News from the Desert
It’s a bit surprising that 7 days in the desert sleeping on the ground is all it takes to provide a fairly radical perspective on my ‘normal’ life here in lovely Austin.
The peace of mind and effortless focus available through navigating the simple challenges of that time stand in stark contrast to the effects of a mere 36 hours back in the city, during which time I could easily witness each hour the resurgent dominance of distraction and restlessness.
The physical, raw, and elemental nature of the wild cleansed my mind like a strong wind through the open windows and doors of a primitive cabin. Immediately upon my return, the traffic, signage, digital stimuli, and countless details artificial and cacophonous began to relentlessly provoke my nervous system into a state of useless agitation.
The incredible value of contemplative practice in modern urban life has never been more obvious to me.
My younger self would conclude that cities (even those as wonderful as Austin) are corrosive environments, and make plans to depart once again as soon as possible. Having tried this in the past, I can attest to its temporary efficacy. A sojourn of a week or month or year in the wild has much to recommend it, and should be considered by those inclined to such endeavors.
In the long run, however, humans are social to the very marrow of our bones, and the vast majority of us require community for survival and a sense of meaning. Community may not mean city for everyone, but in many cases, it does. In my case, my family, friends, professional life, and social network are geographically dense in the city – meaning that much of my well being has a needlessly busy, highly distracting, energy sucking, and spiritually confusing geographical center that developed with remarkably little regard for the genuine well being of its inhabitants. It is a severe case of golden handcuffs.
For the vast majority of us for whom permanent relocation to the desert or mountaintop is neither practical nor (in the long run) satisfying, there is a desperate need for some way to exist in this chaotic maelstrom without becoming incoherent, destabilized and mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted by it.
The ability to pay attention to objects of our choosing is essential to this effort. In a single drive across south Austin, the number of details calling for my attention is absurdly high. The number of details requiring my attention for safe and satisfying passage is also high, but manageable. The difference between being exhausted by such passage and being invigorated by it lies squarely in my ability to direct my attention where it is needed and where I wish it to be, and conversely to liberate it from the wheedling and endless call of shiny nonsense lining my internal and external landscapes.
Cities are exciting. They are astounding and stimulating and interesting and delicious and inspiring. And, few among us has not at times felt exhausted by the ‘normal’ demands of daily life. Furthermore, many of us feel chronically depleted by information overload, and suffer an exceptional loss of quality of life that we rarely acknowledge and even more rarely understand.
Our attention is perhaps our most precious human resource. When living in an environment whose every contour and feature clamors to absorb as much of that resource as we are willing to sacrifice, it becomes essential to be aware of when, where, how, and why we are sacrificing it.
This awareness is exactly what practicing mindfulness provides. And with eyes recently scrubbed by starlight and sandy gusts racing down the dry gullies, I can see it for what it is – a necessity.