by Claudia Horwitz, June, 1999
I spent a weekend recently immersed in “the media” as broad and definitionless as this topic is. Ever since I have been stewing about the incessant flow of information to which I am voluntarily and involuntarily subjected, and the vastly different stimuli that have relevance in my life. In an effort to balance this, I have also returned to Rumi, the 13th century scholar and mystic who wrote ecstatic poetry. With his searing words of truth, Rumi is helping me wade through my quest to balance my needs to know and to not know, my desire to gobble up outside sources and my desire to just be quiet.
I wonder, first, just how much longer this developing cyber world will compel me to move faster while simultaneously leaving me feeling slow and sluggish? My experience of media is one of being sometimes inspired and intrigued, but all too often overwhelmed, almost drugged by sensory overload. I am, quite simply, fearful of losing the tenuous link to what matters. Because I have access, it is easy to occasionally be catapulted from my low-tech world to a distant, high-tech galaxy where everything happens fast, fast, fast. I notice that the quicker we move, the less time there is for consensus building. Worse, there is really no space for ambiguity. So here we are, inundated and rushing ahead. Without enough time for real reflection, how does the information we absorb become wisdom? What exactly is the value of these seemingly random bits if I cannot figure out a way to make them mine, cannot hold them in close the way I do my deepest truths? And Rumi says,
Which is worth more, a crowd of thousands,
or your own genuine solitude?
Freedom, or power over an entire nation?
A little while alone in your room
will prove more valuable than anything else
that could ever be given you.
I wonder, would I even have the willpower to escape the information age? I am aware of how I exploit the very mediums and benefits against which I rail. With so many friends, family, and colleagues living elsewhere on the continent, email has added a measure of lovely, though sometimes unnerving, convenience to my life. You would probably not be reading this piece, for example, if I’d had to stamp, address, and mail over 100 envelopes in order to put it in people’s hands.
Similarly, my fascination with the web has grown, which both delights and frightens. The sheer convenience is undeniable. In less than an hour I can buy a plane ticket, find information on yurts for my interfaith monastery group, get the schedule for the New York Liberty, find out where “Rent” is currently touring, download information on the upcoming Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, and register for a conference. All the while, a strange question nags at me: Should any of this be so easy?
I walk down the street with my friend Tony and his cell phone rings. It is our friend Alison, who lives in L.A. but is in New York, meeting with my friend, Dan. Moments later, at an outdoor cafe, I chat happily with Dan (who, incidentally, is on his cell phone as well) while Tony opens up his laptop to find some email addresses I need for a joint project we are working on. I feel some quick thrill in this moment but the power charging through me is unsettling. I know if I lived in Manhattan or L.A., perhaps even Atlanta, this whole event would not be such a big deal. In Durham, however, I sense that we are somehow out of place. And this very fact is partly the reason I stay here. The passage my eyes fall on shortly after the cell phone episode reground me, somehow. Rumi says,
An eye is meant to see things.
The soul is here for its own joy.
A head has one use: For loving a true love.
And I worry, too, about how the ever-changing media is impacting our lives and our relationships with God, with others, with ourselves. One media expert from the weekend I mentioned earlier told us there is the same amount of information on one page of the Sunday New York Times, than someone living in the 17th century would have come across in a lifetime. A blur of television images, a mass of connections in cyber space, a thousand magazine titles in an airport bookstore—what are we gaining from this? How does this vast input help us remember what really matters between people, between people and nature, between this world and the divine? Rumi says,
Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it.
The body itself is a screen to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing inside your presence.
Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.
I have heard people say that the Internet is about relationships. This baffles me. How is it, exactly, that one builds a relationship with someone when you cannot see the curve of their eyes, or hear the inflection of the voice, the awkwardness or grace of a slight movement? Yes, of course, I have exchanges with people over email (and in regular letters, for that matter) that I would not have in person and our relationship has flourished and moved in new directions as a result. But for me these encounters have impact because I already know the person in the flesh, understand some of the pain around their eyes, or how their body reacts to joy.
A month or so ago I had one of those connections that you treasure. Formed in the waning hours of a grand party, I found an ease with someone I’d just met. He asked me the questions people never ask, the ones you find yourself wishing someone would, and fearing they actually will. I talked of turning points in my life and fears I am usually reticent to share. Surrounded by people at the end of the evening and at a loss for how to bring closure, we simply said good night in that way people do when they really mean something else. I was not surprised by the glow that surrounded me in my sleep that night. Aren’t the answers to our most pressing questions and greatest challenges found deep inside, perhaps reflected back to us from the corners of an extraordinary conversation, maybe between the lines of an ancient text? Before sunrise the next morning, as I basked again in the delicious “what” of the encounter. Rumi says,
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
I fear that our attention spans are growing infinitely shorter, in reverse proportion to our intake of images and information. What I’m realizing is that when we are bombarded by the external musings (particularly of people we do not know), it makes it harder to just connect deeply with another human being. We are too distracted to sit still and be present. More and more, I find this is one of the things I value most in myself and in others—this ability to pay attention. The spiritual practice of meditation, which I have come to relish over the past six years, is rooted in the idea that one must empty out constantly to know truth, to touch the spirit, to fill up again with the realities a day presents to us. And Rumi says,
The mystery does not get clearer by repeating the question,
nor is it bought with going to amazing places.
Until you’ve kept your eyes
and your wanting still for fifty years,
you don’t begin to cross over from confusion.
questions for reflection:
* What media sources are present in your regular routine?
* What do they add to your life?
* What do they take away?
The Rumi poems quoted in this Touchstone can be found in The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks (Castle Books, 1995).