Ridding ourselves of the dust of the world

By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated September 20, 2009 12:00 AM

My inbox is always full. I like to read messages early in the day and spend a great deal of time answering them. Still, I am unable to respond to everyone who gets in touch. It can get quite overwhelming. Messages stream almost non-stop throughout the day. There are urgent matters that must be attended to ASAP, and there are letters that I want to write to loved ones which, though not urgent, are nevertheless important.

Throughout the day, I get a lot of texts, and the alarm it makes raises my excitement level somewhat. The ringing of my cell phone has the same effect.

Then there are meetings, interviews, rehearsals, chores that scream for attention non-stop. Sometimes I wish I could just close my e-mail account, or select all the read and unread e-mails and simply trash them and start anew. Or lose my phone so that no one can call me, and that would give me the excuse for not showing up.

The world can get crazy. The speed of events can run me to the ground. That’s how I sometimes feel at the end of the day. To make matters worse, there are times when the preoccupations of the last few hours stick in my mind and engage me almost ceaselessly long after they have transpired. Even in the privacy and solitude of my room, I am still in the thick of things. My mind won’t let go.

I have learned a few techniques to counter this but I have yet to practice them consistently every day. These days, I am happy to be able to muster the discipline of once again sitting silent for 25 minutes in the morning before I face the world. When I sit, I build up a reserve of equanimity that helps prevent me from flying off the handle, getting impatient or becoming restless. It anchors me, makes me rooted so I don’t get lost as I go about my day amid the “dust of the world,” as a Zen writer calls the concerns in life that tug at us.

This “dust of the world” is what plagues modern living. The inventors of gadgets like cell phones, the Internet, social networking and the like must have felt that the idea of connecting people and helping disseminate ideas would be a good thing. And I think it is, if only our virtual lives didn’t make so many demands on our real lives.

The daily cycle that has ruled the lives of human beings has been destroyed by these new interventions. Whereas before, our day ended when we got home from work, now, with the Internet, our days have no beginning and no end. The cycle simply goes on and on. The technology that was supposed to make life easier has made slaves of us all, responding 24/7 since we are almost always reachable.

Many people see most of modernity as something good. We have certainly come a long way since the wheel, the automobile, even airplanes, and there is a lot to be thankful for. But I believe that modern man must develop a way to control modernity, and not have it control us. For what are all the freedom and choices that modernity offers if we don’t use it for our own good?

“Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category,” wrote Theodor Adorno, a philosopher who has a lot to say about the subject. We must be intelligent enough to run the wheel instead of being run over by it.

The very fact that the speed of our lives is faster than ever must all the more remind us to step on the brakes periodically in order to remain safe and sane. A lot of modern life is about “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent…” wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Like the throwaway bottles of water, or the packaging that goes with fast food, we may actually choose to live with less of them.

That is only one half of the solution. The other solution is to involve ourselves and commit to more artful living.

I am suggesting that there must be time for music, reading, laughter, friendship, love and solitude — activities that, when fully engaged in, can get us out of the 24/7 mode and put us in the present, or the timeless. This is where we get our dose of the “eternal and the immovable.” No multi-tasking. No disintegration. Just flow. Unfortunately, for most people, these are the first things that go when the cell phone rings.

I often kid my friends who work in media and jobs that make them sleep-deprived that they should always bring a copy of the Constitution to show their bosses that it contains no provisions for slavery.

I once saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel about two working girls in New York who gave up their Madison Avenue jobs, the nice apartment, the fast life, and went to live in India for a year. They took the crowded trains, lived among the poor in all their squalor, and took in the beauty and the mystery that India projects especially to the Western bred. And they were surprised at how much they loved it and called it the best experience of their lives.

I know a lot of people who have thought of getting away from their busy lives to find a simpler, more essential, and freer existence. But they are prevented from going for it not only by the economics involved but more so because of how society views success, duty and responsibility. It takes special type of people to turn their backs on all that and take the plunge into the big pool of the unknown to “find” themselves.

For us ordinary creatures, we would do well by simply engaging in the humble practice of quieting down and meditating as a form of daily spiritual “bathing” to rid ourselves of the dust of the world, and prepare ourselves to face another challenging day.