Thirst grows for living unplugged
More people are taking breaks from the connected life amid the stillness and quiet of retreats like the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.
About a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.” Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began, was stillness and quiet.
A few months later, I read an interview with the well-known cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck.
What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps with a little exaggeration. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.”
Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.
Has it really come to this?
The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen.
Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time (no phone or e-mail) every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. Workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think.
The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his book The Shallows. The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month.
Since luxury is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow will long for nothing more than intervals of freedom from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.
The urgency of slowing down—to find the time and space to think—is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content, Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots (奔跑), a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.”
Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.”
We have more and more ways to communicate, but less and less to say. Partly because we are so busy communicating. And we are rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.
So what to do? More and more people I know seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation (沉思), or tai chi (太极)；these aren’t New Age fads (时尚的事物) so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath (安息日)” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning. Other friends take walks and “forget” their cellphones at home.
A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr. Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy (同感，共鸣)，as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.”
I turn to eccentric measures to try to keep my mind sober and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time).I have yet to use a cellphone and I have never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot.
None of this is a matter of asceticism (苦行主义)；it is just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, or music. It is actually something deeper than mere happiness: it is joy, which the monk (僧侣) David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
It is vital, of course, to stay in touch with the world. But it is only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.
For more than 20 years, therefore, I have been going several times a year—often for no longer than three days—to a Benedictine hermitage (修道院)，40 minutes down the road, as it happens, from the Post Ranch Inn. I don’t attend services when I am there, and I have never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it is only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I will have anything useful to bring to them. The last time I was in the hermitage, three months ago, I happened to meet with a youngish-looking man with a 3-year-old boy around his shoulders.
“You’re Pico, aren’t you?” the man said, and introduced himself as Larry; we had met, I gathered, 19 years before, when he had been living in the hermitage as an assistant to one of the monks.
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
We smiled. No words were necessary.
“I try to bring my kids here as often as I can,” he went on. The child of tomorrow, I realized, may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what is new, but what is essential.
【Group】1. What is special about the Post Ranch Inn?
(A) Its rooms are well furnished but dimly lit.
(B) It makes guests feel like falling into a black hole.
(C) There is no access to television in its rooms.
(D) It provides all the luxuries its guests can think of.