Thoughts On Presence
This is an essay I wrote about six years ago for a Tea/Meditation Magazine. If you feel compelled to, please share with us your experiences with practices and or techniques for Presence. I have come to believe that Presence, simply being where you are and nowhere else, is not only one of the more challenging asks in our time but as well one of the most beautiful gifts you can give to another person, as well as to oneself. Enjoy.
Technology, like an exoskeleton, sits in plain view on our persons; an extension of ourselves, but varying in degrees of usefulness and or obsolescence depending on who's metaphorical horns we are talking about. I’ve spent most of my life juggling my relationship with Technology; both wary of it and grateful for it, a bit like a coin toss but wherein me, the user, can decide more often than not which side I’d like the shiny alloy to land. Do I take the antibiotic for this cough, or should I ride this one out and power up on the vitamin C and rest a lot? Should I turn on the air conditioning today or maybe just open the doors and let the outside in? Should I use my laser shooter to stop the two headed reptilian beast barreling towards me or just karate chop his ass and call it a day? Shall I check my phone to see what has appeared in my Instagram feed in the past twenty minutes or maybe read that book that’s been staring at me for the past six months? This last decision is perhaps one of the more perilous ones that we are faced with of late. Not in the specific case of that particular social media outlet, but when confronted by that two faced Janus we all both love to love and hasten to hate…the Internet. (Cue Darth Vadar’s ‘Imperial March’ music!)
The Internet has provided a new kind of dilemma when speaking on the notion of technology. This isn’t the first of it’s kind to rewire our brains, but it is the most convincing of its kind, as an “Intellectual Technology” and is pointing us due south into nothing short of addictive behaviors. Yep. Dammit.
The internet giveth and the internet taketh away.
I am the ripe age of 40; young enough to have processing space for tech developments, wherein I can embrace new shiny modes of transport, but old enough to recall a time when there was space to be bored. I feel almost blessed in a way to have lived half of my life unplugged and half (so far) with three prongs into the grid. In other words, I know what I am missing when I spend too much time on either end of the spectrum. Or to put it another way still, I like to strike a balance between being tuned in and knowingly tuned out. And I know you, reader, know where I am heading with this, being the tea faring crowd. But bear with me a touch longer, and I promise I’ll get to the leaf of the matter. If there is one…
“A lot is at stake in Attention. Where we put it is not only how we decide what we will learn, it is how we show what we value.”
-Sherry Turkle (pg 160) ’Reclaiming Conversation’
Tea came into my life at an amazingly opportune moment, as I am sure it did for most of you. Like a gentle gust of serendipity, it’s simple yet sturdy song crept into my world right at a time when I had begun taking meditation more seriously. I had made the decision to do so because I was starting to get the sense that certain elements of my inner experience were beginning to (or perhaps I was just noticing them) fragment. For want of a better term. My attentions seemed to be starting to structure a little too much like the way the Internet was structured. Like a web, but not the kind we imagine right away, backlit in morning sun with supple drops of dew glistening on the silk. No, my attentions were more akin to the web you find behind the garage or under the house; erratic and formless, leaving one wondering if they'd even want to encounter who or what designed it.
Tea took its time to really penetrate my daily routine though. I would banter with it and enjoyed our talks and our silences, but I was slow to dive deeper. I felt like the extended family around me had that covered. The vast and swift enthusiasm for this new friend almost brought an inner contrarian out of me. Like the band that all your friends are raving about that you rolled your eyes at until the moment you got them to yourself on a long drive and finally “got it”, Tea eventually sang to me in a way that I desperately needed. And after years of enjoying the ritual, the fine craftsmanship, the history, the stories, the conversations, the silence, and yes, the divine flavors, I have come to realize this morning that Tea has almost proved itself a psychic avatar or sorts, arriving precisely at the moment when it was needed most. When I was alarmingly close to falling into that cobweb, soon to be cocooned into an inescapable melange of blogs, opinions, weather reports, and cat videos. Though that last distraction, I’ll defend to the death. Once Tea did have it’s soft claws in me though, I began noticing how my other friend, the Internet, kept tugging my attentions away from hot water and leaves. My want to check my phone became a little like a phantom menace of sorts. And I started to feel the way that friends who were trying to quit smoking had described to me. I was tethered in a sense, and the cord was widening, stronger with each tug. So, here was something quietly and successfully drawing neural maps alongside something that was gracefully and slowly making maps of its own. One leading me into presence and mindfulness, one fragmenting my attentions and making it harder and harder to remain present. But what does a lad do when the problem also offers so much hope of connectivity? Practice, young Jedi. Practice. Practice mindfulness, attention, presence. Practice using the technology more constructively and less as a mechanism for idling. For “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop…”, or so they say. I actually just chuckled at myself that a Bible verse crept its way into my spiel. But now that we are speaking about the Divine, I may as well mention that in my experience, Presence, Attentiveness, and Clarity are the closest I’ve felt to God. Or to my experience of It, I should say. I’m not a religious person and I’d even go as far as to say that my ideas of God don't fit neatly into any section of the bookshelf just yet. I’m inspired to draw my own maps herein, and practicing Presence and Attentiveness has been the best way for me to do so. Music is born of silence in my experience. Which has a pang of irony being that it requires so much noise to arrive at an end result with song craft. All that big said, I have had some of my proudest moments as a songwriter in the presence of Tea and Silence.
So, Brandon, what’s your point? Well, whoever you are that just asked that question, I’m not sure I have one. Other than I find our plight technologically speaking quite fascinating as it pertains to our Culture. We seem to be at an interesting crossroads where that proverbial collective exoskeleton could engulf us completely, leaving us as something akin to a creature H.R. Giger might dream up. Perhaps worse, or maybe nothing that bad at all, just different than we know. Once again I don't know and won’t claim to. But I will say that much can be learned from the past. It seems almost axiomatic to assume that because something is new that it is better. I know the tendency to want to believe that as well as anyone. But this isn't always the case. Sometimes, echoes from the past arrive at wonderfully opportune moments in the most unexpected places to remind us of things worth remembering. In this case, Presence as a practice and true connectivity over the illusion thereof.
I don’t want this piece to be seen as a diatribe against technology. I am fascinated by technology and I believe in it. But something that being mindful on occasion has taught me is that there is never JUST a good idea. There are always unintended consequences. Sometimes those are amazing and unexpected gifts and sometimes they look like nuclear meltdowns. But the acknowledgment of both sides of the coin before tossing it, while it’s spinning in the air and the moment before you read the outcome, is both wise and necessary. I’ll leave you with one more quote from Sherry Turkle’s book ‘Reclaiming Conversation. The Power of Talk in the Digital Age’. A read that drew me inexorably into the simple realization that, for me, Tea is the most effortless and graceful gift of our day and age.
“This is our paradox. When we are apart: hyper-vigilance. When we are together: inattention.”
Imagine all that we’ve learned from this millennia old ritual of leaves and water, silence and presence, and I challenge you to NOT agree with me, Tea Geeks, that Tea is the perfect medicine for the age of the Internet.
Thanks and Cheers,