Daybreak of the Mind – Netflix on hold, thinking about Mud and Happiness

I cancelled my Netflix subscription yesterday. It was possibly one of the best favors I’ve done for myself all year. Don’t get me wrong; I love Netflix and I definitely love films, but I’m an addict and I needed to learn to say no. We live in a spectacularly diverse and engaging information-rich world. I couldn’t justify spending any more time or energy on passive consumption.

In recent months I’ve been pondering a definite pattern in my life — that I just don’t pay attention to the news. This is not to say that I am ignorant of current events; rather, I simply seek my information elsewhere and I relate to it in a peculiar way. If I want to know more about the debate on health care reform, I seek out something like the recent episode of EconTalk: Brady on Health Care Reform, Public Opinion, and Party Politics. I don’t read the latest articles about the current state of the machinations around it. If anything, I consistently ignore them.

I feel particular familiarity with this quote from Pico Iyer:

… and when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all.

This quote, which comes from a wonderful, refreshing post about The Joy of Less on the NY Times Happy Days blog, was tacked onto the tail end of an unrelated post by Garrick Van Buren. To my delight, Garrick has been boldly predicting that the Dow will hit 10k by Labor Day, but my favorite one of his current projects is Kernest, a repository of free and commercial web-embeddable font faces. He writes about that development effort on the Kernest blog.

Pico Iyer’s post led me to the poignant Living with Less project on the NY Times website, which in turn proffered a tweet about a Cob House Built For Less Than $3,000 which was featured on treehugger. Ah, mud.

Once, while on pilgrimage in Bodhgaya, India, I was pulled aside by one of the local kids who wanted to show me his home. It was clear that he was working; his intention was to evoke pity and walk away with a couple Rupies. Instead of pity I felt a twinge of admiration upon seeing his family’s simple mud hut, whose air was cool despite a hot day outside. The interior looked extremely similar to the cob house in the treehugger article, even down to the fire pit that also functions as a bench. I was fully aware of the fact that this kid had a really tough life — intermittent access to clean water, his mother stretching to feed her four children, and I’m sure a mud hut is no fun during a monsoon. Despite this, for a moment the aesthete in me managed to fix its tunnel vision on the minutiae of organic forms, functional design, and perceived simplicity. I was jealous. The self-cherishing mind is a quizzical and depressingly short-sighted thing.

Witnessing the begging industry in India taught me new things about economics. After showing me his house, the boy asked me to buy some schoolbooks for himself and some of his friends. I did so, happily. The boys seemed genuinely glad to have the books. Later that day, a fellow traveller told me that the kids will sell the books back to the bookshops for a tenth of what I paid. It’s like Trickle Down Economics somehow applies itself irregardless of the starting point, as if wealth had a magnetic quality that sucks money and resources out of the hands of the poor and into the hands of the affluent. Some might point an accusatory finger at the institution of capitalism; I point the finger at selfish existence in general, which in turn implicates my own self-cherishing materialism.

As I understand it, there are three primary components to news — the facts, the interpretation, and (possibly most important) the emotional human element. At Thubten Choling, the Buddhist monastery and retreat center where I lived for 3 years, I experienced the human element of news from a perspective that fundamentally altered my outlook.

Every Saturday morning at Thubten Choling is dominated by the weekly tong chö (tibetan: སྟོང་ཆུ), which most of the monastery residents participate in along with a chorus of visitors from the near and far. After filling 1,000 bowls with saffron water, lighting 1,000 butterlamps, and setting up 300 bowls of rice, flowers and incense, everyone gathers in the shrine room to chant a beautiful set of prayers which they call the Monlam Choga (tibetan: སྨོན་ལམ་ཆོ་ག). Before beginning the 2 hours of chanting, which includes a traditional tea service, the chant leader reads aloud all of the prayers of everyone who has sponsored butterlamps. Now you have to understand that a lot of people sponsor the tong chö and the monastery takes this very seriously. It easily takes 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes longer to get through all of the prayers. For much of my time at the monastery, these prayers were my main conduit for news about the world.

People pray for all sorts of things — Please pray that my house will sell; Please pray that my Father’s pain will subside so he can die in peace; Please pray that my patients’ ailments and suffering will be decreased; Please pray that my horse will win the Kentucky Derby — and you get used to taking it all in, meeting each wish with love, compassion, and openness. After a few weeks I found myself waiting for updates while I sat there in the shrine room — Did her surgery go well?; Is his father still in pain? — compassion is a contagious thing. It’s in this mindset that we would be hit by things like pray for the victims of the SARS virus and their families; pray for everyone affected by Hurricane Katrina; pray for XXX celebrity who died this week; pray for everyone affected by XXX divorce. I can attest to the fact that this information hits the brain in a completely different way when your mind is settled into a mode of compassion and loving kindness. It’s irresistible – your heart goes out without qualifications or stipulations.

After growing accustomed to this way of encountering world events, I saw conventional news in a different light. Tabloids in the grocery store became tragic, almost painful, because of the alienation they invoke in all directions, but even the best news sources often fell short. I wandered further and further away from the traditional channels. After returning to the regular world, I found new ways of plugging in and slurping information from the world around me. I never fully went back, and to this day I’m especially perplexed by the sense of urgency that our culture has about news. Even in the technology industry, things actually happen pretty slowly but we choose to be frantic. When there is news, we scamper as if afraid to actually let it sink in, and when there isn’t news, we create it.