I have been focused on how the situation affects our behaviour beyond our intentions and dispositions as I continue to widen my understanding of using the web for education.
In my teaching I have been exploring the ways in which we can train our attention beyond the habitual – how to access what Francisco Varela called the Blind spot of cognitive science,
“I maintain that there is an irreducible core to the quality of experience that needs to be explored with a method. In other words, the problem is not that we don’t know enough about the brain or about biology, the problem is that we don’t know enough about experience… We have had a blind spot in the West for that kind of methodical approach, which I would now describe as a more straightforward phenomenological method. … Everybody thinks they know about experience, I claim we don’t.” Francisco Varela
I met Francisco at Schumacher College in the UK a year before his death. We talked as we walked by the river near the college and our conversations are imprinted in my mind to this day. He was a wise man, a buddhist, an academic, but most of all a warm and kind man who one could speak to easily.
After many years, I am coming back full circle to his work. It is helping me bring a secular way to describe to a wider audience what I live each day in my buddhist practice. As I help students find resources for their final papers, I come across a website with a list of publications by David Levy – the author of Mindful Tech.
I respect David’s work and his book was a joy to read, but the publication page gave us access to so much more. I was lost in it for some time…not just for my students, but for my own learning.
The contemplative construction of reality is a new theoretical framework for me. It is to be contrasted with the idea of the social construction of reality – used far too often to push an agenda of forced connection in education via the internet. It has given me a framework within which to position my current work in online insight dialogue and the use of contemplative pedagogies in online education.
What follows are reflections on how my own thinking has been challenged by what I have been reading and how these reflections are re-shaping my view of life online for both personal and educational purposes.
This post emerged from the list of publications by David Levy mentioned earlier; but as is the joy of the internet I have meandered in many other spaces with wonderful resources to help me shape this post.
When I came across the idea that those of us using contemplative pedagogies in our teaching are tackling distraction one student at a time, it made me smile. We are born to interruption, attention we must cultivate (Jackson, 2008). We cultivate attention in order to gain a more accurate description of our experience, as Varela suggests.
Adelman (2014) on the idea of the contemplative construction of reality in contrast with social construction,
“The ways in which our reality is constructed are highly relevant to embedding contemplative practices into our intellectual and popular climate. A major perspective in explaining how we perceive reality is the concept of the “social construction of reality” that privileges communication (including mass media) as the major channel for creating shared meaning.” Mara Adelman
A paper written by Sandra Braman ‘When nightingales break the law: silence and the construction of reality’. The paper names something I experience regularly online and that has been extensively studied in cognitive psychology and media studies – how the relation between background and foreground gets lost as we invest on certain aspects of reality being more valuable than others,
“Strikingly, theorizing about digital technologies has led us to recognize many habitual subjects of research as figures against fields that are also worthy of study. Communication, for example, becomes visible only against the field of silence. Silence is critically important for the construction of reality – and the social construction of reality has a complement, the also necessary contemplative construction of reality. The story has already been told that nightingales in London now have to sing so loudly in order to be heard above the ambient noise that the birds are in danger of breaking the noise ordinance law. Surely something has gone awry if nightingales break the law when they sing. Finding ways to protect silence as an arena of personal and social choice is a particularly poignant, evocative, and instructive ethical and policy horizon at this frontier moment for the human species.”
This, of course, takes us right back to McLuhan and his ideas in Understanding Media. The importance of a dialectical understanding of reality. The foreground becomes the background becomes the foreground…ad infinitum. Yet, this way of seeing the world is also something we have to cultivate and not something easily seen as we rush around life with its thirst for easy answers to enable faster movement.
“The dialectical perspective is grounded in the notion that we need to examine contrary perspectives that appear as opposites but, in fact, vacillate in nature. Like a tightrope, these “oppositions” are held in tension and only momentarily resolved.” Mara Abelman
I live this daily in formal meditation practice and yet I still find it difficult to transfer this understanding to daily experience. The illusion of permanent resolution is so seductive. Years of cultivating impermanence in meditation have yet to bear fruit for me to find ease with the idea so powerfully expressed by Zeynep Tufekci at a recent conference: ‘Is it good or is it bad? Yes.’ Humans so crave certainty.
We must find ways to protect silence and cultivate attention. What fascinates me is the idea that we may need to become ‘advocates of silence and contemplation’ in a world that has foregrounded the opposite for far too long. This bring me full circle to David Levy.
