Last night, in an effort to stay up past bedtime without the aid of the internet, I began reading Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s about building Sangha, or spiritual community. For Thich Nhat Hanh, his Sangha is the community of nuns and monks at his monastery in France.
My Sangha is all of the people in my life who are traveling with me. This would include my husband and my children, my extended family, my close friends, my acquaintances, and on out to include anyone with whom I’m in contact as I go about my day.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the importance of solidity to the Sangha. He writes, “The best way of building the Sangha is to turn ourselves into a positive element of the Sangha body by the way we walk, stand, sit, or lie down in mindfulness. When others in the Sangha can see our stability in this way, they also will become solid.”
As each member of the community becomes more solid, the community itself become stronger and can better serve the needs of the individuals within it.
This idea of mindfulness and solidity also showed up in the eBook Finding Reality: Thoreau’s Lessons for Living in the Digital Age by Nate Klemp (you can download the eBook for free by following the previous link). In his eBook, Klemp applies the wisdom of Thoreau to the challenges of living in today’s reality with so many digital distractions.
Klemp quotes a passage from Walden in which Thoreau equates solidity with reality:
“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.”
One of Thoreau’s suggestions for how to reach that “hard bottom”: do nothing. Simply be in the world.
So, the way that I can make my Sangha (which is based in my family) stronger is by being mindful and present with myself, and I can do this by letting go of external distractions and reaching that solid bottom of reality.
Here’s the thing: As much as I want to live mindfully in the present, I recognize that I distract myself—with Facebook, blog stats, Twitter, e-mail—because sometimes the idea of being present is rather scary.
My kids are the present ones, the mindful, in-the-moment creatures. They pull me and pull me back towards reality and the present moment. They’re loving, merciful beings in most things, but in this they cut me no slack. It’s intense. And I escape to my laptop as often as I can.
What need do I meet when I escape like this?
I meet my need for the oblivion that comes from the fast pace of online interactions. As Klemp describes it, it’s moving swiftly between several worlds. These worlds feel urgent, and they demand my attention and action right now, even if (or perhaps especially if) that means ignoring my children.
With my kids, I can’t escape myself. They hold up a mirror and show me everything, both the things that I want to see and those things that I’d rather not see. My online life—with the exception of the act of writing—draws me out of myself. It gives me a break. It allows me to glide along the surface rather than digging down into the solid stuff beneath.
This, I think, is the real reason I have trouble setting limits around my internet use. I feel anxious and I think at the time that I’m anxious about disconnecting from the online community. Upon further reflection, I think actually I feel anxious about connecting with reality.
Back in 2001, we changed apartments and decided not to hook up cable in the new place. To test out how this would be and to see what channels we’d be able to get in without cable, I unhooked the coax and turned on the tube.
It was nothing but popcorn. I changed the channel and it was more of the same.
I nearly had a panic attack.
And that’s when I decided that I had to give up cable. I didn’t want to keep it simply to avoid a panic attack. At the very least, I wanted t take a break from it to see what was on the other side of that fear. It’s been ten years and we’ve still not hooked the cable back up. We have the digital tuner, and we can get local networks and PBS, and that allows us to watch some sporting events and a show or two on occasion.
I’ve considered going back to dial-up (does dial-up still exist?) to make online interactions less appealing so I’d use it less. But as I wrote the other day, the internet serves a utilitarian purpose in our lives that TV never has. We never paid our bills or shared photos with our far-away relatives via the television.
Nate Klemp offers some suggestions for maintaining mindfulness while continuing to interact online. I’m going to mull over some of his ideas and see if I can find that creamy middle I’ve been seeking. Or perhaps what I’m really looking for is the solid anchor that keeps me moored to reality even while surfing through multiple worlds.