The Present Crisis


Mindfulness, Multiple Identity, and the Problem of Presence

On several podcasts I listen to, there are adverts for the Headspace guided meditation app which leads you in mindfulness sessions as short as two minutes up to a marathon session of two hours. The podcasters that promote it say it helps quiet the mind, improves wellbeing, reduces stress and anxiety.

Unlike these podcasts, however, we’re not receiving any ad revenue for plugging the app. I mention it here because the practice of mindfulness has come to the fore. Around campus, online, at counselling, mindfulness is sliding into the mainstream.

Not that this should be misunderstood as a modern phenomenon. Reflection and contemplation have long been valued and practiced throughout human history, especially by religious groups and spiritual traditions, that make the time and space for prayer and meditation.

The world speeds up, and yet there emerges the desire to slow it down, to turn off, to switch to flight mode.

Right now it is possible to exist in multiple spaces at the same time. We can converse with several people at simultaneously with instant messaging, even while we are sat around a table talking with other people. We go between sending work emails and editing photos for Instagram, finding recipes on Pinterest and reading updates on global events.

A curated ensemble of ourselves is broadcasting constantly across social media, so that we’re never really offline. The presence of the person never disappears. We’re always accessible. People I’ve never met before can find ways to message me if they want to, and for those in our social circles we’re just a few taps away.

Our identities in the modern world have become fractured across these various media, so that we can be present to many people in many ways.

But in doing so, we become present in none of them, least of all to ourselves. We live constantly in some other space, in the ether. Because we have the sense that we can be anywhere, we end up being nowhere. We are drawn constantly to the other place, at the expense of this place and this moment.

This is evident from the Fear Of Missing Out that pervades online interaction, like an anxious cloud. There’s a sense something is going on around the corner, and I’d rather be there than here.

The popularity of mindfulness and meditation is partly a response to the present crisis, as I see it. It is the practice of being in the present moment, of experiencing and allowing this very second to be the only thing that matters. Concerns of the past and future become irrelevant, along with the worries of a to-do list and unopened notifications. Meditation apps and mind gym programmes are on the up because of the implicit reality that modern society pulls us into the virtual, the potential, the possible.

Moreover, mindfulness shows a concern for depth, something which is noticeably lacking in contemporary discourse. Information is quick, opinions are condensed, the news is just whichever headlines we catch a glimpse of in the feed. I’m not sure that social media is inherently superficial, but it certainly augments our tendency to overlook complexity and ignore nuance.

Our experience of the world becomes a series of soundbites, flashing imagery, an attempt to take in as much input as possible in the shortest time. We arrive at the scene and the moment is already gone; the world has turned its gaze elsewhere, another crowd has gathered around this new sensation.

The demands of work, social life, and “online presence” (a misnomer if ever there was one) pull us in every which direction. Instead of becoming omnipresent through digital selves, we have lost the ability to be truly anywhere. We have forgotten how to recognise the present moment and be only here. We live constantly with one eye on the data analytics, wondering how this will perform once commodified online.

The news cycle spins faster, updates arrive more quickly, the speed and volume of connections appear to have annihilated space and time. In this context, citizens of the supposedly developed nations are turning to places of quiet, reacting to societal and technological acceleration with personal deceleration.

Cal Newport, author of his newly released Digital Minimalism, wrote in a recent blog post about the tension of religious life and social media. He found that the use of social media might actually be undermining religion. Or more specifically, that all the bells and whistles of the connected digital age make it very difficult to pursue some core disciplines at the heart of religious practice, such as quiet, undisturbed contemplation and meditation.

The religious are increasingly concerned with this consequence as they notice more of their fellow adherents stumbling around in a state of unmoored anxiety, but it’s an effect that’s clearly important beyond just formal faith, as it gets at something fundamental about human flourishing in a hard world: if you’re constantly escaping, you’ll eventually end up lost.
— Cal Newport

That phrase - “constantly escaping” - sums it up perfectly. I have this background anxiety that where I am is not where I’m supposed to be because my screens are saturated with the pictures of where I could be, who I could become, what else might be going on that I should take part in.

The irony is that as we become less present to each other, to the people around us, we actually become increasingly absent to ourselves. We fear the silence. We can’t face our own minds so we distract ourselves, keep music playing in the background and leave the TV on, and then eventually it all bubbles up and we seek counselling and medication to unravel the knots of ignored emotion and thought.

The challenge is to learn the practice of presence in an environment that would distract and distort. To seek wholeness where outside forces would pull us into different strands, to find a steady course when we would have our attention drawn in every which direction.

I don’t eactly know how to do this yet. I just know that I don’t aspire to “follow” every which trend that goes on around me, or live in a state of “constantly escaping”. I don’t want to be absent from my relationships and from social interaction because I’ve got one eye on my phone and one eye on the metrics.

Though I haven’t got answers, I can nevertheless see one thing that is true: presence is a discipline, and you only get better by practicing. Left to my own devices (pun intended) I quickly lose my way and find that I am no longer present. I am the opposite of present - I become absent.

Absent to my own feelings, absent to my surroundings, absent to whether I actually want to scroll through feeds or watch videos. I know that I have to practice not being absent. I have to practice mindfulness, because I’m so accustomed to the cycle of mindlessness.

I have to put the phone aside or use flight mode, turn off notifications, not look at email or social media for the first hour that I’m awake. Occasionally, I go out intentionally without my phone in order to force myself to be exactly where I am and nowhere else. It’s hard to imagine the times when you would wait for a bus or be in the GP surgery and you couldn’t pull your phone out. You had to take a book or a magazine. Or you had to live solely and excrutiatingly through each moment exactly as it happens.

This is an acknowledgement of the limitations that bound us: spatial, temporal, geographical, physical. We can manage and overcome these boundaries in the modern age, but not entirely surpass them. Not yet, at any rate. We remain in corporeal form, with all the limits that come with it. Those are the facts that digital modernity should not obscure.