He describes himself as such an advocate, as a kind of ‘contemplation activist’ if that is not a contradiction in terms. In exploring his work, I learnt about Barbara McClintock who judged core to her method the need for time to just be with her subject – the corn plant! She was devoted to the genetic study of maize and felt that, in part, the reason for her success was due to her ability to develop a ‘feeling for the organism’. David Levy tells us that 25 years ago she said that modern life precluded such a contemplative stance, where she felt students had little time to just look, listen and think.
I have known about Vannenvar Bush (1890-1974) for a long time now. I never knew he had made the Time Magazine cover though, but I digress. In his famous article in The Atlantic ‘As we may think’ Bush says: “the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of the data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine.” The machine was to help us, to augment what made us unique, not to destroy it. He talked about how ‘we could automate routine aspects to enable mature thought – for mature thought there is no mechanical substitute’. Levy highlights the fact that as far back as 1945, there was concern about thought being ‘bogged down as specialisation extends’ and about there being less time to think than ever before. This made me stop. In 1945 we were saying the same things about distraction and information overload as we are saying today. Bush’s idea of the memex was intended to help us with this very problem.
“A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.” Vannevar Bush
David Levy asks in one of his lectures: ‘What happened? What went wrong? What happened to this vision?’ I certainly do not always feel the internet is an ‘enlarged intimate supplement’ to my memory. And most definitely not when using social media. I can use the internet in this way when I engage in the contemplative construction of reality – I switch off the social side and find myself in silence, with no notifications, working with an intentional awareness process: I suspend habit in the sense of ‘hanging out in front’ attentionally (usually the habit of switching Twitter on), I redirect my attention (usually the attention away from the machine and to my breathing) and I let go of the habit to choose a new behaviour (as I find myself laughing at myself as I note the almost incontrollable feeling to click that Twitter bookmark) I go around this cycle a few times, and eventually I settle to a new habit – silence and associative trails. We are born to interruption and must cultivate attention. Indeed.
Meanderings lead to somebody else new to me. Joseph Pieper (1904-1997). A German philosopher after the war. His book ‘Leisure: The basis of culture’ was published 2 years after the Atlantic article, David Levy is my source here too. Think about this – it is 1947: Pieper tells us: ‘the world of work is becoming our entire world: it threatens to engulf us completely’ it threatens to make ‘a total claim upon the whole of human nature.’ We will soon have, he warns in 1947, no place for ‘true unconfined humanity’. We need a ‘space of freedom, of true learning, of attunement to the world-as-a-whole’ or we will become ‘just a worker’. I guess, we have become just a worker.
Do we even understand what Pieper meant by ‘true unconfined humanity’ any more?
It is appropriate for us to act in the world, and it is also appropriate to ‘attune to the world as a whole’. There is a directionality here that, I fear, we mostly miss today. We need to be in receptive mode, not on permanent send as social media demands from us to allow us to exist in the network.
Pieper praises the value of leisure to find this receptive attentional direction: ‘Leisure is the preserve of freedom, of education and culture, and of that undiminished humanity that views the world as a whole’. I remember reading Freire and Horton’s book ‘We make the road by walking’ recently. Freire talks about this, but offers paradox. When we speak of fragmentation, he muses with Horton, there is a presupposition that there is a whole that is fragmented. In order to perceive this fragmentation, we must have some sense of the whole that is fragmented. We must cultivate attention to enable us to be in the kind of receptive state that helps us see the whole, that ground behind the figure of the moment I referred to earlier.
Pieper defines leisure as the way of being that gives us the ‘form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality. Only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear.’ David Levy suggests that Pieper sees leisure as quietening the mind rather than a ‘charging around trying to do something to the world’. I loved that I found out that the meaning of SCHOLE is based on this idea of leisure. So school, scholar, scholarship are supposed to be about developing this ‘stillness that is necessary for accepting reality’. Creating a still place to engage with the materials, to get a ‘feel for the organism’.
I now go back further to the distinction between ratio and intellectus from the latin, meaning ‘discursive thought’ and ‘simply looking as truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye.’ Levy comments that this is not something we can make happen, or force, but it is something we can create the conditions for by quietening mind chatter. Easier said than done these days, as we all know. Mind Chatter, or what in buddhism we call the monkey mind, is a mode of mind that, Levy remind us, ‘is in the boundary of the conscious and the unconscious and we need to learn to train mind to quieten’ to access this boundary. We are born to interruption, but must cultivate attention. Mind chatter is the frontier.
