Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Losing Touch with the Physical World

This past weekend was spent selling our cast-off stuff in a yard sale after clearing away all the clutter in our home.  Yard sales are a curious cultural phenomena where one person's trash becomes another person's treasure, but at as low a price as possible.  Lower than Wal-mart, lower than Dollar Store, lower even than the cost of the raw materials, let alone the labor involved to make it.  But these items are one step away from the landfill so any price is better than nothing.  Or is it...
Best to frame the event as an act of generosity, rather than think too long on the actual value in time, raw materials, etc., let alone price originally paid for the jade necklace that someone wants to offer you a dollar for now.  It was your mother-in-law's jewelry, nothing you would ever wear and maybe this nice old lady will actually wear it, so you say sure and take the 4 quarters offered.  But two days of transactions like these (and lots of quiet moments in between as we live on a dead-end road in the country) got me thinking about how Americans relate to 'stuff ', to our physical world today.  Needless to say any time I start generalizing I know I am immediately moving into dangerous territory at best, and yet sometimes these ideas are worth following through to see where they lead, so please bear with me on this. 
I discovered in clearing my home that reducing the quantity of things on display, led to greater appreciation of what remained.  As a maker of physical things, picture framer, artist, craftsperson and designer, I may look at my physical world differently than many people.  Working with your hands in this way makes one aware of the time and energy it takes to make something wonderful.  With the shift in our culture away from manufacturing and crafts, there are more people in careers that work with computers, ideas, or people.these days.  Working in the intangible world of ideas, often there is a disconnect with the physical world, including a lack of appreciation for the cost, the discipline and the effort needed to relate to it properly.
My latest client, who is a doctor, informed me this week that his colleagues didn't know how to relate to the redesign of his office.  Why would anyone want to pay attention to how their workspace looks?  And yet this is where all of them spend more hours than at home.  The re-design has led to greater productivity in my client's work flow and a sense of well being at work.  He has discovered that though he lives much of his days in mental constructs reading charts on a computer screen, his physical body still exists in this world of things.  It made sense to pay attention to the details of his surroundings.
With the growth of technology and the explosion of knowledge it is easy to get lost (even trapped) in the realm of ideas and presume that this is making us more in touch with our world.  But are we really?  Our children now find it easier to relate to people through technology (texting, Facebook, mySpace) than one on one conversations (even by phone).  While they are taught the latest software, they don't know how to sew on a button or make an omelet.  With our democratization of all aspects of life, we now dress casually (it is fashionable to dress with tears in jeans and seams unfinished) to all occasions and the President gets heckled while addressing Congress, by a member of Congress.  In our rush to level the playing field we have brought everyone down rather than raising everyone up with respect and dignity.  All these could be taken as signs of the erosion of the fabric of our society, a lack of appreciation for our physical world, a lack of respect for things as they are.
This is why mindfulness is such a radical approach to life today because rather than chasing the speed of knowledge it is asking us to slow down and look at what really exists in front of us.  To make direct contact through our senses with what is real, what is present now.  Out of that contact comes greater appreciation, respect and understanding of the world, not simply consumption of data.
Robert Irwin once said,  
"Because it all comes down to how you answer a single question: Is the moment of perception - that first moment, before all the abstracting, conceptualizing processes that follow - is that the moment closest to or furthest from the real? Everything depends on how you answer that question?"
and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche spoke to this in his book, True Perception
"You have to start by paying attention to reality.  You need to learn to eat properly, to cook properly, to clean your house or your room, to work with your clothes.  You need to work with your basic reality.  Then you go beyond that, and you begin to have something much more substantial."

1 comment:

  1. I love your above post for many many reasons. The inclusion of Trungpa was a wonderful touch as well. What brought me to your post was the google search, "Falling out of touch with the physical world," and sure enough, yours was one of the first hits. For me in particular, my mind has become so numb from artificial stimuli -- music, ambient noise, flashing lights, blogs, websites, sports, movies, mass journalism and pundits, texts -- and a job that, as you said, only has me working on a computer -- that I don't even know what my body was made for, except to stay healthy enough to sustain my numb mind. That might be enough for some, but it does make the physical reality feel like a mirage at times.