“Our unhappiness arises from one thing only: that we cannot be comfortably alone in our room….That is why the pleasure of solitude is seen as so incomprehensible”, said the French scientist-philosopher Blaise Pascal. With every passing day, we lose a bit of our quietude, a patch of our silent spaces to the deafening noise and maddening pace of new technologies and gadgets—the iPods, iPhones, tablets, HD TVs, smartphones, video game consoles, smart watches and smart this and smart that. With these come the conveniences, no doubt, but also accompanying them are the flat and impoverished lifestyles often cunningly packaged as miracle manna with promises of bliss and fulfillment. The non-stop bombardment of propaganda tells us that nirvana and nijaat can be achieved and owned just around the corner where the new iPhone or some clone of it, after a super-hyped promotional bonanza, is being sold to the psychologically bruised masses that eagerly line up, as if they were in a free-for-all langar, to get their hands on the new gadget. This magical gizmo will soon become old, kicking in the same cycle of mindless consumption again.
It is ironic that we humans make these anti-spiritual and, ultimately dehumanizing contraptions only to see them in a state of helplessness as they in turn shape, control and consume us. With every new “smart” device that promises liberation, we de-skill ourselves and lose our independence. Recall what the convenient calculator did to the arithmetic ability of kids and what the computer keyboard or word processor has done to the reading and writing skills of both adults and children. Writes William Deresiewicz: “Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.” Convenience and ease remain desirable but they also breed unhealthy, slavish dependence. When we shun effort and difficulty, when we by-pass what demands our long and deep attention, we also forego the opportunity to realize our potentialities, since it is in our painful struggles with what is strange and difficult that we often experience authentic joy and through them that we achieve greatness. “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke.
Every new gizmo triumphantly announces the shattering of yet another frontier and the arrival of a new age of progress for us, but in reality its essential victories are over our interior and spiritual life, that qualitative domain that matters most for a truly meaningful life. It is yet another assault of the quantitative on the qualitative.
Fifty years ago a technology critic like Lewis Mumford could say: “Today, the degradation of the inner life is symbolized by the fact that the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet.” Not anymore. The “smart” machines are now everywhere: in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bedroom and in our beds, in the toilet, in our cars, in our offices and schools, in our heads and hearts. They have colonized our most private and intimate spaces. They have even invaded and desacralized our mosques and madrassahs. Today’s pious Muslims, for example, will not let go of them even as they circumambulate the House of God, the Holy Kaaba during Hajj in Mecca! It seems that this conspiracy of noise, this modern project of maddening clamor, has but one aim: to continuously distract us from everything that has always been considered a societal and cultural good in sane and integral societies, things like deep thinking and meditation, prayer and self-examination in silence and in solitude. These ever-multiplying devices with their by-design centrifugal forces and tendencies (in the form of SNS or social media, for example) pull us outward, away from our inner resources. They have become the ugly clogs between what and who we are and what and who we could be. Above all, they make silence and solitude very difficult, if not impossible.
It is in solitude that we engage in a profound conversation with our inner and true self, realize our latent potentialities and thus become a moral, ethical and spiritual being. We become whole. In a brilliant long essay written in 2009, The End of Solitude, the critic William Deresiewicz, citing from different religious traditions, argued that no greatness can be achieved without solitude and that it is in solitude that the most profound self-encounters take place out of which arise great works of art, theology, philosophy and scientific excellence. “The still, small voice speaks only in silence,” Deresiewicz wrote. It is that mysterious voice that speaks to the hermit, to the sadhu, to the saint and the sage either in the solitude of a cave, or in the silence of a desert or a forest. The communicative depth of silence is of an altogether different quality and nature. Our deepest passions are nurtured in silence, our respects for the dead are expressed in silence, intense love is shared and transmitted in silence and our profoundest thoughts and visions are experienced in silence as the anarchist John Zerzen reminds us. “The thoughtful soul to solitude retires,” Omar Khayyam has said, alluding to the importance of invocation. The prayer, and not just the Islamic prayer, is meant to, among other things, interrupt the noise and madness of daily life. It takes us out of the chaos of this world, a chaos that is ever made worse by the distracting and disorienting modern machines and iGadgets. Prayer pulls us out of the prison of standardized time itself, and places us in the eternal or the timeless, so that we can remember (re-member) our forgotten, or re-collect our scattered, selves.
While silence and solitude have always been essential conditions for wholeness and spiritual well-being, they often strike terror into the heart of the digital “social” man and woman of our permanently connected or online times. This digital denizen who merrily and endlessly uploads and updates, toots, texts and tweets and who seems to have proudly (dis)-qualified Descartes’ cogito, “I think, therefore, I exist” with “I update, therefore, I exist!” has eye on one and only one thing: the number of “likes” or the hits and listings on Google or the army of “friends” and followers in the networked matrix. The creature not only has no need for solitude, it is actually afraid of silence and totally clueless about the creative potentiality of idleness. This quintessentially modern condition was shrewdly observed by that “godless, jobless, wifeless, homeless” mad man of Europe, Nietzsche, more than a century ago. This is what he said: “When we are quiet and alone, we fear that something will be whispered in our ears, and so we hate the quiet, and dull our senses in society.” Contrast this with “the still, small voice” that the sage, the sufi and the saint pine for! Progress, indeed! With the brutal mob killing of the young man Mashal Khan in Pakistan, many similar atrocities that are taking place in India and other places, and the murderously dissentious uses to which they are put by the vicious vested interests all over the world, a powerful argument can, and must be made against the excesses of these “tricknologies” of mass disorientation. Let me end this blog with this apt observation of Abdal Hakim Murad: “Insan with the e-culture becomes insane” and “If the culture is sick, then your ease with it is a sign of sickness.”
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are those of the author and Balochistan Voices not necessarily agrees with them.
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