A most interesting idea I found in Levy’s work was the idea of recurring crises of acceleration.
This is something I want to go back and research some more. He suggests that we have been grappling with acceleration as a problem for human attention for the last 200 hundred years, at least. Each crisis has given birth to a symptomatic solution. The 19th century brought the crisis railroad management and led to the rise of the corporation. The 1920’s brought on the crisis that we were producing more goods than we needed and gave rise to advertising as a solution for making us consume more than we needed. What I found fascinating was learning that at this time there was dialogue (or at least some discussion) between different groups; some suggested that slowing production was what made sense, whilst others suggested we had to figure out how to get people to buy more. We now know how those conversations ended. The third crisis Levy sees is what he labels our current ‘information environmental crisis’ which has given rise to technology as a control mechanism. Levy quotes Eriksen in his book ‘The tyranny of the moment’: ‘Fast time always wins’ and this is not great news for a particular kind of thinking – intellectus or what Bush called mature thinking.
This idea is not new. It has been tackled in many ways in different disciplines. Guy Claxton talked about the hare brain and the tortoise mind, suggesting we were becoming a world of articulate incompetents, simply repeating pre-rehearsed ideas as the hare brain was not being fed by the tortoise mind. Life as performance. Again, not great news for the kind of thinking that enables the new to emerge. Where are we preparing the ground for mature thought – leisure in the original sense – given that we cannot force it but can only create the conditions for it? Levy himself suggests that there are very few places left in life where this kind of thought is even understood.
Fast always wins unless we make inconvenient choices.
The world needs advocates for contemplation – leisure, intellectus, mature thought, tortoise mind…we certainly have been great at labelling the kind of thought we need, if not at making the inconvenient (non-economic) choices we need in order to nourish it.
Levy uses the analogy of the environment to suggest we are suffering from this ‘Informational Environmental Crisis’ where we need to nurture spaces for silence and sanctuary. How do we preserve our inner environment? This is similar to Adelman’s and Braman’s work discussed earlier; how do we find ways to protect silence as an area of personal and social choice?
Levy’s argument is that we may be able to learn from environmentalism and use its framework to be contemplation advocates. How do we get the idea of an informational environmental crisis to the point of public debate? How do we honour the vision of the original thinkers of the internet? Social activism for the environment can offer some insight.
We can keep on raising awareness of the nature and extent of the problem. It is a non-trivial matter that we have forgotten that there is more to life than acceleration. It is a political matter that our institutions only want our outputs without consideration or reward for the processes that get us to those outputs.
We can attend to the design of physical environments that have a contemplative ethos; supporting our local libraries could be a way into this idea. And why oh why do we keep on accepting open desk areas at work in the name of the ‘social’ when the ‘solitary’ gets neglected?
Thirdly, Levy suggests that we can design contemplative virtual environments, how can we find sanctuary in cyberspace, he asks? My work on the Still Web advocates for this, but finding support for it has not been easy and it is an entirely voluntary project; finding volunteers and money for projects that encourage the social and sell technological solutionism is by far easier.
I have been concerned with what I have called the virtual landfills of our online life for a long time. It may be true that we can keep storing ad infinitum, but at what cognitive cost? Is our mind chatter the inner equivalent of our physical landfills? ‘Just because we can’ as a strategy for progress has got us into great environmental trouble. May be it is time to change that strategy to a wiser: should we? And in order to ask these kind of questions we need our intellectus working and the right environment for it to thrive in.
Finally, Levy suggests that we develop information practices that are contemplative. His own work on mindful technology offers an action inquiry methodology to develop this practice. He tackles distraction one student at a time as each experiments with how they use technology and decide what and how they want to change over a semester of dedicated attention. I work with my own students to engage intentionally with technology in the same way. They do make discoveries and change their relationship to technology. Yet, I consistently hear that the demands on their time makes it impossible for them to make these changes in a sustainable manner. Our world does not support the contemplative construction of reality and choosing this life has a cost. Maybe it is time to pay the cost in order to regain our right to leisure?
