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End of Absence?

--by Michael Harris (Mar 09, 2015)


As we embrace a technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return — the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvellous service. We don’t notice, for example, that the gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we’re too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed. Why would we bother to register the end of solitude, of ignorance, of lack?

The more I thought about this seismic shift in our lives — our rapid movement toward online experience and away from rarer, concrete things —the more I wanted to understand the nature of the experience itself. How does it feel to live through our own Gutenberg moment? How does it feel to be the only people in history to know life with and without the Internet?

And if we work hard enough to understand this massive game changer, and then name the parts of the new game we want to go along with and the parts we don’t, can we then pack along some critical aspect of our earlier lives that those technologies would otherwise strip from us? Or will we forget forever the value of that lack and instead see only a collection of gains? It’s hard to remember what we loved about absence; we never ask for our deprivation back.

To understand our unique predicament, and understand how to win ourselves those best possible lives, we need to root out answers in every corner of our experience. But the questions we need to ask at each juncture remain as simple as they are urgent: What will we carry forward? And what worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind?

The answer to that second question was painfully clear as I sat at my little beige desk in the offices of Vancouver magazine. What I’d left behind was absence. As a storm of digital dispatches hammered at the wall of my computer screen, I found myself desperate for sanctuary. I wanted a long and empty wooden desk where I could get some real work done. I wanted a walk in the woods with nobody to meet. I wanted release from the migraine-scale pressure of constant communication, the ping-ping-ping of perma-messaging, the dominance of communication over experience.

Somehow I’d left behind my old quiet life. And now I wanted it back.

Michael Harris is a contributing editor at Vancouver magazine and Western Living. His writing has been published by Salon, Huffington Post, The Globe & Mail,The National Post, and The Walrus, and has been nominated several times at the Western and National Magazine Awards.  Above is an excerpt form his latest book, End of Absence

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On Mar 11, 2015 Sonia wrote:

 At my first Awakin Circle, I was anxious about putting my phone on airplane mode. What if it still rang or made noise? Then I would be interrupting everyone who was here for one hour of silent meditation. Clearly, I had never put my phone on airplane mode outside of being in an airplane. But, the joy I felt at my phone's absence in the next three hours of silence, sharing, and eating a meal together! The digital marketer finally put her phone on airplane mode for three hours, and it was a blessing. 



On Mar 10, 2015 Adam Morris wrote:

Profitability is the established measure of success, so productivity is subsequently cherished.  There is a competition to find talented people to ensure this productivity, and subsequently to be talented and develop our kids to be “successful”, talented people.  Technology has been cultivated to facilitate this.   But then, it gets overwhelming, so for my recovery, I use technology to surf the web, watch youtube, facebook, whatever - which is about as mindless as watching TV - and this sort of vegging keeps me locked in another frame of mind, and doesn’t help me return to just being.   There is a huge difference when I am fully present in my day.  When I am present, I find there is no need for solitude.  The moment unfolds naturally, more in tune.  If only this happened more often!  It’s both people and technology and this incessant pings of distractions where my mind is trying to do too much at once, that dist  See full.

Profitability is the established measure of success, so productivity is subsequently cherished.  There is a competition to find talented people to ensure this productivity, and subsequently to be talented and develop our kids to be “successful”, talented people.  Technology has been cultivated to facilitate this.
 
But then, it gets overwhelming, so for my recovery, I use technology to surf the web, watch youtube, facebook, whatever - which is about as mindless as watching TV - and this sort of vegging keeps me locked in another frame of mind, and doesn’t help me return to just being.
 
There is a huge difference when I am fully present in my day.  When I am present, I find there is no need for solitude.  The moment unfolds naturally, more in tune.  If only this happened more often!  It’s both people and technology and this incessant pings of distractions where my mind is trying to do too much at once, that distracts from this continuity.  The “value of lack”, to me, means the space needed let this presence find its way back to me.
 
I believe technology, business processes, and our recovery can be developed to encourage being ourselves, instead of being caught up in it all.  We just to articulate the value of it, and our focus to develop it will follow.

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On Mar 10, 2015 Abhishek wrote:

 I recently completed a 10-day Vipassina retreat, where we were weaned off all technology. To me, it was a delightful experience - and it made me realize how technology keeps me on the edge, always. It keeps me jumpy....almost always keeping me in the alert zone even when I don't need to be.

To me absence really is a periodic withdrawal from everything 'outside' and attending to the Now.....the reason it is periodic and not constant is obviously the habitual tendencies of the mind that keep acting up.....

