Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

A Silent Retreat

The mind is like a chattering monkey, some Buddhists say, and one goal of disciplined spirituality -- i.e. doing "what works" -- is to quiet that mind.

Spiritual tools are practices validated by generations of trial-and-error that more or less work, that allow the "ambient noise" of our lives to diminish and finally -- in a grace-filled moment of enlightenment -- disappear. Then we see our selves as we really are, instead of believing the images of ourselves we present to our own egos as well as others as if they are us.

Although one hesitates to speak of that about which one cannot speak -- the quieted mind is like a still pond that reflects the full moon, with not so much as a ripple to disturb its tranquility.

Moon mirrors moon on a windless night.

If the mind is a chattering money, the Internet -- our hive mind -- is like a million monkeys pounding away at keyboards all over the world. The Internet is proof that a million monkeys unleashed at the same time will NOT produce the works of Shakespeare. They produce home pages by the thousands, images of our egos run amok, advertisements for our hopes and dreams. The dream life of humanity -- and not a few nightmares -- pours into the Internet, the uncensored, unabridged contents of our psyches.

And noise. A lot of noise.

One of my sons taught me how to listen to noise. He's a sound artist. He records the cacophony of industrial life and uses those tones to create layered or textured sculptures in sound. Electronic noise is one media he uses to focus our attention on what is always there but never heard because we filter it out. Noise is like the power lines of urban civilization; looking at a tree in front of a power station, we erase the power lines until they disappear into the background and we almost convince ourselves that we're in a park.

When we listen to the noise and allow ourselves to become conscious of it, we can free ourselves of it. When we listen to it, we have a choice. When we can't hear it, we don't even notice the noise. We think its reality.

People sometimes go on a silent retreat to "shut out the noise" and quiet the mind. Like beginners at meditation, what we first notice is just how much noise there is.

We just finished a week of thunderstorms in southern Wisconsin. First we had seven inches of rain overnight. The storm just stalled and poured, the loudest thunder in the history of the world, all night long.

Then a second thunderstorm came through with 70 mph winds. A huge whole side of a tree above our patio twisted and came down, amazingly missing the house and garage. The power went out from early evening until the following afternoon.

My car was locked in the garage, the electric door down. The lights and air conditioning were off. Above all, the computer -- THE COMPUTER -- was off. There was nothing to do but go outside.

The darkness was charged not only with the energy of the storm, but with the quiet conversation of neighbors. Usually glued to their television sets or held suspended in the lighted life I glimpsed through windows, they were all out in the darkness, talking.

Like our lives, the Internet is filled with noise, but we don't hear it until the power is off. Suddenly there is ... only ourselves. A rhythm of life issues naturally from the bodies that we are. The world that we saw in the familiar glare of overhead lights looks different in candlelight. My wife was aware that my steps did not turn toward the office to check email one last time before crossing the hall. Instead we lay in the summer night, in the warm darkness, shadows flickering on the walls, the storm passing.

We listened deeply to the absence of noise.

The next morning I walked several miles to a breakfast appointment rather than driving. Returning to my office, I realized that all of the interior urgency -- meeting deadlines, preparing a speech, working the telephone -- was gone. There was nothing to do but whatever there was to do. The compelling pressure of necessity was lifted.

Instead of leaning forward anxiously into my life, I relaxed back into the rocking chair of my own soul.

The lights came on again, of course. It was a real let-down. Everything was normal again. I was sucked at once back into the world of email, researching an article using the Net, then writing it on a word processor, pausing now and again to connect with electronic colleagues.

A periodic retreat from the Net is a necessity. To unplug and listen to the noise, and then -- as the noise diminishes -- to the silence. Coming back to the Net, you roar with laughter at the antics of a million monkeys jabbering away day and night ... and all too soon, there you are again, hands dancing on the keyboard, jacked into the noise.

But something is different.

At first the Net was ... the Net. Then, during that moment of tranquility and insight, it was not the Net. It was what it had always been.

Now it's the Net again. But not in the same way. Now I can see that we construct it from nothingness, from thin air ... we create the Net together so we can play in it. Creation from nothing.

What a game! What a life! What an extraordinary silence!

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1997. All rights reserved.

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