It is perhaps ironic that I just acquired my first smartphone (a friend who was being upgraded to a spanking new iPhone by work was able to offer me her old one) at exactly the time that everyone is starting to preach doom and gloom about Apple.
Perhaps because I was at Tassajara as the first wave of smartphones came in, and was still relatively secluded at Zen Center for most of the following decade; perhaps because I didn’t feel that I wanted my limited money to be spent on expensive data plans; perhaps because I have had a life-long aversion to talking on the telephone (I am fine with video calls as the visual cues are more reassuring for me) – in any case I never felt entranced by the possibility offered by them.
When I became director of City Center, I was urged to get a phone so that people could be in touch with me, and my then-assistant offered me an old flip phone that I continued to use for texting and occasional calls until last week. I remember being annoyed at this presumption of availability, typified by receiving a call from a senior person saying the boiler in one of the buildings wasn’t working, just as I was about to arrive at Green Gulch for a meeting, and having to say, well I can’t do anything about it from here, can you go and find the building manager?
I have set up ‘my’ ‘new’ phone with a very limited number of apps; most particularly I realised that it helps people attending my roams, either via Meetup, or Airbnb, to be able to reach me at the start point without my needing to disseminate my phone number widely.
I am very aware of how people know exactly how much less they need to use their phones, but are reluctant to take any active steps toward that, unless forced to by geography. Most weekends I am at Wilbur, I remind the participants in my meditation sessions to notice how little they miss being connected; in my recent visits to Tassajara, I have tracked how people respond to being driven out over the road towards a signal: buzzes and rings start happening once we get to Little Bear’s ranch, with people saying, “I’ll wait until I am in my car at Jamesburg,” or “I’ll wait until I get home,” or “I don’t want to look at anything until tomorrow,” or “I will only text my son right now, everyone else can wait.” And then we all get sucked back into the same vortex.
It seems that part of what I can teach, in concert with meditation and cultivating attention to the present moment, is a sense of discernment about what actually matters in life. I love being able to text my friends – and because of my limited adaptation to the technology, pretty much everybody I get texts from are people I look forward to hearing from – and I can generally do well without continuous electronic stimulus. To paraphrase Dogen in ways that I often do, everything out there is manifesting enlightened activity, it seems a shame not to join in.
In any case, I was heartened by some of the comments that accompanied this article, which was the spur to this piece of writing:
“The next wave of innovation is psychological. It is people turning away from trinkets like the ones mentioned in this article and toward more connection with themselves, lovers and friends. It is already happening and it is a very affordable trend.” – “We need an all-out battle against climate change. Toys are optional.” – This one reminded me of Kodo Sawaki’s and Kosho Uchiyama’s ‘sesshin without toys’, challenging us to be strong enough to continue paying attention without recourse to simply distracting ourselves.
Being old enough to remember when a phone meant an object with a rotary dial sitting on a hallway table, and when car phones were a slightly dubious novelty, I am tempted to wish for this current phase, which is after all, only a decade long, to be something of a mania, after which we will settle into a more balanced way of doing things. And I will still be reading a book on my commute, with my phone staying in my bag.