty or thirty percent, hardly more. It is more and more common that we call someone to talk and hear how the person on the other line is simultaneously tapping on their keyboard, perhaps answering mails or just surfing. Radio producers today are of course aware of this disharmony and no longer communicate with us as adults - intelligent and independent individuals. Instead they’re fooling around and being silly, preferably as loud as possible since they know that that is the only way to catch at least a fragment of our attention.

Conclusively one can say that our modern hedonism and shopping frenzy has given our lives, not more life, but these side effects: we have become disharmonious and stressed. We have lost touch with our inner clarity. We have lost our ability to concentrate and are easily bored. We’re practically never completely present. And the things that are supposed to entertain and feed our minds - books, theatre, music, movies have become shallower and louder, less serious. The finer shades of life have been lost. Our inner, mental room has been sold to the market forces. The consumption demons run our lives. We are the losers.

Zen masters have a completely different idea of how to live life. In Zen we admit that the moment is all we have. To a Zen master the present isn’t a piece of time in between the past and the future - there to be filled with as many “experiences” as possible. It is instead “an eternal spring”, an infinite place outside of what we call time and space. Release from sufferance and dissatisfaction is, according to this ancient wisdom, about learning how to live consciously. To live consciously is to live now. Not by filling the moment with more but by being completely present. Not to constantly divide our minds and chase after only that which gives us pleasure, but learning how to find pleasure in what one does. In the future it is therefore likely that more and more people willingly will give up shopping, choose to live simply, or, at least, avoid the excess. Not because of an ascetic wish for self-sufferance, but from realizing that happiness cannot be bought. – Santee Poromaa

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