Instant is not now

December 23, 2010

So it’s that time of year again – December crawls to a close and a new year looms just beyond an enormous mound of mince pies, bad tv and terminal flatulence.

There’s something strange about the arrival of a “new year” – after all, it’s just another day but one with a randomly assigned new label on it. The switch from “2010” to “2011” means nothing apart from the fact that we’re all – I suspect mostly without exception – sitting around thinking about how we’re going to get fit, how we’re going to rise in our careers, how we’re going to make our fortunes, be better people, or otherwise seek out happiness. But not until the 1st, right? Then things will be betterwhen I get fitter, when I win the lottery, when I land that new job, when I’m nicer to my kids…

A near constant putting-off is the modern way.

I’m spending a fair amount of time reading about Buddhism at the moment, either directly through the works of people like Stephen Batchelor or indirectly through writers like Eckhart Tolle. The interesting thing for me is that all of these approaches have a very clear practical and not-dissimilar direction of travel to them. They all – yoga, Tai Chi, Zen, the writings of Tolle – have at their heart a focus on self, awareness and balance. They also all – importantly – point the consciousness towards “the now”, encouraging practitioners to move away from the memory of the past or projection into the future and instead focus on the present moment.

The thing is that as Westerners, we’re pretty much entirely programmed to not think this way. We’re really bad at stopping, looking around us and taking in what we have here and now without thinking “just a little bit further – THEN it’ll all be much better” : this just seems to be how we think.

This makes the ever-increasing arrival of INSTANT EVERYTHING an interesting proposition. You’t think on first glance that INSTANT is NOW. Actually, and as someone who spends his life being distracted by – well, pretty much everything on the internet (and many things off it..) – I know this isn’t the case. In fact I’d go so far as to say that there isn’t a more powerful opponent to true now thinking than INSTANT EVERYTHING.

INSTANT EVERYTHING promises you the time you need to live your life – but what it actually does is to splinter your thoughts and attention into a million different directions. Quiet time – without it being set aside as being special – becomes punctuated with tweets, blog posts, pop-ups, emails, phone calls, IM messages – a million miles away from the true now.

Being overwhelmed by life (particularly, but not only, technology) isn’t new, but we’re far from having an answer. Ultimately, it is about self-control and discipline. I have no intention for example of turning off my Twitter account – I tried that before – but at the same time I don’t think I have got to anything resembling a balance. I’m not 100% signed up to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (and he was disappointingly unconvincing when I saw him speak) but I do think he has a point. When you get to the stage that you can’t read a book without tweeting about it, can’t have a conversation without looking something up on Wikipedia, can’t walk down the road without sending a picture to Posterous – then things are probably getting a little bit out of hand.

So for 2011, I’m planning on doing a little bit less, and seeking out the quiet a little bit more. Nothing radical, just a gentle tipping of the balance. I suspect – judging by the conversations I have with many of my friends – I may not be alone.

Have a goodun.

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