Finding balance between ratio and intellectus feels impossible. Yet, after reading these authors, I feel a renewed need to continue to fight for it. The intellectus is developed in environments where we feel as if we are receiving a gift! Where we are more passive than active. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that we have cut out of our lives a dimension that is essential for human flourishing, in the service of economics. Claxton expressed this with the idea that without the tortoise mind to feed it new ideas, the hare brain simply runs around in circles very effectively and productively, but never jumping out of habit.
Dialectically, social and contemplative practices can oscillate, feeding into each other, as a cycle of activity and respite; a pulse for everyday life. Mara Adelman
Just as at the birth of advertising there were those arguing for slowing down production and they lost, the tortoise mind is losing to the hare brain. Greed is the cause. If we ‘slow down to the modem’ there are monetary consequences as well as social ones. I unpacked this argument at length in my book “Lived Time: Life beyond clock time”. It is easier to anthropomorphise the clock and blame it for my lack of time, than it is to look in the mirror and see that I have no time because of the life choices I make each day. The tortoise mind has economic implications. We cannot have it all, no matter what the quantified self movement tries to sell us. I submit that we will not change direction now, even though we know the long term consequences of staying the course are dire for our well being.
Even so, I want to dedicate the rest of my days to tackling distraction one person at a time. I choose silence and reclaim my right to leisure each day. It is hard, and rebalancing means saying no. Eriksen tells us: every decision we make has to include as much as it excludes. Trying to include it all, is what has got us here.
Chris Perrin in ‘School as Schole’ says that in days gone by ‘work’ was defined as ‘a-schole’. This meant ‘not-leisure’. The greeks privileged leisure not work! Can we even imagine a life lived like this today?
What I have discovered in learning about the contemplative construction of reality, is that there are researchers deeply embedded in something other than what David Loy calls the religion of the market. These people are looking at new practices, deeper structures in what situations afford, can see the dialectical nature of life and sit with the temporary nature of any resolution.
An internet designed in the service of the click economy and ratio, seeks only to collude with the imaginary myth that computers are the medium that will subsume life as we know it. Technology will give us that permanent resolution.
I rather think that a technology other than the internet will come to foreground what it now backgrounds and our place in that life will be fundamentally changed yet again. My wish for us all is that we find the humility and willingness to cultivate our attention to notice and change the habits that are harming us, just as corporations create products that bring out the worst in us all in lieu of money.
If we do not find the courage to change, then may be the future will simply be the word without us.
Wendy Chun tells that ‘we embody the obsolete’ and the we live in an a-historic world where the algorithm stands for ‘reality’ and where homophily is seen as the only way that groups come together. We now live in the habit of liking and echo chambers. This expressed so powerfully to me the need to cultivate attention and to make unconscious habit something we become aware of – how else will we change the way we approach technology and life? Right now we embody an internet of mass surveillance where the few, making nothing but tools of surveillance, profit from our content and ideas. We take this as the way things are. Why? Because we have forgotten how to develop the kind of thinking that helps us see beyond what the mainstream foregrounds, the intellectus; that receptive seeing of the whole beyond making a quick buck or getting that quick Like.
We think that ratio will do it, just more faster. Why bother to examine what we take for granted? Ain’t nobody got time for that. We blame time for this, forgetting that how we use our time each day, is our life.
“And I’ve come to see another basic truth: that our time is our life. As Miles Davis said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” How we construct and use our time, in the end, defines the texture and quality of our existence. To seize control over the structure of one’s time is my own definition of what it means […] to avoid ‘devoting thyself to the useless doings of this life.'” Robert Levine
Maybe redefining education as the contemplative construction and inquiry into reality will give us a kind of balance and stop the unconscious entrainment to the pace of Faster as we buy into the myth that ratio is all we are, because it suits our greed and arrogance.
Adelman, Mara. “Kindred Spirits in Teaching Contemplative Practice: Distraction, Solitude, and Simplicity.” Contemplative Learning and Inquiry Across Disciplines (2014): 51-68.
Braman, S. (2007). When nightingales break the law: Silence and the construction of reality. Ethics and Information Technology, 9(4), 281-295.
Funes, M. (2013). Lived Time – Life beyond clock time. Management 2000. UK.
Jackson, M. (2008). Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age. Prometheus books
Keller, E. F. (1984). A feeling for the organism, 10th aniversary edition: the life and work of Barbara McClintock. Macmillan.
Levy, D. M. (2016). Mindful tech: How to bring balance to our digital lives. Yale University Press.