I hope the storm that blew through our nation’s capital Friday night is a once in a lifetime experience. Watching from the rear window of our treetop level apartment, the woods behind our building undulated like a giant bed of sea anemone being whipped about by the roiling crosscurrents of an angry ocean. Thinking that the stiff wind would cool our stifling bedroom, I opened the window a crack and then took an anxious step back, feeling as if I’d just admitted a furious phantasm that was eager to smash anything it could reach.
I woke my computer up to see what the weather service had to say about the atmospheric insanity that was making the trees look so drunk and disorderly, but it was too late: my internet connection had already been knocked out. In the morning it was easy to see why: huge branches of enormous old trees embodying a lifetime of majestic arboreal expansion that had once offered themselves as a canopy over the street in front of our building had broken off and fallen to the tarmac, taking a web of power lines down with them. It was a sad sight to behold.
Just up the block, a snapped power cable was lying on the ground, the length of its thick serpentine form surrounded by a halo of blackened pavement and a gully of scorched earth – testimony to the lethal voltage that coursed through its veins and poured out of its skin. We were fortunate to have electricity in our building but, judging by the state of just this one street, those without power would probably remain without it for some time to come.
Glancing for the umpteenth time at my cable modem, hoping against hope and any semblance of reason that my Internet connection has been restored, I have become painfully aware of how attached I am to being connected to the outside world, of how absorbed I have become in the pursuit of instant information, of bouncing between useful facts and data as diversion. While preparing my play lists for my upcoming classes, I reflexively apple/tab to my browser to see if I’ve received any new e-mail, check for interesting Facebook posts, and read the front page of The New York Times (again!). Over and over I feel the impulse to Internet multitask like a Pavlovian rat expecting a reward for conditioned behavior, evidence that the habit of indulging my mind’s recurring requests for trivial distractions has become too deeply ingrained.
“There is no stronger obstruction to one’s self-interest than thinking other subject matters to be more pleasing than one’s self-realization.” – Srimad Bhagavatam 4.22.32
It wasn’t always like this: I spent years living in yoga ashrams without ever seeing a newspaper, listening to the radio, or watching television. I had no idea what was going on outside because I was absorbed in the process of looking inside. The world didn’t need my attention and I didn’t need the world’s distractions. It was great! And it was necessary: pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses from the sense objects is an essential element on the path of yoga. Want to clear your mind? Then put some distance between your mind and the media.
There came a point in my journey when a return to the world was required, when news of the world became a means to understand the message of transcendence and participation in the world became a means to apply transcendental knowledge. But the danger of engagement with the world is the risk that engagement for its own sake will become the end rather than the means to a higher purpose. When our single-pointed focus on self-realization becomes diffused by the inebriating effect of media hypertrophy then it’s time to develop some detachment from the source of one’s distraction.
The storm and its aftermath have made it clear to me that I’ve gone over the edge: I need to step back and re-focus, get some of the media overload out of my head, regain my inner focus, and purify my consciousness.
“Of purifiers I am the wind.” – Bhagavad Gita 10.31
As a youngster I was inspired by Gomez Addams, the relentlessly cheerful, spontaneously subversive and profoundly eccentric patriarch of the Addams Family who, as far as I know, was the first person, fictional or otherwise, to regularly do shirshasana (headstand) on primetime TV.
The devotional philosophy of bhakti yoga eventually provided the foundation for my spiritual practice and I was formally initiated into the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition of Krishna bhakti, with its emphasis on...