Whenever you feel the Beast sapping your will, do something – anything – that will improve your situation in even the smallest way. Straighten a crooked picture. Put all your stray pencils into a cup.Taming the Beast
Or find your Sacred Space
I have been listening to the audio version of an old PBS series with Bill Moyer interviewing teacher and philosopher Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. To say it’s been a game-changer for me would be a massive understatement. What an absolute beauty of a man and intellect. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a student of his, but I feel fortunate to have his books and items like this series still around. What an absolute delight it is to listen to these men in conversation.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean, to have a sacred place?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a term I like to use now as an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour a day or so, where you do not know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe to anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you, but a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. And first you may find that nothing’s happening there, but if you have a sacred place and use it, and take advantage of it, something will happen.
BILL MOYERS: This place does for you what the plains did for the hunter…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: For them the whole thing was a sacred place, do you see? But most of our action is economically or socially determined, and does not come out of our life. I don’t know whether you’ve had the experience I’ve had, but as you get older, the claims of the environment upon you are so great that you hardly know where the hell you are. What is it you intended? You’re always doing something that is required of you this minute, that minute, another minute. Where is your bliss station, you know? Try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the records, the music, that you really love. Even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects, I mean, the one that you like or the book you want to read, get it done and have a place in which to do it. There you get the “thou” feeling of life. These people had it for the whole world that they were living in.
Most mornings, I get up around 4:30 and head into my basement where I do some yoga or exercise, meditate, read or listen to items like the audiobook above, make coffee, read and answer emails from friends, and prepare for the day. I purposely avoid cracking open the Internet or anything external until after I’ve done this, then headed upstairs to see my kids off to school and wife off to work.
Yesterday, while drywalling a new room in my basement, listening to Mr. Moyers and Mr. Campbell talk, the section above deeply resonated with me. Mr. Campbell definitely knew his stuff.
The last week or so, the renovations and the associated temporary restructuring of living spaces (one of my kids is now sleeping in my home office space) have made it difficult for me to get this time in, but I’m ok, knowing that in another few days, they’ll be done and I’m looking forward to getting back into the routine – back into my sacred space.
Lest we forget all those who gave up so many sunrises so that we could embrace all our days fully, in their honor.
Neuroscientist/Philosopher Sam Harris tells a story of walking on stage to give a talk somewhere and upon seeing that there was bottled water on a table next to the podium he did what so many of us do and thought to himself, “oh good, they put some water there.” He then asks – why is he thinking that and who is he thinking it to? He sees the water there – his brain registers it, he already knows it’s there, but why is there this internal monologue or voice that reaffirms it to ‘himself’ when really, ‘himself’ already knows the water is there?
We all have this internal monologue or voice and it’s uniquely ours. It speaks in language and tone and with colloquialisms and slang that indeed often only we know and recognize. It’s an infinite loop of inside jokes with ourselves.
Saturday morning I was sitting in a grassy clearing behind a subdivision watching the sun come up. There wasn’t much to watch actually, it was an overcast day. I watched the world around me get lighter. At the edge of the clearing there were some deer grazing that I don’t think had really noticed me sitting there – the grass was pretty tall and I was hidden.
When I stood up to leave, they froze a bit and realized I was there. Inside my head, my internal voice said a line it uses all the time in these situations, “the jig is up, the news is out – they know I’m here.” The first part of that, “the jig is up, the news is out” comes from a line in a Styx song that I first heard so long ago I can’t remember when. It often pops into my head in instances like this where it fits. Why it does is a totally different blog post, because I’ve never even really been a Styx fan or listened to one of their records all the way through. I will tell you it has something to do with that ancient technology, radio.
I don’t usually listen to music when I’m riding my bike, but I chuckled at this opportunity and dialed up the song on my phone in Apple Music, set my speaker volume as loud as it could go, a proceeded to tear through the gray suburbs of Fredericton’s North Side with it playing 3 times in a row.
I didn’t see anyone. It was very early on a Saturday, but I bet some folks saw or maybe even heard me through sleepy, coffee-fueled gazes out of kitchen windows. Maybe some dog-walkers heard strange noise a block away but couldn’t quite pinpoint it as it was moving. Some guy up early to wake-n-bake in his backyard probably thought, “whoah this is some great shit, I think I just heard Styx.” I enjoy doing my part to keep Fredericton weird.
It occurred to me that the whole transaction – from that moment when I thought of the lyric through to fishing out my phone, searching it up and hitting play – that is what digital companies are trying to capture and ultimately monetize. That’s the hook.
The voice in my head is uniquely mine, but science has basically determined that – leave arguments about the true nature of consciousness aside for a moment – those thoughts, my internal monologue (or dialogue, since it seems to be two-way with someone) is merely electrical impulses zapping through my brain that I quite literally have no control over.
The March of Technology continues to advance. I’ve heard discussions on podcasts and elsewhere about the eventual availability of ‘neural nets’ – the mess of wires and transmitters that measure brain activity you see in the science shows – potentially in the form of wearables like hats or headbands and coupled with devices and apps to read your brain activity. Most of the discussions I’ve heard are about the beneficent use of this tech – say for example an app to help you quit smoking that can read your brain activity faster than you can even think and then prompt you via an app or otherwise with a behavior or thought that works counter to the craving.
Ostensibly, one day there will be surgical implants that can be placed into your head, connected to your brain to then connect with external devices – such as a phone – but then again, at some point, there’ll no longer be a need for the external device. Everything will happen right inside your head. Your phone calls, reminders, music – all right there.
In the case of my Styx example, the process would change from a clunky physical one – thought of the song, reaching for phone (or even asking Siri to play it) – pressing button – to simply thinking of the lyric and then thinking “oooo, play that,” and my head will ring with 1979 era rock. I guess the downside is that the neighborhoods I ride through won’t be able to hear it – which ruins most of the fun.
More ominously though, if our internal monologue/dialogue is just electrical impulses, then eventually, the technology will exist for the implant in your head to be 2-way. It will no longer just ‘listen and monitor’ – it will respond or prompt. And the response will indiscernible from your own thoughts. It will speak to you in that same voice and language that you’ve known your whole life. The device will – of course – be connected to external sources via wi-fi, bluetooth, and/or whatever new invisible data transfer technologies are created between now and then. At some point it will be very lucrative and very compelling for advertisers, organizations, causes, or anyone really – to be able to get into your thoughts – and you won’t even know it.
So it begs the question, at what point will your experience of the moment become inauthentic?
Because I know you’re wondering, Sunday’s ride soundtrack was The Bosstones. Now you’ve been inside my head, no fancy gadgets needed.
Cal Newport dropped Staying Productive on Distracted Days over on his blog and it’s a nail-on-the-head observation for me.
“Productivity” is a slippery term. It’s often used to refer exclusively to the rate at which you produce value for your business or employer. I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.
A lot of days, this probably involves a solid push on professional activities, as craft is an important part of cultivating a deep life. But not every day. If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.”
Since the switch to working from home as a result of Covid-19, this has become a daily reality for me. I’ve come to look at it more as being ‘productive’ on the project of what David Cain likes to call ‘getting better at being human’. Sometimes that means day-job work and sometimes it applies to other things as well. In the end, both streams benefit.