As for sanctuaries I was recently considering having a small passage written by me, as a sanctuary, a place to stand and look at the world from.....rather than a physical space, to me, a certain 'paradigm' or mindset feels more like a sanctuary that I can carry with me.



On Mar 10, 2015 Ximena wrote:

 So nicely put, thank you so much I just realized something I obviously know but never really thought about deep enought to understand completely.  I am from a generation that did not have technology and I am young enough to use it but our children, I am talking about the one's living in developed countries of course, they do not know what it is to live without technology... ahhh parents do need to pay much more attention, be much more alert as the strangers are inside the house... so much to think about when it comes to the children of today. Thanks!



On Mar 8, 2015 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:

 Incorporating absence means taking time to just be. To be without technology or being plugged in. To sit and meditate or just sit and be. I have felt in a sanctuary when I allow myself to take time to be and reflect and not be plugged into internet or phone or TV but to be plugged into self, surroundings whatever those surroundings are. For example, today I decided to walk rather than take the bus to my destination for brunch in DC. (I do this often, walking rather than using public transport) and it's an opportunity even in a city to just be. I didn't listen to any music. I simply walked. Listening to traffic, birds in trees, my feet hitting the pavement, my breathing. It felt cleansing, even in the midst of the city. It helped that it was a beautiful Springlike day today too. I also walked home and on a whim, decided to stop at a friend's house to hug her and just sit with her on her front porch which is across the street from a park. We sat and talked and enjoyed the sun on o  See full.

 Incorporating absence means taking time to just be. To be without technology or being plugged in. To sit and meditate or just sit and be. I have felt in a sanctuary when I allow myself to take time to be and reflect and not be plugged into internet or phone or TV but to be plugged into self, surroundings whatever those surroundings are. For example, today I decided to walk rather than take the bus to my destination for brunch in DC. (I do this often, walking rather than using public transport) and it's an opportunity even in a city to just be. I didn't listen to any music. I simply walked. Listening to traffic, birds in trees, my feet hitting the pavement, my breathing. It felt cleansing, even in the midst of the city. It helped that it was a beautiful Springlike day today too. I also walked home and on a whim, decided to stop at a friend's house to hug her and just sit with her on her front porch which is across the street from a park. We sat and talked and enjoyed the sun on our faces. Unplugging from internet & phone, walking rather than a car or public transport are 2 small ways to feel in sanctuary and a little bit of absence. Being in nature definitely helps. I do my best to create an unplugged sanctuary for part of every weekend, sometimes I do it for an entire or more than 24 hours, lovely!

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On Mar 7, 2015 david doane wrote:

Sometimes I have a whole day, and less often a whole weekend, where I don't leave my home and yard.  Those are times of incorporating absence into my life, and I love those times.  The Buddha said, don't just do something, stand there.  Standing there is precious.  For me, the important thing is to stay in control of technology rather than be controlled by it, and that's very difficult given how we are immersed in technology.  The historian Arnold Toynbee said something like the twentieth century was a battle between technology and personhood -- the battle goes on in the twenty first century and I think personhood is losing.  I don't think of absence as deprivation.  Absence is fullness of stillness.  Similarly, meditation isn't deprivation, it's filling one's self with the emptiness of quiet presence.  I agree that it's important to root ourselves in our experience, which to me means rooting ourselves in our inside, not our outside.   See full.

Sometimes I have a whole day, and less often a whole weekend, where I don't leave my home and yard.  Those are times of incorporating absence into my life, and I love those times.  The Buddha said, don't just do something, stand there.  Standing there is precious.  For me, the important thing is to stay in control of technology rather than be controlled by it, and that's very difficult given how we are immersed in technology.  The historian Arnold Toynbee said something like the twentieth century was a battle between technology and personhood -- the battle goes on in the twenty first century and I think personhood is losing.  I don't think of absence as deprivation.  Absence is fullness of stillness.  Similarly, meditation isn't deprivation, it's filling one's self with the emptiness of quiet presence.  I agree that it's important to root ourselves in our experience, which to me means rooting ourselves in our inside, not our outside.  I need for my inner experience to be my home base, my sanctuary, that I am firmly rooted in, so I can be in this technology world but not of it.

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On Mar 6, 2015 Rajesh wrote:

In my case, I noticed that I was leaving behind my daughter's childhood. Sitting in front of a digital device (laptop, PC, iPad, iPhone etc.) is an exclusive experience and it excludes interaction with other human beings, unless they themselves are online.

With young children, the choices are stark and either/or in nature. Either you spend time on your device, which is taking time away from your child or you set aside that digital device and be fully present with your child. Of course we can let the child have their own exclusive digital experience so that we can have yours. IMHO that is the most damaging of all.